The Best Years of Our Lives at the Castro

There’s no better movie for Veteran’s Day than William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. A huge commercial hit and the Best Picture Oscar winner for 1946, it’s now all but forgotten. That’s too bad, because Best Years is not only an excellent film, it also deals with an issue that’s unfortunately still with us–how to integrate war veterans back into civilian life.

So I was delighted when I saw that it was coming to the Castro on Veteran’s Day, and I made sure I’d see it. It screened on a double bill with First Blood–the semi-serious action movie about a Vietnam vet that launched the unexpected Rambo franchise.

Before the film started, the Castro entertained us with a slideshow of coming attractions and music appropriate to the immediate postwar period. Then came the organ concert, followed by The Best Years of Our Lives.

As I explained in my review of the book Five Came Back, Wyler was a returning veteran himself when he made Best Years–and a disabled one. He left Hollywood soon after Pearl Harbor to film the real war for the government. He lost most of his hearing in the war, and Best Years was his first film after coming home.

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The film intertwines the separate but sometimes connecting stories of three veterans who meet and become friends as they return to their home town (which actually appears to be a small city) after the war. They didn’t know each other in the service, and they never crossed paths in their previous civilian lives.

Al (Fredric March) was a rich, middle-aged man, a husband and father, and a respected banker when he walked away from all that to fight fight for his country (as did Wyler). In the army, he never got passed sergeant. Now he has to reacquaint himself with his wife (Myrna Loy) and grown children. But he’s developed a drinking problem, and he’s having trouble with the bank’s less-than-humane policies.

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Fred (Dana Andrews) comes from a desperately poor background. He was a soda jerk before the war. But in the Air Force, he became a bombardier, a captain, and a decorated hero. But back home, he’s a nobody.

He married Marie (Virginia Mayo) shortly before going overseas, without really knowing her. So along with finding a job, he has to deal with a harpy of a wife who deeply regrets that she didn’t marry a rich man. To make things more complicated, he’s falling in love with Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright).

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But the most touching story of all is that of Homer, a former high school athlete who lost both of his hands in the war. He’s played by non-actor Harold Russell, who’s own story inspired the character. You feel Homer’s pain because you know that it’s Harold’s own pain and loss you see on screen.

On the surface, Homer seems at ease with his disability. He likes to show off what he can do with his hooks, and he often jokes about them. But the jovial nature makes a thin mask for his fear and depression.

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Through these three men and the people around them, Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood show us both the problems of returning veterans and an uneasily rigid class system. The wealthy Al just walks into his bank and gets a promotion. Homer is clearly middle-class, although not much is made of that. Fred was born poor and will remain so. The culture insists on that.

The film is beautifully photographed by the great Gregg Toland. The songwriter, musician, and actor Hoagy Carmichael does a nice supporting role as a favorite uncle who owns a bar and plays piano (that’s Carmichael really playing). Despite its nearly three-hour running time, the movie never lags. I wouldn’t cut a frame.

I give Best Years an A.

My only complaint is with Hugo Friedhofer’s music score. There’s too much melodramatic music.

This was my third viewing of The Best Years of Our Lives, and my first in a theater. The crowd wasn’t big, but it was enthusiastic. A drunken speech that grew into well-deserved sarcasm earned applause. And it was nice to have people to laugh with in this serious film’s few jokes. The large screen allowed me to truly admire Toland’s photography.

The Castro screened the film off a DCP. Most of it looked excellent–like a mint 35mm print without the vibration. But a few scenes looked horribly contrasty and, yes, electronic. I assume these ones came from a bad source, and were over processed in an attempt to fix their shortcomings.

If it had been a Friday or Saturday night, I might have stayed for First Blood. But I needed a full night’s sleep.

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