Transparency of Style: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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The Academy Awards present what Hollywood considers its best face to the world. Never an objective measure of artistic accomplishment, if such a thing is even possible, it instead functions as a self-justification that the almighty dollar doesn’t decide their every decision. Any self-serious title has a shot at the gold, so it’s only through luck or strong-arm tactics that historically significant work is awarded. Instead of bemoaning the unearned influence of the awards, or the value of this year’s nominations, I’m devoting space to one of those rare, remarkable Best Picture winners, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Released late last year in a richly detailed Blu-Ray transfer from Warner Brothers, it is a patient, empathetic examination of soldiers re-entering American society following WWII. In its even lighting, off-the-rack costuming and deep focus long takes, Andre Bazin found “the perfect neutrality and transparency of style”.

Director William Wyler was a serviceman for three years, as part of the Eighth Air Force Technical Training Unit, whose orders were to produce films for “public morale and education” and capture “events of historical value.” He accompanied bombing raids from England into Western Europe, filming as much as he could. His technical crew was exposed to the same dangers as the pilots, and Wyler’s sound man Harold Tannenbaum was killed after his B-24 Bomber was gunned down over Brest, France. Wyler grew fond of his crew mates, writing at the time, “they’re the most alert, most alive and most stimulating group of young men I’ve ever met.”  This footage was edited into his War Department documentary about the Memphis Belle bomber, which occasioned the first front page film review in the NY Times’ history (“thorough and vivid”, Bosley Crowther wrote).

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After the war Wyler formed Liberty Films with fellow veterans and filmmakers Frank Capra, George Stevens and Samuel Briskin. But before starting out on this new venture, Samuel Goldwyn convinced him to sign on to make The Best Years of Our Lives for his production company. Goldwyn became interested in the project  in 1944, after his wife Frances recommended a Time Magazine story entitled, “The Way Home”, about soldiers re-adjusting to civilian life. He hired MacKinlay Kantor to write a treatment, now titled “Home Again”, and he produced 100 pages of blank verse that eventually turned into the novel Glory For Me (1945). His treatment was thoroughly re-worked by Robert Sherwood, who wrote the shooting script with input from Goldwyn and Wyler. A major change from treatment to script was the transformation of the disabled character, Homer, from a spastic into an amputee. Wyler saw Harold Russell in an educational short, “Diary of a Sergeant”,  who displayed impressive dexterity with his prosthetic hands, after losing both in a 1944 training accident. The non-professional Russell was cast in the film, and would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work, which he would later sell in 1992 for over $60,000.

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The script follows Homer (Russell), Al (Fredric March) and Fred (Dana Andrews) as they return to their old lives in Boone City, a fictional Midwestern city modeled on Cincinnati. Homer is a sweet, innocent kid who wants to be treated as a normal joe, but is tormented by how his disability unsettles those around him. People subtly shift the direction of their glances and adjust their bodies, Homer’s hooks displacing the normal flow of social intercourse. Bazin writes that “Almost all Wyler’s shots are built like an equation, or perhaps better, like a like a dramatic mechanism whose parallelogram of forces can almost be drawn in geometrical lines.” In these early scenes Homer is expelling force, not gathering it. Sensitive to these disruptions, he avoids his high school sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) for fear she will marry him for pity rather than love. Fred, a much-decorated Air Force Captain, is busted down to an under-employed working man once he’s back in civilian clothes, a glum perfume jockey at a department store – one that swallowed up the soda joint from his youth. He got married a week before shipping out, and his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) acts like they were never hitched. She’s an underwritten nightclub gal, a thrill-seeking golddigger that’s more of a plot point than a character. She is contrasted against Peggy (Teresa Wright), the no-fuss nurse who falls in love with Fred. Al is Peggy’s father, an Army Sergeant who has the cushiest re-entry, with a stable bank job and a loving (if strained) marriage.

Wyler felt he “knew these people”, and spent the production searching for a lucid realism. Today “realism” invokes images of a handheld camera bobbing around the streets of Italy, but Wyler was not after neorealism’s immediacy, but the power of Hollywood technology to create maximum legibility. In Citizen Kane Gregg Toland’s deep focus is maximal, the chiaroscuro and canted angles touches reflecting Kane’s deteriorating psyche. In The Best Years of Our Lives Wyler wanted “a realism that would be as simple as possible.” One that “could follow an action to its end without cutting. The resulting continuity makes the shots more alive, more interesting for the viewer, who can choose of his own will to study a particular character and who can make his own cuts.”

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In many ways Wyler was after the one-shot tableaus of early cinema and the Lumieres, only with more depth of field. This strategy emphasizes groupings and separations, weighing each side of the screen. Imbalances in composition undergird those of the characters, whether it’s the panopticon perch of the department store manager overlooking Fred in the extreme distance, or the famous unbalanced shot of Fred in the far left background (phoning Peggy that he can’t see her anymore) and of Al watching Homer play chopsticks on the piano with his Uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael). This sequence is emblematic of Wyler’s process of reduction – hiding an important plot point in the back of the frame while the soundtrack and visual cues direct the eye to the piano, creating tension without need for cross-cutting. That scene marks a temporary fissure in the servicemen’s friendship, initially composed in a tight clump of three aboard the plane to Boone City. They are reunited in another unbalanced composition, a mass of wedding revelers embrace to the right, while a glance from Fred to Peggy connect fore and background in Wyler’s geometric and deeply moving film.

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13 Responses Transparency of Style: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Posted By Susan Doll : January 21, 2014 7:36 pm

Nice piece on one of my favorite movies.

Posted By kingrat : January 21, 2014 8:47 pm

Thank you, Emmet, for a lovely article. I couldn’t agree more that this is one of the best films ever to win an Oscar for Best Picture.

In the first scene Wyler shows us the three men looking out of the plane, and this looking through glass becomes a motif. There’s the shot you mentioned, of looking out through the drug store office window on the second floor; Teresa Wright staying in the car while we watch with her as Dana Andrews tries to get into his apartment building; and the brilliantly shot scene in the ladies room with the three-sided mirror. In the telephone booth scene Wyler plays with audience expectations and anxieties just as Hitchcock does, but in a different genre with different methods.

Posted By Martha C : January 22, 2014 3:34 am

Just love this movie…so understated and thoughtful.

Posted By Richard Brandt : January 22, 2014 6:59 am

Rewatching this film I found it interesting that each of the main characters represented a different social milieu: Al runs with the country club set, Homer is from suburban Middle America, and Fred’s boyhood home is clearly on the wrong side of the tracks. War brings together men from disparate backgrounds who otherwise might never have anything to say to each other (and I doubt that Al would have the additude he shows towards the returning serviceman seeking a loan without having that shared experience).

Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : January 22, 2014 11:15 am

Have to confess, that i just watch this movie for the first time,
via the Warner blu-ray. What a great film.
Even if the men and there familys have to suffer and go through
some hard times, it´s not a depressing movie.
Cause these people really care for each other, and we for them.
Don´t know what made me wait so long to watch this.

Posted By Jenni : January 22, 2014 1:28 pm

A wonderful film,no doubt about it. My husband is not as big of a movie fan as I am, but this is one of his favorites. A small nitpick, but I don’t remember Teresa Wright’s character being a nurse but a college student?

Richard’s comment above is correct. Our son is in the Marines, about to get out and go on to college. Higher education may think they bring together folks from different backgrounds but it’s really the military that does it, bringing these folks together where they really have to work together.

Posted By Marty : January 22, 2014 3:11 pm

The first time I watched TBYOOL I was a probably 12 and it ran late one Saturday evening on the Schaefer Award Theater on WCBS in New York. Even at that age, I was riveted to the screen.As I sat there watching with my parents, I asked them was it really like this? My father went into the Navy in 42 and came out in 46.
He said the story of those three men was the story of the entire country. That night and that conversation cemented this picture’s place in my heart as the best movie.

As the years have gone by, I have never tired of watching this picture and with each viewing, my affection for it deepens. The actors are so skillful and the lines they speak are so natural and appropriate for their characters and for the interaction of the scene. And one thing more…these actors really look at each other the way we really look at people with whom we are talking.

The excitement of Homer’s little sister as she calls out to everyone that Homer is home and then collapses into his arms never fails to move me to tears. Fred’s nightmare and Peggy tenderly stroking his face with her handkerchief. Al’s speech at the Union Club…so we didn’t take the hill…and we lost the war. Pop Derry’s reading of Fred’s DFC and then the silent realization of his son’s majestic act eventhough he came from less than even humble upbringing.There is a shot of Fred’s back hunched over the bomb site mount in the B-17 after the famous cuts of the empty engine mounts and the push to close-up of him in the blister. That shot of Fred’s back and his posture tells so much about him…here I was something…now I am nothing.

I asked my father and mother, what was it like to see this picture in the theater when it was released. They both said that no picture ever grabbed them or effected an audience so deeply.
When the end titles and music appeared, they said that everyone stood and cheered with tears streaming down their faces.

They said they had seen many great pictures, but THIS was a masterpiece.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : January 22, 2014 4:39 pm

Thank you for the all heartfelt comments about this great film. Marty, your words were especially moving.

Jenni, it’s stated that Teresa Wright’s character worked at a hospital during the war, which is why she is so calm and understanding about Fred’s night terrors. I should have contextualized my statement. She wasn’t a trained nurse, but worked as one during wartime.

Richard – you’re right, the class issue is very elegantly laid out in the movie, thanks for teasing out that part of it.

Posted By Frank Fota : January 22, 2014 7:16 pm

I couldn’t agree more with most of the comments made. A story about and perhaps for wounded warriors before we could adequately deal with their injuries. I wonder if a movie like this could be made today given the political correctness that is rampant in our society. Great look back upon a movie that should see more airplay.

Posted By robbushblog : January 24, 2014 3:13 pm

I believe TCM showed this movie on Memorial Day last year. My whole family was there and I turned it over there, just meaning to catch part of it. My whole family ended up watching the whole movie together. Our tastes vary so differently so it was amazing that everyone sat and watched the whole 3 hour movie. It doesn’t feel 3 hours long either. That’s another amazing thing about it.

The one scene that gets my mom, and it never fails, is when Fredric March gets home, and Myrna Loy knows it’s him and then sees him…my mom cries every single time, and she’s not a big crier. What a great movie.

Posted By MedusaMorlock : January 24, 2014 6:03 pm

Great write-up on a great movie! I’m always half-amazed that Samuel Goldwyn, for all his faults, did seem to be able to back projects that he believed in like this one, resulting in an incredible movie that might have not worked under a bigger studio. It certainly wouldn’t have been an MGM-type movie, maybe a gritty Fox title, not so much Paramount material, maybe WB but it’s definitely perfect under Sam Goldwyn’s banner.

I always love how adult this movie is, adult in dealing with emotions, society, sex — quite matter-of-fact and also quite funny with Al and Milly as they begin their sexual intimacy again — snobbery, opportunity or the lack of it…just so many straight-in-the-eye looks at life with no flinching and no easy answers.

So many favorite scenes and images: the cool cat demeanor of Uncle Butch as he describes the world’s precarious fate; as Marty mentioned above when Fred’s father (so wonderfully played by Roman Bohnen) reads that letter, and indeed the impoverished circumstances in which they live; when Fred puts on the apron and tries to get his cupcake of a wife to make some soup for them, Peggy declaring she’s “going to break up that marriage”…so many brisk moments of truth!

What a movie! It’s so important, so American in the best way, from a different time and talking about ideals that so many here seem to have forgotten, and I don’t mean empty flag-waving of which there is very little to none in the movie.

I also think Hugo Friedhofer deserves a lot of credit for delivering such a magnificent musical score for the movie, and he did get the Oscar.

TBYOOL is one of those movies I watch every time it’s on.

Thanks for writing about this truly great film!

Posted By LD : January 24, 2014 11:32 pm

My favorite scene in TBYOOL is the one between Loy, March, and Wright when Loy’s character is talking about marriage and how one has to have the ability to fall in love with the same person over and over again. This has been my life experience and therefore one of my favorite scenes in cinema.

Posted By george : May 10, 2014 11:37 pm

I’m reading Mark Harris’s superb book, “Five Came Back,” and it fills me with new admiration for Wyler and the other directors whose stories are told (Capra, Ford, Stevens and Huston).

I wish Hollywood had more directors like these: men who wanted to make films with substance and originality, instead of just rehashing last year’s box office hits.

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