Sunday, February 25, 2018

On Monday, February 26, at 8 p.m. ET, TCM is Presenting the Greatest Motion Picture Ever Made: The Best Years of Our Lives



[Glory for Me: The Poem That Became the Movie The Best Years of Our Lives.”]

At Butch's Saloon, the bar that is practically a character in BYOL. From left to right: Harold Russell, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Freddie March and standing, bow-tie but cut off, behind Loy and March, Hoagy Carmichael.

“Perhaps the best movie theme of all time—incredibly moving—heroic, memorable and vulnerable—like the brave if somewhat broken men who came back.”

windstorm1000 on Hugo Friedhofer’s score
to The Best Years of Our Lives

By David in TN
Sunday, February 25, 2018 at 2:50:00 P.M. EST

On Monday, February 26, at 8 p.m. ET, TCM is showing The Best Years of Our Lives. It is part of TCM’s “31 Days of Oscar.”


Coming home: Russell, Andrews, March

The Greatest Picture Ever Made: The Best Years of Our Lives
By Nicholas Stix
May 22, 2011 (Revised for this presentation)

One of the greatest lead performances by an actor ever (Fredric March)? Check.

What was then greatest performance by a supporting actor ever (Dana Andrews)? Check.

Great supporting work by a brilliant ensemble cast (Myrna Loy, Harold Russell, Teresa Wright, et al.)? Check.

Cinematography by the greatest cameraman of his generation, who gave the world deep-focus photography, which played a pivotal role (Gregg Toland)? Check.

A screen adaptation of a powerful, 268-page poem, Glory for Me, by one of America’s greatest writers (MacKinlay Kantor), adapted by another of America’s greatest writers (Robert E. Sherwood)? Check.

One of the greatest original scores ever composed for a picture (Hugo Friedhofer)? Check.

Great dialogue, including one of the greatest speeches ever written for a movie? Check.

If I sound like a DVD salesman, I am, but I’m not working for a commission. If America hadn’t been infected by the toxin of racial socialism, there’d be no need for me to promote BYOL, because every school child in America would already have seen it in elementary school.

But you don’t even have to order BYOL, though I recommend that you buy both the DVD of the picture, and the CD of its score, both of which we purchased a few years ago for the Stix Family library.

Turner Classic Movies is presenting the picture tomorrow night, at 8 p.m., as part of its “31 Days of Oscar.”

Some movies seem like masterpieces the first time you see them—Woody Allen’s Zelig hit me that way—but their impact fades with repeated viewings. Others, however, become more powerful with time. That’s the way it is with masterpieces. True Grit has had that effect on me over the years, since seeing it during its first run.

I knew that BYOL was a masterpiece the first time I saw it, in an Upper West Side Manhattan revival house (which I’m sure is long gone). One of the last two surviving cast members, Teresa Wright, spoke to the audience. I believe it was in 1994.

Since then, I’ve seen it three or four more times, to where I can say the lines ahead of the players. And I’m not the only one in this house that can do that.


Toland, Andrews, Wyler and Mayo on a sound stage

And so, BYOL has climbed the charts of my top movies. First, Kane ruled the roost alone. Then, it was Kane, The Godfather, and The Godfather, Part II. And now, it’s the Big Four. However, I give BYOL a slight edge, due to its emotional power. I suppose, from a rigorous arithmetical standpoint, BYOL should reign alone at number one, with the other three pictures tied for number two, but I’m not ready to do that. Thus, here is my current Top Ten:

1. (Tied) The Best Years of Our Lives
1. Citizen Kane 1941
1. The Godfather 1972
1. The Godfather, Part II 1974
5. It’s a Wonderful Life 1946
6. Shane 1953
7. It Happened One Night 1934
8. (Tied) The Bridge on the River Kwai 1957
8. (Tied) Lawrence of Arabia
10. The Third Man 1948


Main Title to BYOL’s Score, by Hugo Friedhofer


The Greatest Picture Ever Made: The Best Years of Our Lives
By Nicholas Stix
May 22, 2011 (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 four 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 at least seven of them. (The exception was Best Actor, which I now believe should have gone to Jimmy Stewart, who gave the greatest male lead performance I’ve ever seen, in It’s a Wonderful Life.)

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 had enough screen time to merit Best Actor consideration.

“The Homecoming”


The After-Dinner Speech: Fredric March as Al Stephenson

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 at the bank, Mr. Milton (Ray Collins), “the old hypocrite.”

Ray Collins as Mr. Milton, “the old hypocrite”

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, with subtle assistance from Loy.

Al’s opening—“I’m glad to see you all pulled through so well”—is a dig at the guests and his host, none of whom went in harm’s way, but all of whom seek to profit from the sacrifices of the men who did. This is one of the restrained ways in which Sherwood was able to work Kantor’s raw class war theme into the picture.

But it gets worse. Al is quite drunk, and losing control over his hatred of “the old hypocrite.”

Earlier that day, Al had okayed a farm loan for a veteran named Novack who had no collateral. Although the loan was guaranteed by the federal government, Mr. Milton still didn’t want Novack to get it. Al explained to Mr. Milton that as a sergeant, he’d had to size up men like Novak under fire, and that he was sure the younger man would pay off his loan. Al was mad as hell about Milton, and let him have it.
Al: “I want to tell you all that the reason for my success as a Sergeant is due primarily to my previous training in the Cornbelt Loan and Trust Company. The knowledge I acquired in the good ol' bank I applied to my problems in the infantry. For instance, one day in Okinawa, a Major comes up to me and he says, ‘Stephenson, you see that hill?’ ‘Yes sir, I see it.’ ‘All right,’ he said. ‘You and your platoon will attack said hill and take it.’

So I said to the Major, ‘but that operation involves considerable risk. We haven't sufficient collateral.’ ‘I am aware of that,’ said the Major, ‘but the fact remains that there's the hill and you are the guys who are going to take it.’ So I said to him, ‘I'm sorry Major. No collateral, no hill.’ So we didn't take the hill, and we lost the war. I think that little story has considerable significance, but I've forgotten what it is.”
Clip of the Speech


Fredric March as Al Stephenson, l, Ray Collins as Mr. Milton, and Myrna Loy as Millie Stephenson

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 and/or a cigarette in his hands. His creeping problem is that he increasingly 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 later confrontation with Fred.

Speaking of Fred, Dana Andrews’ role as the poor kid who made it to bombardier captain in the U.S. 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 alternating, 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 what was then 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.

“Fred & Peggy”


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 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.

“The Nightmare”


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.

“Neighbors / Wilma / Homer's Anger”


This was one of the last pictures that Gregg 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.


Gregg Toland's deep focus shot at Butch's Saloon

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.

“Fred Asleep”


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 culturally appropriated 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.


Director Willi Wyler horsing around on set

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. First, during the night while the other men asleep, Homer is filled with foreboding (this passage could be called “Homer’s Theme”). In the morning, the tempo and the men’s (even Homer’s) spirits pick up, as they see the old landscape of Boone City, and having 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?

“Homer Goes Upstairs” (Duet Between Homer’s Theme and Wilma’s Theme, Accompanying the Characters’ Debate)


Dana Andrews in the aircraft graveyard scene

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.

Aircraft graveyard scene: Capt. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) in the cockpit of a B-17 Flying Fortress, on its way to be scrapped

“The Citation / Graveyard & Bomber”


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.

Homer and Wilma's wedding

“End Title & End Cast” (Wilma’s Theme)


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, hiring a studio hack composer, Nathan Van Cleve, who would remove Copland’s powerful theme at the film’s opening, and replace it with a shallow if famous theme (whose title alone was stupid), J.P.E. Martini's Plaisir d’Amour. Nevertheless, the Academy would award Copland his only Oscar for The Heiress. And Aaron Copland would storm out of Hollywood, only to return for Something Wild (1961), after he had lost his touch.

Communists have since maintained that Copland, who was a communist (but not a Party member), 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!]

“Exit Music”


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I decided to let FOX news and the horse races have the night off and give,"The Best Years of Our Lives",a chance for almost 3 hours of commercial free viewing.
I never know how to gauge a movie early,or get a feel for it,in most cases.With that in mind,a few quick notes.
The first half hour was gripping.The vulnerability of each soldier returning home was felt.
The next thing I wrote down was how impressed I was with the women's characters.They seemed to be sharper,more interesting people than the men.Myrna Loy was humorous and smart.
As the movie progressed,I found myself rooting for the guys to find some happiness,but the actress'roles were the more memorable.
Later,the staring scene between Fred and Al at the bar was unique in movie history.The camera didn't move and neither did the two characters,as Fred was told,by Al,to stay away from Al's daughter.
I thought several times,throughout the film,about how much respect the white male characters were treated with by the film makers:hard working,perseverant and good people.Fast forward 72 years,are there ANY whites in TV and movies given similar respect?Most of the traits I see whites being allowed to have in 2018,are as incompetent fools,buffoons to be the dupes of "in control" black characters.
As I mentioned previously,these movies show a different country than we have now,in so many ways.We were an America then--that was white--and a country at its peak.
Look what's happened to us now..I wistfully remember when we WERE great,not so long ago--and it WAS because we were 90-95% white.
(Thanks for the reminder that this film was on Monday night btw).
--GR Anonymous