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The Best Movie of 1946?

March 15, 2007

I’d been hearing great things about The Best Years of Our Lives for years. It’s gotten a little bit of a bad rap in some circles as the movie that beat out It’s a Wonderful Life for best picture in 1947, but that shouldn’t take away from what is a classic in its own right.

Inspired by a story in Life magazine, The Best Years of Our Lives is about three veterans who return from World War II and have trouble re-adjusting to civilian life. One is a captain in the airforce (Dana Andrews), one is an older man, a sergeant in the Army (Fredric March), and the other is a young kid, a former Navy man who lost his hands in a ship fire (Harold Russell). They meet on a military plane flying them from Long Beach back home to Boon City, one of those make-believe Hollywood cities that probably was shot on the same lot as It’s A Wonderful Life. You know the kind–it has an airport, numerous bars, a bustling downtown, rich areas and poor areas, but somehow, whenever you walk down the street, you bump into somebody you know. Small-town intimacy with big-city amenities. God bless Hollywood.

The film does something remarkably clever and ahead of its time. On the cab ride back from the airport, Russell is dropped off first, in a clapboard house on a leafy middle-class street. March is dropped off second, and it’s a bit of a surprise for this brusque man–he lives in a luxury apartment tower (Boon City has everything). But Andrews’ final destination is a real shock. He’s a handsome, confident, friendly decorated officer–in short, everything you want a war hero to be–and his parents live in a shack by the railroad. That kind of subversion of expectations in the heydey of conventional story-telling is quite impressive.

The movie goes on to tell their somewhat interlocking stories, doing so with a wisdom about the vulnerability and accomodations of love and an intelligence about class and economics that was rare for its day. I know that noir got its start in the ’40s, but this is not a noir in either spirit or aesthetics. There’s neither the relentless cynicism nor the ominous shadows of noir.

There’s a great scene where March’s angelic daughter tells her parents she’s going to break up Andrews’ marriage because she’s sure that he’s in love with her and not with his hussy of a wife. March and his wife (a fine Myrna Loy) dissect her illusion, premise by premise. March asks something along the lines of “What do you think love is?” “Do you know how many times I told your mother I’m through with you?” March asks. “And do you know how many times I told your father I hate you?” Loy asks. “We’ve had to fall back into love more times than I can count,” March says. The point being, March’s daughter may think she and Andrews are in love, but it doesn’t mean anything if you can’t count on him–and you can’t count on a married man who cheats.

The movie is full of little touches that show the actors, writers and director William Wyler really thought carefully about every scene. In the plane back to Boon City, Andrews offers a cigarette to his two traveling companions. He lights March’s cigarette and then his own. He is about to light Russell’s cigarette. “Are you guys suspicious?” he asks. “Because I am.” And he proceeds to light his own cigarette with a separate match. It’s a subtle reference to the military tradition that sprung up, I believe, in World War II, where only two men light cigarettes at a time. The fear is that a sniper sees the first cigarette, sets his sights on the second and fires on the third.

I love also how the movie handles the soldiers’ initial return to their homes. The cliche is that every soldier rushed back to the arms of his beloved wife and family, but each of the men, especially Russell, is reluctant to leave the cab. March likens going home to “storming a beach.” They all show a desire to go to local bar and have a few drinks. Even though they barely know each other, they’re more familiar with the exclusively masculine, homosocial world of the military than they are of domestic civilian life. That night, March goes for a night on the town with his wife and daughter and he’s as excited to bump into Andrews and Russell at a bar as he was to see his family the first time.

Even with the very conventional filmmaking, there are some beautifully complicated shots, where three characters do different discreet actions simultaneously in the foreground, middle ground and background. But they’re not crowded or superfluous; one scene has Russell in the foreground showing off his ability to play the piano to March in the middle ground, who takes occasional glances back to the phonebooth in the background where Andrews is calling March’s daughter to end their affair. Rarely today do you see shots of that kind of clean complexity.

The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t have the mythic simplicity or visual power of It’s a Wonderful Life, but It’s a Wonderful Life looks like sentimental claptrap compared to the tough and wise vision of love and life that The Best Years of Our Lives offers.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2007 1:15 pm

    Alfred Hichcock’s “Notorious,” also a 1946 film, is better than either “Best Years” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

  2. April 6, 2007 12:08 pm

    And so is David Lean’s “Great Expectations.”

  3. April 9, 2007 5:53 pm

    Been a while since I’ve seen Notorious, but I don’t recall it bowling me over the way my favorite Hitchcock films have, like Vertigo, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Rope and Rear Window.

  4. April 11, 2007 4:21 pm

    I prefer “Notorious” to all those films except “Strangers on a Train” and maybe “Rear Window.”

  5. May 29, 2007 8:34 pm

    Just watched “The Best Years of Our Lives” on video after hearing about it for years. It’s a wonderful, psychologically realistic film with a sophistication in its writing and direction that is still rare in film.

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