Friday, April 16, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Veterans returning from World War II faced difficulties adjusting back to normal life. Huh. All this time I thought only 'nam vets had that problem.

This story documents three returning vets, a crippled young sailor unsure how his handicap will be received by his family and girlfriend, an older flier who seems to not have many skills apart from bombing, and an older Sargent who barely recognizes his own kids. The three meet when they share a transport plane home.

Homer Parrish is a sailor who's hands were burned off in a fire during WWII while doing a training exercise. He was played by Harold Russell, who's hands were burned off in a fire during WWII while doing a training exercise. Funny how life imitates art ... or is the other way around? Despite not being able to act, Russell won two awards for the same role.

Homer has two hooks for hands and gets very upset when everyone looks at him funny. Cathy O'Donnell, his equal as an actor, plays girlfriend Wilma. Hoagy Carmichael plays his uncle Butch. Homer copes by getting blind, stinking drunk.

Dana Andrews is officer war hero Fred Derry. He was a big shot in the war but now learns he has no marketable skills on the outside. To make matters worse, the hoochie mama wife of his (Virginia Mayo, who went on to marry Cody Jarrett) doesn't see the point in being married to a war hero if she can't parade him around town every night of the week. Ah, trouble in paradise. Derry copes by getting blind, stinking drunk and making passes at girls much to young for him.

Fredric March is Sargent Al Stephenson, banker. He returns to the bank to learn that his new job is to deny loans to servicemen. He has two children, the forgettable Rob and the hot Peggy (Teresa Wright). His wife is played by Myrna Loy, who earned the nickname The Perfect Wife because of this role. In real life Myrna was married and divorced four times and never had children. Myrna had top billing because she was considered the greatest female actor of all time. Al copes by getting blind, stinking drunk.

This movie reminds me a little of Cavalcade (1933) in that the subject matter touched a nerve with the audience. But unlike Cavalcade, The Best Years of Our Lives stands up to the test of time. The acting was better, the script was better, the subject matter was better, it was all around better storytelling. Seldom in old movies do you see an unflinching treatment with something like a disabled veteran. Russell's handicap was in no way glossed over.

Also touched on is the controversy of using atomic weapons and conspiracy theories about the war. They had the luxury to touch on these topics as the movie was over two hours 45 in length. For scheduling reasons I had to watch it in two separate segments a day apart, but the movie never dragged. In addition to Best Picture, it also won the academy award for best actor, supporting actor, director, editing, music, and writing. It was also nominated for best sound. I give it an AMRU of 3.5.

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