Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

“You know, I had a dream. I dreamt I was home. I've had that same dream hundreds of times before. This time, I wanted to find out if it's really true. Am I really home?”

“I dreamed I was gonna have my own home. Just a nice little house for my wife and me out in the country... in the suburbs anyway. That's the cock-eyed kind of dream you have when you're overseas.” 

            Last summer I went to England for a month as part of a study abroad program.  I missed home a lot I really missed my brothers and my parents I emailed them and my grandparents every day. What really hit me and made me miss them even more was when I visited the Imperial War Museum. The museum really struck a nerve in me because I kept thinking after seeing and learning about all the fighting the British soldiers and men all over the world and women as well did put things in perspective. I visited the museum twice and each time I thanked God that I knew I was going to see my family in a few weeks times but I could never help feeling guilty when I knew for certain that I would be back home with my family. I felt guilty because so many service men sacrificed their lives even the ones who did return home sacrificed so much of themselves for their country, they missed their families and their families missed them and they never knew when they were going to see each other there was no certainty for them like there was for me. I cannot even tell you how bad I missed my family after seeing the museum’s Holocaust’s exhibit and there was this one recorded interview with a prisoner from Auschwitz who said that she could have imagined life without her brother if she had to but she could never live her life without her mother. But again that experience in that exhibit definitely put things in great perspective and again made me feel a bit guilty.
            As I said I was only away for a month and it was tough it was the longest I had ever been away from home but I cannot even begin to imagine how the men fighting in the European and Pacific Theaters of war felt being away for years at a time. William Wyler in is 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives tells the story of three servicemen returning to their small hometown after the war.
            Al Stephenson (Frederic March), Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), and Homer Parrish return to their small hometown. Homer is the youngest he lived with parents before the war and had a girl named Wilma. He is at first excited to see home but once he is there he is unsure of how he will be looked at. Homer lost his hands when his ship he was serving on was hit. His parents are happy to see him and so is Wilma but he cannot hug her back. Al is next to go home. He returns home to his wife Milly (Myrna Loy), his daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright), and son. His wife and children are all more than happy to see him. Fred returns to his parents’ home where he expects to find his wife but they say she moved into her own apartment. When he gets to her place she is not there.

            That night they all run into each other at Homer’s uncle’s place Butch’s. Al wanted to go out so he dragged Milly and Peggy all over town from one bar to the next. Fred is a mess because he cannot find his wife. Homer is upset with the way his family treats him and looks at his hands he says they look guilty because they have hands and he does not. Fred is so drunk that Milly and Peggy wind up putting him in the back with a drunken sleeping Al and taking him to their place for the night.
            The rest of the film tells how each one adjusts to be home again dealing with their new surroundings and the changes that have happened to their families. The film is so amazing I do not want to say anymore about it than what I have already written.
            I may have said many of the films I have seen are perfection but with The Best Years of Our Lives I sincerely mean this the film is just perfection in every single way. Unlike today where every film and TV show wants to get things down to the nitty gritty real life issues of the world in 1946 the real life and its issues was not really shown. Al, Fred, and Homer were three men rehabilitating to being back in their old lives that had dramatically changed while they were away: Homer with his hands, Al with his children all grown up and now he is drinking heavily, and Fred with a wife that pretty much just married him for a thrill and expected that thrill to return when he did and she cannot understand how he suffers mentally when he has his PTSD dreams at night. Many people in Hollywood felt Sam Goldwyn was crazy for doing a story such as this since it was so real.
            Goldwyn and Wyler went for broke on the realism by having the role of Homer Parrish played by a real war veteran named Harold Russell who lost his hands in boot camp in an accident. Wyler wanted the clothing to be realistic so the designer went out to shops and bought clothes instead of making them herself. Each room was made smaller than normal for film sets. The story is based off an article that Goldwyn and his wife had read in Time about returning servicemen that was then turned into an original story by MacKinlay Kantor and written as a screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood. The realism just adds so much of to the film it makes the characters and story more moving, sympathetic, and heartfelt. I can see why the film was so highly praised when it was released because so many people could absolutely relate to what the characters were feeling and going through.
            The cast is one of the greatest I have ever watched in a film. Much of the great acting credit goes to Dana Andrews, Frederic March, and Myrna Loy. The more I see of Andrews the more impressed I am with him and the more I see how versatile he is. Besides Homer, Fred was the most realistic character of the whole story and Andrews just knocked his performance out he was so good. March was great especially when he was in scenes with Loy because they were both knew what they were doing and were seen as great actors even by this time. Wyler stated “When… you work with two people like Freddy March or Myrna Loy, a director might improve their work, but he certainly can’t make a performance because they are too knowing.”

            Myrna Loy gets top billing even though her part is small because she was the most successful female star of the time. At first she was afraid to take the role because she had heard that Wyler liked to do many takes and could be tough but once filming started they became good friends. What I want to know is why Ingrid Bergman can win years later an Academy Award for her role in Murder on the Orient Express when her only big scene was five minutes long and Myrna Loy cannot even be nominated and she had more screen time (nothing against Bergman she was fabulous in that role this is against the Academy). Milly’s role in the story had originally been smaller but once the film got moving and Loy was cast the role expanded. Loy tells in her autobiography that Goldwyn pitched the role to her pretty hard because it was small but she said she liked the story and would have taken it no matter what. This is just one of the many roles why Myrna Loy as the reputation as the perfect wife because she played the perfect wife like no one else could. Her facial expressions and mannerism are unequaled. Years later Wyler was amazed how in one scene Loy actually cut out one of her lines for the sake of a good scene and praised her for her intelligence for choosing a picture instead of a part. Loy made her part bigger than it was because she was just good.
            I could go on and on about Myrna Loy in her part because whatever praise she was or is given she deserves it.
            There are so many fantastic scenes it is hard to pick just one. Peggy and Milly drop off Fred at his wife’s place but she does not answer and he falls down drunk and sleeping. The two women pick him up and put him in the back with Al. Fred puts his arm around Al and Al takes his hand and Milly says “They make a cute pair” (something along those lines). When they get back Milly puts Al to bed dressing him and tucking him in. She tries to get him on his back so he will not snore and his arm in under him so she takes his arm and flips him over. The next morning Milly brings Al breakfast in their room and he just takes her and they kiss (Teresa Wright excellently explains her feelings towards the scene: “To me their scenes still stand as the epitome of married love on the screen. You can take all the erotic pictures of the world and they won’t compare with the bedroom scene the morning after. She brings that breakfast tray in and he looks at her and sets it aside. It’s a marvelous moment because you’ve seen them the evening before dancing and coming together with the beautiful subtle things that both of them did. What’s being felt and played underneath is exciting”). The one scene I found very moving is when Homer has Wilma come up to his room when he about to go to bed. He has been telling her to let him go because he himself cannot cope with his hands and he does not want to burden Wilma. After he takes his hands off and she buttons his pajama top he finds that she still loves him and wants to be with him no matter what.
            William Wyler shot the film so wonderfully and so raw. There are so many scenes that were filmed so brilliantly. In several shots he used deep focus and these were greatly enhanced by Gregg Toland’s Academy Award winning cinematography. If you have seen Citizen Kane you know how incredible Toland’s cinematography is.
            The Best Years of Our Lives won the Academy Award for Best Film in 1946. The film’s depiction of real issues of America and servicemen returning home after war was never seen before. Private issues like PTSD and alcoholism as an after effect of war were never shown before and were a taboo subject. By this time Americans did not want to see rich people fluttering around society and worrying about their rich love problems they wanted to see people like them who had lost someone or something and saw the world as not all butterflies and rainbows with happy endings. The Best Years of Our Lives appealed to the common viewer they could connect in some ways to the characters. The film was so popular it became the biggest success since Gone With the Wind and is today ranked number thirty-seven on AFI’s Top 100 Greats Films.
            The best and one of the worst times in American history was during World War II. During this time everyone came together to help out one another and everyone was patriotic. The Best Years of Our Lives captures the American dream, the American life, and when we really feel like it the American way of coming together and helping out others. The film tells the story of returning men struggling and coming to terms with what they went through but also knowing that with someone to love them and care for them they can survive and get through life. Al, Fred, and Homer also know that they each share a bond that will last and that bond will keep them friends for the rest of their lives.
            Do not miss out on any opportunity to see The Best Years of Our Lives