By Nicholas Stix
May 22, 2011 (slightly revised)
If a more powerful picture than The Best Years of Our Lives has ever been made that doesn’t have The Godfather or Kane in its name, I haven’t seen it.
The idea for the picture came from producer Samuel Goldwyn’s wife, Frances, who had read an article in 1944 about the problems some veterans were having, returning to civilian life in the Midwest. Goldwyn commissioned Iowan Mac Kinlay Kantor (here and here), who had served in the Army Air Force to write a script, and Kantor duly headed to a cabin in the country with a few cases of scotch, only to return a few weeks later with a … poem!? It was published in 1945 with the subtitle “A Novel” on the cover, but it’s a 268-page, narrative poem entitled Glory for Me that opens,
Fred Derry, twenty-one, and killer of a hundred men….And a powerful poem it is, but Sam Goldwyn was not amused. He had to hire a second screenwriter, the legendary Robert E. Sherwood, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, to translate and shape Kantor’s poem into screen prose. Sherwood worked his magic, but Kantor must share the credit, if not the Oscar. The picture won eight Oscars in all, and deserved every one of them.
Because Goldwyn had engaged Freddie March to star, the focus of the story was shifted away from Fred to Al, while Homer’s affliction was changed from spasticity to having had his hands burned off in a battle. (And a good thing, too. Homer’s spasticity in the poem is just too heartbreaking to take.) And yet, running at two hours and 50 minutes, each character has enough screen time to merit Best Actor consideration.
March imbues banker Al Stephenson with his signature mix of tragedy and comedy. Nobody played a comical drunk better than March, and Al Stephenson is a drunk. A functioning, jovial drunk, but a drunk, nonetheless. He loves his family, but hates his boss, Mr. Milton (Ray Collins), “the old hypocrite,” at the bank.
I don’t know of any harder scripting task than writing a good speech. Can’t be too short or too long. Can’t be too melodramatic. Sherwood gives March’s drunken Al Stephenson an oft-times hilarious speech as the guest of honor at a dinner held by his boss, to celebrate his return and promotion in which Al goes from the heights of his career to almost talking himself out of a job. It’s a real tightrope act, but March pulls it off.
March uses some stage business as subtle punctuation to the misery Al feels in his work life. Anytime he deals with Mr. Milton or some other intolerable situation, he must have a drink or a cigarette in his hands. His creeping problem is that he also needs a drink in his hand even when he’s in a happy situation.
Although Al is upper-middle-class, he served as a sergeant in the infantry, which permits March to embody the other characteristic that his best roles always exemplified: The aristocrat with the common touch, as he shows off particularly in his speech, and in a confrontation with Fred.
Speaking of Fred, Dana Andrews’ role as the poor kid who made it to bombardier captain in the Army Air Force, a tortured hero who saw his buddies die in front of his eyes on a burning bomber, permitted him to display his unique blend of easy masculinity and doubt-ridden vulnerability that he’d established in 1944’s Laura.
Andrews had a role big enough to qualify for a Best Actor nomination, along with March, and gave one of a handful of the greatest supporting actor performances ever, up there with Karl Malden in On the Waterfront, and Walter Brennan reading from the telephone book.
This was Andrews’ Oscar, but it was not to be.
The Academy wanted to do something for veterans that year. Harold Russell was not only a veteran, but one who’d had both of his hands burned off in an accident. It would have all been fine, if the Academy had simply given Russell the honorary Oscar that it ultimately bestowed on him. But they couldn’t leave well enough alone, and the powers that be not only gave Harold Russell an honorary Oscar, but nominated him for the official Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, as well. And who was going to stand in his way? Not that year.
The citation for Russell’s honorary Oscar reads, “For bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives.”
Don’t get me wrong; Russell gave an excellent performance by professional standards; never mind that he was a “civilian.” He was particularly good in his scenes with Dana Andrews. But Andrews gave a performance for the ages.
And that was it for him.
As Al’s daughter, Peggy, Teresa Wright’s insistent performance can be annoying at times, and yet, even it works, because she is paired with Myrna Loy, whose light touch is the perfect counterpoint as her mother, Millie.
This was one of the last pictures that Greg Toland photographed. His legendary “deep focus” technique of filming a scene on a sharp angle, in order to clearly show the action both in the foreground and background, was put to its best use in the saloon scene, where Al, Homer, and Uncle Butch are in the foreground, but the real action is in the background, as Fred makes a fateful call from the telephone booth at the other end of the bar, a call whose content only Al knows.
Director William Wyler wanted Aaron Copland* to score the picture, but Copland was busy with other projects for the foreseeable future, and so Wyler instead engaged Hugo Friedhofer.
Friedhofer wrote a bold, ambitious score, but also gave the picture a distinctly Coplandian flavor. (It is impossible to overstate Copland’s influence on American movie music. Even Spike Lee has used his work.) He took an uptempo theme on the speeded-up nature of town life from Copland’s score to the 1937 ballet, Billy the Kid, slowed it down, and made it lush with strings, as the leitmotif of Homer’s longsuffering girlfriend from next-door, Wilma, in expressing her romantic and domestic yearnings.
An earlier musical passage, “The Homecoming,” depicts the emotions felt by the three protagonists, Al Stephenson (Fredric March), Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) as they ride home in a supply plane and see the old landscape of Boone City, and once landed and sharing a taxi, they hit their old hometown, after four years off fighting the war. First comes the thrill of watching city life—their city, with pretty American girls walking down the street all dolled up—and yet, it’s like they’re seeing it for the first time. Then comes the foreboding each man feels as he nears his family home, after having been away for so long. Has the world back home passed them by?
Finally, comes the scene at the airplane graveyard, thanks to Friedhofer, Toland, and Andrews, the most powerful scene in the entire picture. That scene comes early in Glory for Me, but Sherwood wisely moved it towards the end, and juxtaposes it with Fred’s father finding the medals and citations for bravery, including the Distinguished Flying Cross—just short of the Medal of Honor—that the humble Fred had not so much as mentioned to him and his stepmother.
Because the picture was made immediately after war’s end, Sherwood and Wyler were able to freshly capture the mood of the nation, and at the same time, certain ephemeral physical conditions, e.g., aircraft graveyards were available that would soon be gone. Note that at the time Hollywood, which had many performers in uniform, and more than a few who'd actually seen combat, was not the enemy of the people that it has since become.
The Best Years of Our Lives was nominated for eight competitive Academy Awards, of which it won seven, plus Harold Russell’s honorary Oscar. The title is ironic, and comes from a speech in which Fred’s floozy of a wife (Virginia Mayo) complains that she gave up “the best years of my life” for him while he was off fighting in the war. (Not that the slut gave up a thing!) The double irony is that the title became an iconic phrase, due to its connection to the picture, yet shorn of its ironic origins. Over the next 20-odd years, it became standard usage in the vernacular to speak of veterans as having sacrificed “the best years of their lives.”
[*It’s a blessing that Hugo Friedhofer scored the picture, rather than Aaron Copland. Wyler hated classical composers, and made their lives miserable. Three years later, he would hire Copland to score The Heiress.
Critics have lauded Copland for pioneering a new way in that movie to score women’s pictures, but Wyler would butcher Copland’s score, mashing it up with incompatible music he had a second composer write. Nevertheless, the Academy would award Copland his only Oscar for The Heiress.
Communists have since maintained that Copland, who was a communist, was blacklisted by Hollywood, but that’s just another blacklisting myth. It was Willi Wyler who drove Aaron Copland out of Hollywood!
In 1958, Wyler did it again. He hired classical composer Jerome Moross to score his epic Western, The Big Country. Moross composed one of the greatest scores for any movie. The tin-eared Wyler hated it, and decided to scrap it. It was only the intervention of star and co-producer Gregory Peck that saved Moross’ masterpiece of a score.
**In the past, I have posted a video of the scene of Fred Derry at the airplane graveyard. Since then, the heirs of Samuel Goldwyn have foolishly and pettily sicced the Kopyright Kops on Youtube, and forced it to take down the video.
Samuel Goldwyn’s greedy heirs’ act will not earn them one penny more. If anything, it will cost them royalties, as thousands of people who would have seen the scene and heard the music, and thereby been inspired to buy the DVD, will now never buy it. Good job!]