Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

And we're back with another entry in the Oscar Film Journal, here at Enuffa.com!

Today's subject is a film I resisted watching for many years due only to the fact that it beat out It's a Wonderful Life for Best Picture of 1946 (along with an astounding eight more trophies).  But I finally gave it a whirl after learning that the cinematographer on this film was Gregg Toland of Citizen Kane fame.  I'm talking about the post-WWII drama The Best Years of Our Lives, starring Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Theresa Wright and Virgina Mayo.  

TBYOOL was one of the first films to tackle the subject of war veterans struggling to readjust to life in the world after coming home from battle.  In the opening scenes we're introduced to three vets all headed to the same hometown, who quickly form a bond during their flight.  March's character Al Stephenson is a middle-aged husband and father of two who left a lucrative but unfulfilling banking job to enlist, and now finds everyday civilian life rather dull unless he's heavily alcohol-medicated.  Andrews' character is Fred Derry, a bomber pilot who suffers from PTSD and has no viable job skills, whose vapid, gold-digging wife seems uninterested in him without his uniform.  The third vet is a young sailor named Homer Parrish (played by actual veteran Harold Russell, in his feature debut), who lost his hands and had them replaced with hooks (Parrish actually suffered this disability in real life), and can't bring himself to resume his relationship with fiancĂ©e Wilma, fearing that she won't want to commit to taking care of him.
The three characters' lives begin to intertwine after they return home - Fred becomes infatuated with Al's adult daughter Peggy, who treats him with kindness and understanding; Fred encourages Homer to marry Wilma immediately and offers to be his best man; Al acts as a mentor to Homer, while endeavoring to help other returning vets by giving them startup loans at the bank.  They all face different levels of disrespect from their fellow civilians.  Al's boss doubts him for giving out an unsecured loan, Fred's boss at the drug store job he's returned to offers him a pittance and treats him as less than, Homer is mocked by a drug store customer for "fighting for the wrong side."  The film is not shy about taking society to task for deserting and disregarding veterans in their time of need, which is a poignant and pretty groundbreaking theme for 1946.

The performances are all quite strong, particularly March, who isn't afraid to veer into tragically comic territory as Al struggles with his alcoholism.  Al's wife (Loy) is patient with him but very concerned.  Andrews is simultaneously rugged and pitiful, too proud to ask for help and incapable of expressing his feelings to his wife.  Harold Russell's performance is outstanding considering he wasn't even an actor before this; he was typecast as injured veteran characters throughout his brief film career and ended up getting a business degree.  Russell would go on to win TWO Oscars that year, one for Best Supporting Actor but also an honorary Oscar which was awarded because the Academy didn't think he'd win the acting award.  

Gregg Toland's cinematography isn't as free as his work on Kane, but he was still able to use some of his signature deep-focus photography, which stands out in shots where a character is talking to one person but actually thinking about someone else visible in the background.  One example is a scene in a local bar where Al has told Fred never to see his daughter again, and while Fred goes to the phone booth to end things with Peggy, Al watches Harold play the piano.  I'd have liked to see more of Toland's unconventional style, but alas he wasn't given the same carte blanche here.  

TBYOOL is ultimately a thought-provoking, very human drama about the psychological and societal obstacles veterans face after they've done their duty, and shines a light on a system that has far too long denied them the care and assistance they deserve.  It's not on the level of It's a Wonderful Life, but it's a fine and important film that helped kick off a new cinematic era.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.


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