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Fredric March

 
 
 
   
             
          
 
 

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES

                   
 

RKO, 1946.  Directed by William Wyler.  Camera:  Gregg Toland.  With Dana Andrews, Fredric March, Harold Russell, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Roman Bohnen, Gladys George, Cathy O'Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, Ray Collins, Steve Cochran, Minna Gombell.

It was appropriate and heartening that the first important post-war Hollywood film was a mature, engrossing drama about the return of servicemen to civilian life, a familiar cross-section estimation of the ways in which representatives of three significant types phase out of their war-conditioned thinking and back to standard peacetime frames of mind.  The film was William Wyler's perceptive The Best Years of Our Lives, from a screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood, which Samuel Goldwyn produced.  At the time it was released in November 1946, this impulsively sympathetic picture of servicemen home from the war was fully and accurately reflective of the sentiments and ethos of the times—so much so that it was warmly hailed by critics of all persuasions as the best picture of the year and was quickly inflated by the public into a big box-office hit.

It tells of three men of different ages, social backgrounds and military roles who return to the same home town together and, in their various ways, face the difficulties of readjustment that their separate circumstances impose.  The eldest is a graying Army sergeant who had been a successful banker before the war and is returning to a wife, two full-grown children and a comfortable banking job, but whose capitalistic concepts have been jolted by his leveling experiences.  Next is an Air Force captain, a much-decorated bombardier, who had been a mere drugstore soda jerk before going away to war; he is returning to a virtually unknown bride he had married just before he was shipped abroad and to the realization that he has no education for anything but jerking sodas and dropping bombs.  And the youngest is a former high-school student who serves as a Navy machinist's mate and has lost both hands in an explosion; they were replaced with mechanical hands, or "hooks."

Wyler, who had been a colonel in the Air Force and had been chief of the unit that made the excellent Eighth Air Force documentary, The Memphis Belle, had seen an Army-made film called Diary of a Sergeant, which gave a stringently factual picture of how a paratroop sergeant who had lost both hands in a dynamite explosion had been outfitted with such "hooks" and trained to use them so that he could perform most of the manual functions of a normal person.  Then he discovered that the amputee was a young man named Harold Russell who, though not a professional actor, was so right in appearance for the role and so eager to take it that he persuaded Sherwood and Goldwyn to let him sign Russell.

The move was providential, for a major climactic scene is one in which the troubled sailor demonstrates in literal detail to his girl, the high-school sweetheart whose reaction to his injury he most profoundly dreads, how he has to get out of his harness every night when he goes to bed and thus be rendered helpless and perhaps physically repulsive to her.  This scene, with its accumulated tension of uncertainty between the boy and the girl and its simply stated realization of their mutual discomfort, was one of the most affecting and compelling at the time the film was released.  It gained an undoubted accretion of emotional impact and sympathy from audience awareness that Russell was a veteran and a genuine amputee.  Thus did Wyler sustain, even briefly, his feeling, acquired while making The Memphis Belle, that some of the most convincing screen behavior could be got from people not trained to perform.

The Best Years of Our Lives is essentially a drama of the isolation and reserve of the returning veteran.  It recollects and clarifies how he resists casting off his attachment to the service and the security it gave, and a bit about how the homefolk either help or resist him.

The psychological dilemma is superbly stated in the opening scene of the three men hitching a ride back to their home town in a retiring Air Force bomber.  Here they are, clustered together in the Plexiglas nose of the plane, nervous and excited, still very much servicemen feeling themselves apart and alienated from the people at home.  They are intensely and volubly conscious of their separateness and inwardly scared of their own individual capacities to face up to "rehabilitation."  Though they talk a bit too glibly and boastfully of their desires to get out of their uniforms and again be normal, inconspicuous civilians, they fear the transition.  Everything they do and say betrays their impulse to hang onto their distinctions, to the codes and esprit of the military caste, and signifies their skepticism toward the civilian frame of mind.

In this excellent scene in the bomber, we are quickly introduced to our men:  Al, the most articulate, a sharp and sardonic older guy, played with appropriate ostentation and just the right shade of insecurity by Fredric March; Fred, the bombardier, whom Dana Andrews endows with a flat, formless voice and an air of reserve that barely cover his bristling watchfulness and instability; and Homer, played by Russell with an appealingly boyish clumsiness that makes all the more impressive the dexterity he displays with his "hooks."

It is remarkable how shrewdly Wyler and Sherwood have constructed the film to keep impressing by visual data the lonely isolation of these men-by showing their detachment and aloofness as they peer from the nose of the plane as it approaches their town, spotting landmarks, noting people playing golf on the local course "as though nothing had happened," sighting an unfamiliar "graveyard" for junked planes; and then by recording their amazement as they ride through town in a taxicab, catching significant changes:  a used-car lot, a bunch of reckless kids riding in jalopies, a new neon sign on Butch's place, the bar run by Homer's uncle which is to be their later place of rendezvous.

Indicative of the obstructions each man has to surmount are the discomfort and embarrassment each feels within a few hours after getting home.  Homer can't endure sitting sweetly and talking with his parents and his expected father-in-law, who is blunt and insensitive in referring to his handicap and his limited prospects for a job.  Al is confused by his wife and daughter and miffed that his high-school son is politely but firmly uninterested in the war souvenirs he has brought home.  Fred has been unable to locate his wife.  Soon they have all gravitated to the masculine sanctuary of Butch's bar, seeking that place designated as a familiar haven for lonely servicemen—even though Al, in his confusion, does bring his wife and daughter along.

It is interesting and provocative that Al is the heaviest drinker of the lot, that he starts within a few minutes after he gets home and is sloppily drunk by the time they reach Butch's bar.  One begins to wonder about his relation to his wife and his environment before he left - whether possibly he went into the service because he was restless, bored; whether maybe he enjoyed his greatest sense of "belonging" in the service, and that's why he is loath to give it up.

The constant refrain is the reluctance of the serviceman to take up where he left off, to resume his previous status and function in his environment.  Invariably he feels that his experience has changed his outlook and privileges.  Homer has lost motivation.  He isn't interested in looking for a job.  He feels that his disability entitles him to live on a pension of $100 a month.  Al resists the urging of the bank president to return to his old job.  Scornfully, he mocks the cruel compulsion:  "Last year it was 'kill Japs,' this year it's 'make money.' " And when he does settle back into harness in charge of the small loans department at the bank, his crucial gesture of defiance is to give a small loan, without collateral, to a sturdy young former Seabee who wants to buy a farm.

Fred's resistance is tougher, more complex and justified.  He doesn't want to go back to being a soda jerk in the now chain-controlled drugstore and jimcrack novelty emporium where he used to work.  He feels that his experience and his service as a warrior qualify him for more.  But he does go back, on the pretext of being an assistant manager filling in at the old job, until he finally takes a poke at a customer who talks scornfully about the worthiness of the war.

Worse for him, however, is the fact that his "war bride" wife has little respect for him and, indeed, finds him unromantic out of uniform.  She cheats on him with another fellow and eventually demands a divorce.

But his hardest and most discouraging letdown is when his supposed friend Al, now returned to normal, puts him in his place by ordering him to stay away from his daughter, whom Fred has been seeing fitfully since that first night home, when she soothed him and showed him sympathy.  One of the strongest scenes in the picture is one in Butch's bar, when Al, suddenly very bourgeois, brutally puts it on the line:  "I want my daughter to marry a decent guy."  And then, in a stunning composition, we see Fred in a telephone booth at the end of the room, calling the daughter to tell her he will not see her again, while Al stands in the foreground by the piano, watching Homer, accompanied by his uncle, play "Chopsticks" with his "hooks."  All the irony of the dissolution of the service man's esprit is in this one shot.

Then the nadir of Fred's self-pity and desolation is conveyed in a memorable scene in which he wanders, on the verge of leaving town, through the "graveyard" of old junked bombers, standing stripped and forlorn, waiting for the junkman's sledgehammer, symbols of a glory that is gone.  He climbs into the nose of a dead B-17 bomber and all the anguish of his lot comes over him.  That is to say, it comes over the viewer, who is feeling with him.  It is a poetic evocation of valorous and proud memories, and it sums up the evanescence of the wartime repute of the serviceman.

This is, indeed, the climax and ultimate statement of the film.  Al has accomplished his transition by making that unsecured loan to an ex-Seabee and then telling his skeptical associates at a welcome-home dinner that we didn't win battles in the Pacific by first demanding collateral.  That is enough propitiation for his shallow sense of rectitude.  Homer has shown his sweetheart what it will mean to endure a man with "hooks," and has received her gentle reassurance.  Evidently he has crossed his bridge.

But Fred is the one left hanging.  He is the one revealed as having reached a peak in the service that he will never come up to again.  And we know he won't, despite an effort by Sherwood and Wyler to force a happy prospect for him by giving him a small job with the junkman and making it look as though Al's daughter will "wait for him."  We know he's the sort of fellow who truly had his "best years" in the war.  It is too bad the ending of the picture is not that last shot of him in the junked plane.

Because he has the best role, the most forthright and meaningful, Dana Andrews is privileged to give the best performance in the film.  His Fred is a poignant reflection of simple virtues and complex weaknesses, a clear and classic victim of the forces of an ironic fate.  Ironically, his performance was the one that was not recognized by the Academy Awards.  Fredric March as Al is excellent as what he was not first recognized to be—a voluble, superficial, two-faced mediocrity.  His basic insincerity and fraudulence are aptly camouflaged by characteristic clowning and delivery of glib, colloquial lines.

Wyler aptly used Gregg Toland's camera to get the texture and tone of the American scene, and some very effective implications are in Hugo Friedhofer's musical score.

Later films were to look further into particular problems of ex-servicemen.  Edward Dymtryk's Crossfire (1947) is about a veteran faced with anti-Semitic prejudice.  Stanley Kramer's Home of the Brave (1949) is about a Negro soldier who becomes psychopathic because of the manner in which he is abused.  But first and most extensive is The Best Years of Our Lives.  It is a moving, valuable addenda to the cinema's body of contemplations of the consequences of war.

The Great Films, by Bosley Crowther
G.P. Putnam's Sons,
New York, 1967

More detailed information about this film is available from
the AFI Catalog of Feature Films at
AFI.com, or by clicking here.