Saturday, November 21, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946)

Scene from The Best Years of Our Lives
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

The Best Years of Our Lives
Release Date: November 21, 1946
Director: William Wyler
Written By: Robert E. Sherwood (Screenplay), MacKinlay Kantor (Book)
Starring: Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy
Genre: Drama, Romance, War
Running Time: 172 minutes

Oscar Wins: 7
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (Fredric March)
-Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 1
-Best Sound

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Henry V
-It's a Wonderful Life
-The Razor's Edge
-The Yearling

And the winner is...

Cinema is a medium that is known for capturing images of a time, creating thought provoking images to make audiences laugh, cry, or yell. The best of films can do all of these over the course of 90 minutes or longer. In the case of director William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, the side effects of war are captured in one of the most truthful and powerful ways possible. With a mix of Hollywood actors and real life veterans, the film is a unique experience not only because of its release being so close to World War II, but that it humanizes and brings to light an experience that many were going through, but few outside of close families knew about. If it isn't the best war film, it is definitely up there. Nothing comes close to the piercing vulnerability on display in The Best Years of Our Lives, which may be about the 40's, but continues to feel true about other veterans of the past 70 years.

It's important to remember what was going on in 1946 when this film was released. World War II had just ended in September of the previous year. Veterans were starting to transition back into regular living. While films like All Quiet on the Western Front and Cavalcade showed war in an unflattering light, nobody was quite prepared for the side effects of WWII: a conflict so damaging that it's been one of the most singular sources of movie influence since day one. The Academy was also in the swing of "message movies" winning Best Picture, including The Lost Weekend. Among the more noteworthy ones was Wyler's Mrs. Miniver, which turned a British homestead into the front row seat for citizen bombings. Its imagery is among the most powerful in any WWII film, especially with it being released during said conflict. While The Best Years of Our Lives was Wyler returning to WWII, he wasn't the one who came up with an idea to make it.

The idea actually came from producer Samuel Goldwyn. As he was reading a Time article about how veterans were having trouble adjusting to regular life. It was later turned into the book "Glory for Me." He jumped on the opportunity to make it, considering it his duty to do it right. It was later that he decided to turn to Wyler, of whom not only made war films - he was actually in combat. Well, not exactly "in combat," but he was involved with documenting various air strikes. During one, he suffered an attack that caused some of his hearing to disappear. From there, it was decided that the film would be a mixed affair, using both Hollywood actors and actual veterans in various supporting roles. The film featured Myrna Loy, who was top billed because she was the most popular actress of the era. Considering that her male co-stars were more central to the plot, it seems funny to look back on this little billing snafu. Much like Wyler's time in the war, he intended to shoot it as realistic and in documentary fashion as he could.

It is impossible to talk about the legacy of The Best Years of Our Lives without noticing Harold Russell. Unlike Fredric March and Dana Andrews, he was not an actor by trade. Wyler noticed him in the documentary Diary of a Sergeant. He was a soldier whose arms were destroyed in combat, thus replacing them with hooks. Wyler initially wanted this character to have a severe PTSD condition. However, Russell's condition caused him to alter the role entirely. While many on set were initially distant from Russell due to his odd appearance, the veteran would touch them with his hooks in order to show how insignificant and harmless they actually were. Scenes like this would appear in the movie with powerful, dramatic effect in moments that often surpassed the charisma of the professional actors. He was can also be seen flubbing his lines towards the end in a wedding scene. While unintentional, Wyler loved the take and naturalism and kept it in the film.

One of the film's most noteworthy features was its use of deep focus. This means that everything in the frame, even far away, was in clear focus. This is most prevalent in the third act in a scene where Dana Andrews visits a graveyard for old war planes. The site was used during the actual war, but was used as a place to store dead B-17 and B-25 bombers. The plane that Andrews used was washed down and covered in dirt to assure that it would look rustic. While it serves as perfect symbolism for what Wyler was going for, it also felt a little close to home for him. During WWII, Wyler often shot footage on B-17 planes.

The film was an immediate success. In 1946, it became the most successful film release since Gone With the Wind only seven years prior. The reviews were expectantly ecstatic. The film sold millions in ticket sales, eventually earning $23 million in its initial run. During a rerelease in 1954, the film was billed as "The Most Honored Film of All Time" and featured a wide array in attendance, including various government officials from the Supreme Court, as well as 24 senators. Even eight years after its release, it managed to rake in a profit equivalent to a new release, thus showing its lasting impact on society during the time. While this ended up going well for Goldwyn and Wyler, the two never worked together again citing creative differences.

As one could expect with such a successful film, it showed up rather impressively at the Oscars that following year. However, the advertisements falsely claim that the film won eight Oscars total. In reality, it technically won seven. Why is this? It's because of Harold Russell, of whom was running in the Best Supporting Actor category, but wasn't the favorite to win. In order to hedge their bets, The Academy rewarded Russell an Honorary Oscar for his brave and vulnerable portrayal of a soldier. In an odd twist, Russell ended up winning his competitive Oscar as well. This places him as the only actor in history to have won for the same role twice in one year. Not bad for someone who once was reprimanded by Wyler when Goldwyn tried to put him into acting classes. While the film did well, Wyler was upset about the Best Original Score win for Hugo Friedhofer, of which he felt was just an awful piece of music.

The Best Years of Our Lives came during The Academy's message period. While not the first, it was one of the best during this time to have critical messages on current events. Later films like Gentleman's Agreement and All the King's Men continued to explore socially relevant issues. One of the things that the war epic inspired was a new portrait of the soldier. Where films like Sergeant York depicted soldiers as flawless heroes, The Best Years of Our Lives inspired films to show soldiers as more flawed, feeling repercussions of their service. The most bold thing of all is that Wyler's film depicted American society not as the "Support the Troops" mold that remains popular, but as misunderstanding and occasionally cruel. It is the reason that the film unfortunately still feels relevant, and why films - specifically during the Vietnam War era - were more dour and self-reflective. It's hard to imagine a world where The Best Years of Our Lives didn't at least pave the way for films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. In fact, it is likely that the public conversation wouldn't have evolved without Wyler's film.

Among the many war films, The Best Years of Our Lives is one that works largely because of its honesty. Yes, the events at times could be drastic and depressing. However, it has served as one of cinema's rare financially successful films strictly about PTSD. Even if we continue to honor veterans on Veterans Day or Memorial Day, they still exist for the other days of the year. This film shows that while we respect them, maybe we should reconsider how we treat them on a day to day basis. Wyler's work about WWII is some of the best from its era, largely because he experienced it firsthand, sacrificing his hearing in the process. Even with stunt casting, the film feels real and without gimmick. What is onscreen is something beautiful and thought provoking in ways that most winners aren't. It's a film about humanity after tragedy, and how it's hard to live with the guilt. 

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