Saturday, May 26, 2012

Memorial Day: The Best Years of Our Lives


Harold Russell (Homer), Dana Andrews (Fred), Frederic March (Al)

The Best Years of Our Lives: Director William Wellman’s story of returning war veterans swept all the Academy Awards in 1946, and remains a film classic today. The film has everything you could ask for. It is an emotional heart-rending story of three veterans returning to the families and to their lives that will never be the same. 

It contains a great cast that includes stars like Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Virginia Mayo backed up by a superb supporting cast who steal some of the best scenes. The film also featured Harold Russell, a real sailor whose two hands had actually been amputated during the war. It is at once heartbreaking and inspirational to see him manipulate the hooks that serve as replacements.

Frederic March won the Best Actor award that year playing Al Stevenson, an army sergeant, returning to his respectable family and banking career. Actually, that year the Academy Award should have gone to Jimmy Stewart for his performance as a banker in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life."  It was a real sign of the times that both films featured bankers as heroes. In my opinion Dana Andrews also outdid March with his portrayal of Fred Derry, troubled Air Force bombadier. Naturally, Harold Russell won Best Supporting Actor as well an an unprecedented special award for his performance as the wounded sailor, Homer.

However, it is the women in the film that steal the show. Feminist historians would do well to note the powerful women portrayed in this film. Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and even Kathy O'Donnell are all towers of strength . Beautiful Virginia Mayo played a floozy but gave the best performance of her career. Ironically, she gets to utter the most famous line in the film when she complains to husband, Fred Derry, that she gave him the best years of her life.

The supporting cast is equally fine, and again it's the women who shine. One of the most emotional scenes in the film occurs at the beginning.  I will never forget the look on the face of Homer's mother when she first sees his hooks. Toward the end of the film after a dejected and out of work Fred Derry bitterly discards his wartime citations, his father then reads them to his step-mother, played by Gladys George, in a deeply moving scene.

The film is augmented by brilliant photography, and a wonderful musical score. Both come together in the pivotal scene where Fred finally has an epiphany in the nose of a bomber about to be demolished for parts. In this scene the camera almost becomes an actor. The musical score is also abetted by Hoagy Carmichael, who plays Homer's Uncle Butch, the piano playing owner of the neighborhood bar. ###


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