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Best Years of Our Lives

As World War II ended, those who fought and won the war returned home, and the war years, which saw Hollywood produce one war movie after another (a few of them even good) gave way to a movie about those who came home. The Oscar winner for best picture from 1946 is The Best Years of Our Lives.

Three veterans return home from overseas to fictional Boone City, and struggle to get used to life out of the military. Dana Andrews plays Fred Derry, a bombardier Captain returning home to his parents and the woman he married just days before shipping out. Fredrick March plays Al Stephenson, a sergeant who had been stationed in the Pacific, and is returning to his wife and two kids. Harold Russell plays a young sailor named Homer Parish who lost both hands when the aircraft carrier he was stationed on sank.

All three quickly find out the postwar life was not what they expected. Fred discovers that his wife has been working at a nightclub and the drugstore where he once worked has been taken over by a chain. He gets his job back, working under the guy who used to work under him. He also faces the trouble of his wife who wants to go out to the clubs and bars every night, which they can hardly afford.

For Al, he settles back in at the bank, as a loan officer administering GI Bill loans to other returning veterans. After giving a loan to a former soldier who has no collateral and getting drunk at a company dinner, the threat of losing his job constantly hangs over him.

For Homer the problems are even worse. Everyone walks around on eggshells near him because he now has two hooks instead of hands, but the walking around on eggshells only makes him more conscious of his disability. He also had promised to marry his girlfriend Wilma, but now her parents are hoping to send her away so that sheíll forget about him.

Things get even more complicated when Alís daughter Peggy falls in love with Fred. She suggests a double date as a way to meet Fredís wife, hoping that sheíll respect Mrs. Derry so much she wouldnít want to break up the marriage. Unfortunately she finds out that Fredís wife is not the sort of person she could like at all, which makes her feelings for Fred even greater.

This is a very good movie, but much weaker than many other winners from this decade. The script tries to focus equally on all three veterans, but often it follows Al and Fred and gives short shrift to Homer. There is also the odd plot point of concern that the economy will soon falter, even though it actually boomed in the postwar years.

Most of the movies that have won best picture have featured excellent acting, but this one doesnít. Most of the performances are average, or even slightly below average. Even Myrna Loy, who plays Alís wife, seems to be going through the motions. Michael Hall, who plays Alís teenage son, seems to be reading lines off of a cue card which he has never seen before. This is really what makes Russellís performance stand out. Russell was a soldier who really did lose both hands in a munitions accident in 1943. Before this he had never acted before, and other than a handful of bit parts would never act again. But his performance here stands out as one of the best in the movie, and even won him an Oscar for best supporting actor. He won an honorary award "for bringing hope and courage to fellow veterans" too, because the academy didnít think he would win. He is the only person to win two Oscars for the same role in the same movie. In many ways his scenes are the most powerful. The last half of the movie is nothing more than a love triangle with Fred, while Homer has the most memorable scene in the movie, when he shows Wilma how difficult it is for him to get ready for bed, taking off the hooks for the first time in the movie.

As many great war movies as there have been, not many have dealt with the troubles of soldiers returning from war. Someone did a few years later and won the big prize for it, and that one is much better than this. There is a good movie somewhere in here. I did like the aspect of Derry, the Captain, being outranked so to speak in civilian life by the former sergeant Al. However not a whole lot is done with this and the matter is soon dropped. There is even a nice scene near the end where Fredís parents reading the letter that came with one of Fredís metals and realizing exactly what their son had accomplished in the military. However there is nothing to set this up, no scene where Fred tells them he would rather not talk about it. It stands alone, as a resolution to a crisis which never existed in the first place. Meanwhile the script hints at Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome for Fred and Homer, but there is no further mention of this either.

Other movies up for the Oscar included The Yearling and Itís a Wonderful Life which were just too campy for me and Henry V, a Shakespearean adaptation from Lawrence Olivier, two years before he won a whole slew of awards for his film version of Hamlet. As weak as The Best Years of Our Lives is, the field as a whole that year was just as bad. Itís a Wonderful Life is a nice little movie, but itís not the kind of thing they should hand out a statue for. And yet itís almost as good as The Best Years of Our Lives. Almost, but not quite.


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