The Return

The Best Years of Our Lives: adapted by Robert E. Sherwood from the novel by MacKinlay Kantor; directed by William Wyler; starring Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Dana Andrews (Fred Derry), Fredric March (Al Stephenson), Harold Russell (Homer Parrish), Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry), Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson), Hoagy Carmichael (Butch Engle) and Cathy O’Donnell (Wilma Cameron) (1946): Winner of multiple Oscars — including a Best Supporting Actor nod and a Special Oscar for Harold Russell, the real wounded WWII veteran who does lovely work here.

The Best Years of Our Lives feels at once fresh and Golden Age Hollywood, with sharp performances and a pointed script centered around the difficulties faced by both veterans and their families upon the homecoming of American troops from World War Two. The three male leads, played by Dana Andrews, Fredric March, and Russell, face different problems: Andrews doesn’t have a job available for him despite the fact that he’s the highest ranking of the three; March is a banker who’s suddenly and painfully aware of social and class issues; and Russell must cope with both the loss of his hands and people’s reactions to that loss (including his own reactions to those reactions).

The stories of those three are woven together, along with those of their loved ones, into a bundle that may seem a bit too neat at the end, though it holds together better than a lot of contemporary studio films. It’s a view into a foreign country of the past with the familiar of our time just beginning to surface (the chain drugstore that offers everything and has bought out the privately owned town drug store being one example of both the familiar and the long-lost, as the drug store still has a soda jerk). Post-traumatic stress disorder, a term that hadn’t even been created yet, touches the lives of all three soldiers, as does their occasional resentment of those who didn’t have to go to war.

But there’s also the essential displacement felt by men who’ve been so long away — March hasn’t seen his wife or children in five years; Andrews has been away at war for far, far longer than he was at home with his married wife (Virginia Mayo) , the two of them having gotten married on the spur of the moment just before he shipped out, only a week after they’d met (!).

Russell’s struggle is made especially poignant because it’s obviously a real struggle; his work with his prosthetic hooks is so deft at times that one understands the surprise of many of the characters when they first see that deftness — and Russell’s character’s desire to be treated like everybody else. There’s an essential sweetness to him and to his story, as there is to all of the stories here.

William Wyler’s direction concentrates on the performances — there’s nothing showy here, and Wyler prefers to keep the camera on his characters with little or no movement to highlight those performances. Myrna Loy does a lovely, warmly comic turn as March’s wife. Teresa Wright is bright and earnest as March’s now-grown-up daughter, and Mayo is shallow but understandably dissatisfied as Andrews’ wife. Really a splendid, moving film. Highly recommended.

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