Best Defense

11.05.13

Left and right: William Wyler, The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 172 minutes.


BY AN INTERESTING COINCIDENCE, Warner Bros. is releasing its new Blu-ray of the 1946 classic The Best Years of Our Lives at the same time as a box set of all three of James Dean’s films: Rebel Without a Cause (1955), East of Eden (1955), and Giant (1956). Most everyone who is serious about cinema has seen Dean’s movies (Giant maybe not so much), but I can’t help wondering how many people under fifty-five have ever watched The Best Years of Our Lives. It was the sort of picture you’d expect the parents in Rebel Without a Cause to relate to—meticulously designed to speak to the people who lived through World War II, valorizing their sacrifices and aspirations. Dean, film noir, and the artifice-baring melodramas of Douglas Sirk—with their collective angst, upfront neuroses, and unsettled entanglements—came along as rebellions against, or subversions of, precisely that type of big, square, ultraschematic exercise in civic-minded drama and social duty. Where they have the cachet of the perpetually hip, The Best Years of Our Lives is weighed down by its ambitions toward universality (American-style), not to mention its seven Academy Awards: Almost by definition, anything Hollywood embraced so wholeheartedly must be suspect.

The same goes double for director William Wyler, a consummate professional who fell into critical disfavor when the auteurists began ranking directors like prizefighters—the more idiosyncratic and free-swinging the better. His reputation never really recovered from being stereotyped as a safe, high-middlebrow traffic engineer who elicited solid performances but lacked a personal touch. As Kent Jones pointed out recently, it’s grossly unfair to make an also-ran out of someone who was able to deliver studio films as intelligent and affecting as The Best Years of Our Lives, The Letter (1940), Dodsworth (1936), and Carrie (the wrenching 1952 adaption of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie). Wyler had his faults, but Best Years is something of a revelation. It isn’t fully a great film, and it isn’t iconic in the same bluntly hysterical manner of Dean’s movies with Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan, but what makes it mesmerizing is how Wyler and his team were able to incorporate naturalistic tendencies and strikingly modern visuals within the framework of what could easily have been a sentimental three-hour public service announcement about the difficulties of soldiers returning to civilian life.

Three men meet on a plane ride back home to a midsize city in Anywhere, USA. One is a captain (Dana Andrews), a war hero bombardier returning to a dead-end job and a party-girl wife (Virginia Mayo) he married on a whim. There is a middle-aged infantry sergeant (Fredric March), a grunt in the war but in civilian life a prosperous executive at the local bank. And then there’s the sailor who lost both his hands, poignantly played by a nonprofessional amputee Wyler saw in a military training film, Harold Russell. The sailor is understandably skittish about how his family and especially his fiancée will react; the sergeant dreads resuming his old role. (The war has made him uneasy about his own status in relation to ordinary working stiffs—in a number of areas, Best Years runs parallel to It’s a Wonderful Life.) And the captain’s dream of vaulting into a new job commensurate with his military position is thwarted by a lack of civilian experience—he winds up back in his old gig, making $32.50 a week with a spouse who expects high times and the fast life.

What you have here is a blueprint for ubernormalcy put under stress, and a movie that patiently diagrams how these problems can be solved with the proper forward-looking, neoprogressive attitudes. At the same time, it’s a cross-section of intersecting archetypes: March’s family (including Myrna Loy as his wife and Teresa Wright as his daughter, though Loy was only thirteen years older than Wright) could serve as the template for Father of the Bride (1950) or TV’s Father Knows Best (1954–60). Andrews and Mayo meanwhile have all the characteristics of a classic film noir setup: When Wright gets involved, the triangle is complete. The beauty of the film, however, is in the way these situations don’t turn to either farce or violence, but work through the emotions and social dislocations involved with the emphatic determination of Wright’s good girl announcing to her only partially shocked parents: “I’m going to break that marriage up.”

Director of photography Gregg Toland, who was third billed in the credits, below only producer Sam Goldwyn and Wyler, gave the actors a literal and figurative depth: His deep-focus shots are remarkably intricate and attentive in their arrangement, yet manage a clean, uncluttered realism. There are sometimes two or three layers within the field of a given shot (though Wyler and Toland got some of their strongest images simply holding a medium close-up of the pained, stoic Russell), and the actors were able to capture a sense of ordinary, fundamentally decent people who have been damaged. Or in the case of the women, who here are mostly both matter-of-factly sensual and maternal, they’re put in the position of nursing their men back to wholeness. Outside of a few bit parts—crass businessmen or a startling appearance by a right-winger who earns a sock in the jaw for ranting that “We fought the wrong people” in the war—there are no villains. Even the bad wife isn’t depicted as evil, merely selfish and insensitive: “Come on, snap out of it,” is her response to her husband’s combat nightmares.

Writing of Andrews in this role, Geoffrey O’Brien said that here he “is only a part—a perfectly attuned and fitting part—of something vastly larger: America, the war, small-town life, marriage and suffering and class difference.” That’s true of all the actors—the scene where Cathy O’Donnell, as Russell’s unwavering fiancé, helps him get undressed and removes his limbs, has a passionate tenderness that is simultaneously mundane and transcendent. One disconcerting thing about the movie is Hugo Friedhofer’s score, whose cues have a lush heftiness that can seem intrusive and manipulative. But that symphonic quality was designed for big theaters packed with large crowds: The Best Years of Our Lives was not so much a piece of mass entertainment as of mass therapy, working though the physical and social traumas of wartime. All while trying to strike a cathartic balance between the individual and the community, realism and romance, the studio system and artistic autonomy. It is not devoid of irony (the title comes from Mayo’s scornful lament, “I gave you the best years of my life”), but it is a movie without a trace of cynicism to its name.

Howard Hampton

The Best Years of Our Lives is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.