In 1946 the war was over and service men and women had returned home to their families and the lives they left behind. The Best Years of Our Lives paints a picture of the challenges they faced.
Harold Russell plays a wounded war vet Homer Parish. Russell was an actual wounded war vet having lost both his hand when he was an Army instructor training on diffusing a bomb. As a result he had hooks for hands.
Homer and two other war veterans, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Al Stephenson (Fredric March), fly together unsure of what to expect as they return home.
Their home town of Boone City, Ohio has changed a lot while they were gone and the three men struggle to adjust to life after the war.
The writing is a bit stilted and the story quite maudlin. But there are a few good lines of dialogue along the way.
I can imagine that the appeal of this film was how it addressed the social issues the nation was dealing with after the war. Veterans returned home and found it difficult to enter back into the lives they left behind. They weren’t the same men who left and the horrors they faced weren’t easy to shake.
But it’s paint-by-numbers, obvious and predictable. What it lacks it subtlety it makes up for with superficiality.
The soundtrack is partly to blame. The Oscar-winning score (!) has frequent moments of cheesy, over-the-top music queues emphasizing comedy or sentimentality. For example, on multiple occasions when we are shown a group of children the music literally plays a “nana nana boo boo” melody line.
Harold Russell’s Oscar for supporting actor is both mysterious and obvious. Homer is supposedly from this Cincinnati-type of town in Ohio but his Massachusetts accent is thick and his delivery is wooden. But as a picture of courage and hope for his fellow veterans there was no way the Academy wasn’t going to honor him. In fact, they hedged their bets by giving him an honorary Oscar just in case he didn’t win making him the only person to receive two Oscars for the same performance. But as subpar as his performance was, he’s Laurence Olivier compared to some of the other supporting characters.
About 2 hours and 15 minutes in (which felt more like 5 hours) the already heavy-handed script dials up the schmaltz with a presentation of “Plot Convenience Playhouse” sponsored by your friends at Deus ex Machina.
But there are some bright spots in this film as well. Fredric March won the Oscar for a really nice performance in this film. His character Al drinks to help his transition back to civilian life. Where Ray Milland gave a raw, gritty performance the year before in The Lost Weekend, March plays his intoxication as a light-hearted, silly drunk. Myrna Loy, Virginia Mayo and Teresa Wright are solid even if unremarkable.
Pianist and composer Hoagy Carmichael plays Homer’s Uncle Butch, the proprietor of a local watering hole playing a few numbers throughout the film. Carmichael is best known for composing classics such as “Stardust,” “Georgia on My Mind” and “Heart and Soul,” the latter of which he plays in the film.
And there’s some nice cinematography. When the three men first arrive in Boone City there’s a neat trick with the rearview mirror and some great shots providing strong symbolism toward the end.
The film devotes a lot of time to showing off Russell’s ability to use his hooks to do things like write his name, light matches, shoot a rifle, drink a glass of beer, play piano, eat a chocolate sundae and so on. It’s as if the film makers thought that a central purpose of the movie was to answer the audience’s questions about how a guy with hooks for hands does things.
“How does he eat fried chicken?”
“What about pouring milk?”
“Can he open a door?”
And maybe there was a value in that to demystify the amputee. There’s a scene near the end with where Homer demonstrates to his fiancée Wilma how he removes his hook harnesses and puts on his pajama top. It’s a sweet moment which I suspect had the audience in tears.
When Homer and Wilma wed we are shown their entire wedding ceremony. Not a single moment is left out. The emphasis on their hands and rings is just another in the long line of things William Wyler thought we needed to see.
I think the concept of this story is interesting. How do three men from three different service branches and three different walks of life adjust to their lives back in the same town?
But the execution misses far more than it hits.