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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Carabimero

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Title: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Tagline: Three wonderful loves in the best picture of the year!

Genre: Drama, History, Romance

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O'Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, Gladys George, Roman Bohnen, Ray Collins, Minna Gombell, Walter Baldwin, Steve Cochran, Dorothy Adams, Claire Du Brey, Pat Flaherty, William H. O'Brien, Bert Stevens, Don Beddoe, Marlene Aames, Charles Halton, Ray Teal, Howland Chamberlain, Dean White, Erskine Sanford, Michael Hall, Victor Cutler

Release: 1946-12-25

Runtime: 172

Plot: It's the hope that sustains the spirit of every GI: the dream of the day when he will finally return home. For three WWII veterans, the day has arrived. But for each man, the dream is about to become a nightmare. Captain Fred Derry is returning to a loveless marriage; Sergeant Al Stephenson is a stranger to a family that's grown up without him; and young sailor Homer Parrish is tormented by the loss of his hands. Can these three men find the courage to rebuild their world? Or are the best years of their lives a thing of the past?




The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) won more Oscars than Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, and Citizen Kane combined, yet many people have never seen it or even heard of it.

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It’s the story of three World War II veterans returning home after the war, and the challenges they face. For me the movie is really about forming and maintaining friendships, ending toxic relationships, and looking past external appearances to value another’s heart. I could talk about its deep focus storytelling, about the superb writing, the symbolism, the humor, and more. But your time is better spent watching it, especially if you haven't seen it.

I’ve seen it dozens of times and I never get tired of the scenes. In forty years I’ve never once had the urge to scan through portions of it. The cast is rock solid: The chemistry of Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and Myrna Loy creates realism and gravity. This is not a sentimental movie in a time when most movies of its ilk were; it deals with alcoholism, PTSD, disabilities, and more in an accessible way. It's authentic in unusual ways, least of which is featuring the only actor to ever win two Oscars for a single performance—and he wasn’t an actor at all, but a WWII veteran named Harold Russell who lost his hands in a training accident.

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There's a book called Glory for Me by MacKinley Kantor. It's this book from which the screenplay for Best Years was written. Interestingly, the book is called a novel, but it's not prose. It's written like verse. Here's a sample:

Their worry made them one
And each had felt
The kiss of death so many times
That he could only share himself
With other men whose lips still wore the damp
And pungent print of cold infinity.

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At the time the movie rights were bought, the title, Glory for Me, didn't test well, so RKO announced a title contest, offering $50 in 1946 for the best suggestion. Here are some of the titles that were suggested by the public: Back Home For Keeps, When Daylight Comes, Three Roads Home, and No More Bugles. Someone from Goldwyn's NY office sent in the title "The Best Years of My Life" from a line uttered by Virginia Mayo late in the movie. The legal department said no, because New Yorker magazine had published an article with that title the year before. So they changed it to second person plural and announced the title as The Best Years of Our Lives in May 1946.

All the major players in the movie received $100,000, except Dana Andrews, who got $86,000 because he was already under contract by the studio. How much did the unknown double Oscar winner get? Harold Russell received a mere $6,000. He had neither acting experience nor an agent, which didn't help him; add to that, he was disabled. Russell later received criticism when he sold one of his Oscars. "What do I need two of them for? I want to take my wife (who was dying of cancer) on a cruise.” A pair of autobiographies from Russell are available. Both are worthwhile reads.

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Some of the info I am sharing comes from a wonderful little text by Sarah Kozloff, which is worth reading if you love the movie.

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And the soundtrack is available, too. On days I want to watch it but don’t have three hours, this touching music scratches my itch.

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I watch the movie on average twice a year. Now I’ll have a place to post my thoughts while I continue to age and see this masterpiece in different ways throughout my life.

As long as wounded soldiers come home from war, this movie will be relevant. If you have a love for this film and know of other goodies I haven’t mentioned, I hope you’ll post about them. If you haven’t seen the movie yet—or haven't seen it in a while—I hope you’ll make time to watch it. I'd love to hear what others think about this show.

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One thing I have discovered through decades of watching and appreciating this movie is just how little has been written or published about it. Perhaps we can add to our knowledge and love for The Best Years Of Our Lives right here.
 
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benbess

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The Best Years of Our Lives was a huge hit in 1946. Because another movie from that year, Song of the South, was re-released by Disney a few times, it's listed by wikipedia in first place for box office returns for 1946. But without those re-releases, I think The Best Years of Our lives was probably first. Samuel Goldwyn had a role as producer in backing the film with a good budget and promoting it. I have a biography of Goldwyn that goes into some of the behind the scenes stuff for the movie. I'll try to look that up in the next day or so. Thanks for starting this thread.

The blu-ray release for this movie has good picture quality, but I wish it had an audio commentary.
 

Colin Jacobson

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It's a good film but unlike the three you mention (Casablanca, Oz, Kane) not a great one. The running time is too long for me.

Funny - I thought the movie wasn't long enough to tell its story in a satisfying way. It's too short to get into the character nuances well.

I like "Best Years" and think it moves along at a pace that makes it seem shorter than 170 minutes. Can't say I love it, though:

http://www.dvdmg.com/bestyearsofourlivesbr.shtml
 

Robert Crawford

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When someone says the running time is too long, he's really saying he doesn't really like the movie that much.
I don't think it's that cut and dry as Gone with the Wind is an excellent film, but it's too long for me to sit straight through to the end. Now, granted I've seen GWTW numerous times in my lifetime, but I passed on seeing it in a movie theater not too long ago, but I'm willing to see Casablanca in the same theater this coming Wednesday because of the shorter length.
 

benbess

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There were a lot of good movies released in 1946—several of which I haven't yet seen. But of the ones I've seen, here are my rankings. Reading about the positive effect The Best Years of Our Lives has had on Carabimero's life, I've revised my ranking of this movie for this year upward. It was already in my top 10, but now it's in my top 3.

My personal rankings for movies released in 1946:
1.Notorious
2.Great Expectations
3. The Best Years of Our Lives
4.The Razor’s Edge
5.Anna and the King of Siam
6.It’s a Wonderful Life
7.The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
8.My Darling Clementine
9.The Harvey Girls
10.The Big Sleep
11.Duel in the Sun
12.Song of the South
13.Make Mine Music
14.The Yearling
15.Night and Day

From 1946 I still need to see: To Each His Own, The Blue Dahlia, Centennial Summer, The Dark Mirror, Deception, Devotion, Dragonwyck, Humoresque, The Killers, A Matter of Life and Death, The Spiral Staircase, A Stolen Life, Till the Clouds Roll By, Tomorrow is Forever, etc., etc.

I'd be interested to read how other folks here rank the movies of 1946.
 

bujaki

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Ben, once you see AMOLAD, it will surely go near to the top of your list. It's that good.
As for BYOOL, I consider it to be one of the few films that the Academy got right naming it the year's best. I saw it in the '70s in a practically flawless 35mm and found it absorbing from start to finish. The editing helps propel its 170 minute running time so that doesn't feel it (nor does one feel a need for an intermission; it's that well constructed). The acting from all the principals and the supporting actors is top notch, as one would expect from a Wyler film. Although March won the AA for Best Actor, it is Dana Andrews who walks away with the movie (why wasn't that recognized at the time?). The bravura sequence in the fighter airplane graveyard where Andrews's acting, Wyler's camera placement and movement, the cinematography, editing, sound mixing and music create an impressionistic moment that hearkens back to Andrews's best years of his life, is really heartbreaking. How can one not be moved by it?
How can one not be moved by the sequence when Homer asks Wilma to help him undress so she can view their future together?
How can one not be moved by the look of patience, pity, love and pride in Loy's eyes as she reacts to March's reactions to adjustment to civilian life and to the new business landscape, and more important, to family life?
How can one not be moved by Roman Bohnen and Gladys George, the lumpen parents from the wrong side of the tracks, who are shown only fleetingly, but who are so proud of Andrews's heroic service?
This film is full of so many such grace notes and is so realistic. I only wish it had ended with Andrews at the cockpit, although I suppose in 1946 audiences needed a more uplifting end (although, truth be told, the
Andrews-Wright alliance is starting on rather shaky grounds).
This, along with The Crowd and Sunrise, is one of my favorite American films, and my favorite Wyler, followed by Dodsworth.
 

Peter Apruzzese

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How can one not be moved by Roman Bohnen and Gladys George, the lumpen parents from the wrong side of the tracks, who are shown only fleetingly, but who are so proud of Andrews's heroic service?

The end of their sequence, where dad reads the citations about his son, is really something. The combination of pride and regret in his voice, plus the placement of the booze bottle, is remarkable.
 

bujaki

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The end of their sequence, where dad reads the citations about his son, is really something. The combination of pride and regret in his voice, plus the placement of the booze bottle, is remarkable.
This is what good writing, direction, cinematography and acting is all about. I always tear up during this sequence.
 

Robert Crawford

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This is what good writing, direction, cinematography and acting is all about. I always tear up during this sequence.
Wyler had one of the best cinematographers, Gregg Toland on this film. Also, Paul Mantz on the aerial photography which was his specialty.
 

Carabimero

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I can tell you the level of detail in this show is astounding to me. Audiences at the time knew what real uniforms looked like and what ribbons and medals meant, even to the smallest detail. So these things got meticulously researched. Fred was an 8th Air Force Captain-bombardier. Hobson's in London, a popular place with Army fliers, tailored the uniform seen in the film. Even the serial number of Fred's B-4 bag was authentic: It belonged to a bombardier on The Memphis Belle.

Shooting Best Years cost 2.1 million for seventy-three days. Wyler had been tagged "40-take Wyler" for his habit of filming scenes over and over. He defended himself against such critics, saying that while actors might believe he didn't have confidence in their performances, that what he was actually trying to achieve was "something very subtle," something that not even Goldwyn could see in dailies, but "often a slight movement or the way a word is said makes the difference whether the audience will cry."

Many shots were accomplished in one take, but those shots did not have dialogue. Several of Harold Russell's actions, which he made seem so effortless--like putting the ring on Wilma's finger or striking a match--often took twenty takes, but in my opinion, that's not on Wyler.

I believed Wyler largely worked economically. He only shot two scenes that were cut: one of Fred looking for Marie and the other a scene in the Cameron house. I wonder how many three-hour movies today only have two deleted scenes. Of course there were some lines cut, but not a lot. Al's comments at the banquet were originally longer, including talk of him being "his brother's keeper." There were more lines in Fred's flashback of the bailout. And many more lines of Butch giving Homer his dressing down.

The original last line of the script concluded with Al coming up and embracing Fred and Peggy, asking, "Hey buddies, whose wedding do you think this is, anyway?"

Shooting concluded August 9th, and the film was ready for testing in October. Imagine that quick turnaround today! The filmmakers hoped test audiences would tell them what scenes could be cut to reduce the length, but the test audiences unanimously approved the film at the length we see it today. In the fifties, when the film was re-released, Wyler wanted to shorten it "by about five minutes," but ultimately decided not to touch it. Good call, if you ask me.
 

benbess

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From page 411 of A. Scott Berg's book Goldwyn (1989):

Wyler and Sherwood were visiting veterans' hospitals looking for character details when the director suddenly recalled an Army Pictorial Service documentary he had seen about a young sergeant who had lost both his hands. Diary of a Sergeant had been produced to help other amputees readjust to their lives. The star of the film was a former meat cutter named Harold Russell, who—as he explained—"got into an argument with a block of T.N.T. and lost. The score was two hands off about six inches above the wrist." He was fitted with a set of steel claws controlled by a shoulder harness and moved by elastic bands. More than Russell's mastery of his "hooks" interested Wyler; it was his acceptance of his disability. "That was just the attitude required for the role," said Wyler, "because in our story, Homer, in spite of his physical disability, makes a better adjustment than the other two veterans...who both had emotional disturbances caused by the war but no physical injuries." Harold Russell got the role intended for Farley Granger....
 

TonyD

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I have the Blu but the only time I've watched the movie was off of TCM many years ago.
My memory tells me it was a great movie and I plan on getting back to it one of these days.

Didn't feel long to me at all while on GWTW felt like it's 4 hours were more like 10 hours.
 
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