Looking Back at The Best Years of our Lives
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 5, Number 4, December 1975
- pp. 10-12
- Additional Information
LOOKING BACK AT THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES JOSEPH GARTON To a large degree the impact of movies on society is historically conditioned. Why one movie is lauded as Art only to be later dismissed as beneath critical contempt often has more to do with historical factors at the times of judgment than with changes in aesthetical values. The Best Years of Our Lives is an exemplary case in point. How did viewers respond to it in 1946? Why did they respond? Why might the response be different today? In the pinnacle year of film noir why did this exception to the style become the blockbuster? Answering such questions is a perfectly legitimate and exciting task not only for cineasts, but for students of history as well. The Best Years of Our Lives is an extremely successful Hollywood movie that was touted by the studio (MGM) and critics alike as a penetrating study of one facet of war—returning veterans. In some ways it is exceptional; it does show unusual technical finesse. Greg Toland's photographic inventiveness is put to fine narrative purpose (unlike some of his obtrusive photography in Citizen Kane). The camera's diversity and mobility are exploited to great effect. The performances of Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, and Teresa Wright are quite valiant, considering the narrative restrictions. William Wyler's direction is commendable. So tightly constructed is the close to three hour movie that it never seems to drag. After an opening benefit (attended by the names in the film and society worlds, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor), The Best Years of Our Lives took the country by storm winning six academy awards including the Oscar for the best picture. General Omar Bradley personally wrote Sam Goldwyn that the movie was being shown to subordinates in Washington "to help them realize what the veterans mean to the people of this country." He continued, "I cannot thank you too much Joseph Garton is a student in Cinema Studies at New York University. 10 for bringing this story to the American people. You are not only helping us to do our job but you are helping the American people to build an even better democracy out of the tragic experiences of this war." (New York Times, December 11, 1946) The three servicemen who meet while flying home represent the classes of America. But what about the authenticity of each characterization ? Were they, as suggested by contemporary reviewers, "everyday down to earth folk: who "live lives like our own?" Frederic March (confidently upper class) obviously doesn't know his children. A Japanese sword was hardly his son's greatest desire. Furthermore the son seems to have picked up some convictions over the years about modern warfare that don't exactly echo his father's views. The potential for dramatic confrontation is here. Yet nothing is done with this clear source of conflict. His wife admits to their daughter that there had been numerous times when she and her husband truly hated each other. It can be assumed that the prolonged separation would present additional marital problems. But again, nothing in terms of the drama is done with it. The husband is obviously unhappy in his job in a local bank and turns to drinking. In a moment of drunken honesty March is eloquently sarcastic about the bank's conservative lending policies. Real unhappiness in a job is no small discomfort; like alcoholism it almost inevitably affects other aspects of one's life. But we see no carry over. Dana Andrews (decently lower class) comes home to two problems. He brags to his parents about his participation in the bombing of Dresden, yet he seems to have trouble sleeping. Presumably the nightmares of his involvement in the saturation bombing of civilians quickly disappear because the film doesn't mention them again. His second and more troublesome problem is his wife. Although he had her picture taped in the cockpit of his plane and dreamed endlessly of returning to her, once back he quickly comes to learn that they are totally incompatible. One can hardly believe that sensitive Dana Andrews would have married such a typically dumb...