Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives: Deep Focus

After achieving victory on both the European and Japanese fronts, it would seem natural that the Academy would give valediction to films that would glorify our country. As it turns out, Oscar had social consciousness on its mind. 1945’s Best Picture—The Lost Weekend—brought with it a raised awareness of social issues (in the case of that film, alcoholism) America was facing post-WWII. The Best Years of Our Lives continued that trend, and it is the first Oscar-winner to deal directly with the return of veterans from a war. In the last of my series comparing 1940’s Oscar winners to the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief, The Best Years of Our Lives is a film with acceptance as its core theme.

After winning his first Best Director Oscar for Mrs. Miniver, William Wyler, like many in Hollywood, served his country during WWII. As a major in the U.S. Army Air Forces, Wyler directed documentaries which served as morale-boosting pieces for the troops as well as illuminate the war to audiences at home. On his best known of the documentaries, Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, his cinematographer was shot down and perished. Wyler was no stranger to combat or the experiences of the armed forces in WWII, and undoubtedly his own experiences as a veteran informed his direction of The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler was still on active detail while making the picture).

The film is a nice bookend to Mrs. Miniver. Where that film sought to spur a latent nation into action by provoking their anger, The Best Years of Our Lives is a sensitive and thoughtful examination of the characters of three veterans who return home from the war. Where Mrs. Miniver unabashedly propagandized, The Best Years of Our Lives uses immense depth of focus on the lives of its characters to evoke emotional responses from audiences.

Wyler collaborates with celebrated cinematographer Gregg Toland (of Citizen Kane fame) to create a realistic portraiture. More than anything, The Best Years of Our Lives is about people. Action plays out on facial expressions and emotions. Toland’s lenses and his celebrated innovations with depth of field capture every detail of the actor’s performances; he is as important to the success of the film as the script and Wyler’s direction. The film has a crisp, austere look that is never too showy. The images are far too crystalline to be considered documentary-esque, but they lend themselves toward a realistic and natural style, allowing the audience to feel like a participant in the drama.

Three actors—Frederic March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell—lead an ensemble cast, and they are the poles between which the film fluctuates. March plays Army Sgt. Al Stephenson, a banker returning to a wife (Myrna Loy, best known as Nora Charles from The Thin Man films, in a marvelous change of pace role—the high mark of her career), and two children—daughter Peggy (Theresa Wright, reuniting with her Mrs. Miniver director) and son Rob (Michael Hall). Andrews is Army Air Forces Captain Fred Derry, a bombardier in the Eight Air Forces who flew in Europe. Fred was married right before he joined the service, and was a soda jerk before the war. Russell lends real-life authenticity playing Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost both of his hands in an explosion on an aircraft carrier. Homer was the football hero growing up, and is returning home to Boone City (the film’s fictional stand-in for Cincinnati, Ohio) a double-amputee. Russell’s real-life prostheses—two fully functional, grasping metal hooks—are incorporated into the character of Homer.

The first scenes of the film allow the three lead actors to share scenes together. One of the themes the film explores is how difficult for veterans to readjust to life at home. Even doing something as catching a plane is a huge obstacle. Al, Fred and Homer meet at an Army Air Corps terminal, where they eventually share a ride in a B-17 bomber home to Boone City. Thrust together on a long trek home, the men form an immediate bond of friendship, though through their conversations, it is revealed that each man is of a different rank and social class (not to mention that each man is about ten years apart from the other, with Al being the elder statesman and Homer the youngest). The script is wise to point out ironies in the status of each man. Fred, as a captain, not only holds the highest rank of the men but he is also the most decorated soldier. Yet at home he is of the low socio-economic class. Al was little more than a grunt as a sergeant, but he is the wealthiest man of the trio. Homer is afforded the cruelest irony. He was a high school football hero, but having lost his hands in an explosion, he will never be able to recapture that glory. Despite that, Homer is the most affable of the three, and Fred and Al do not look down on him because of his injury. In fact, between the three men, class, rank and economic barriers dissolve—they each accept the other for who he is.

When the veterans arrive home in Boone City, they split a cab ride to their respective homes. Homer is dropped off first, though he expresses his fears to Al and Fred that his middle-class family may only look at him as an object of grotesque curiosity. His anxiety is most magnified when he thinks of how his high-school sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Connell) will react when she sees him. Homer suggests that the three men share a drink at Butch Engle’s (Hoagy Carmichael)—a saloon owned and operated by Homer’s uncle. Fred and Al decline, encouraging Homer to face his fears. Upon Homer’s arrival, his family reacts in different ways. His younger sister is ecstatic that her older brother is home, but his parents—while also thrilled—pity him, and his mother sobs uncontrollably when she sees Homer’s hooks, which is the exact reaction Homer most feared. When Wilma sees Homer, she runs to embrace him, but Homer stands stoically, his arms at his side. Al observes, “They [the Navy] couldn’t train him to put his arms around his girl to stroke her hair.”

Later, Homer’s fears become amplified when Wilma’s parents visit the Parrish residence. Before the war, Homer and Wilma were engaged to be married. Since Homer’s accident, he now has mixed feelings about going through with the engagement, especially since he thinks that Wilma could never love a man with hooks instead of hands. His future in-laws ask him about any employment opportunities there are for someone with his “disability”, and suggesting that Homer would make a good insurance salesman because potential customers would take pity on him. Homer drops a glass of lemonade, and then retreats to Butch’s Place to find solace.

Al is dropped off next, and he confides to Fred that he also has considerable fears and misgivings about his reunion. He describes the looming event thusly: “It feels as if I was going to hit a beach.” Once home he surprises Milly, his wife, and is equally surprised to find how much his children have grown. They have changed so much that Al hardly recognizes them. Peggy, his eldest, works as a nurse. Al has brought gifts back for his college freshman son Rob—a samurai sword and a Japanese flag—but Rob is far more interested in quizzing his father about the effects of radiation on the people of Hiroshima (Al was there). Al is flabbergasted to find himself discussing the effects of nuclear warfare with his son. He too, becomes restless, and takes Milly and Peggy on a night on the town. They go barhopping—and Al gets ridiculously drunk in the process, and wind down the evening at Butch’s.

Fred returns home last. He is dropped off at his parents’ home—a ramshackle hovel alongside railroad tracks. Unlike the swank Stephenson apartment or the modest suburban residence of the Parrish family, the Derry residence is immediately indicative of their socioeconomic status. Fred’s parents—stepmother Hortense and drunkard father Pat—admire their son as a war hero (which he most assuredly is) and especially beam at “all those beautiful ribbons” pinned to his uniform. Fred is obviously a bit embarrassed by his parents, and declines to stay for dinner. He only wants to know one thing—the whereabouts of his young bride, Marie (Virginia Mayo). Hortense tells Fred that Marie has moved downtown and supports herself with a job at a nightclub. Fred sets off to find Marie, and he eventually makes his way to Butch’s as well.

At the bar, the three men again immediately begin to feel comfortable around one another. The events I have just described cover the first third of a three hour film, brilliantly executed to show the audience that the first steps Al, Fred, and Homer must take toward their new reality must be in lockstep. These three very different men will each make a journey toward acceptance, and each faces obstacles to overcome.

For Homer, acceptance will come when he realizes that Wilma loves him despite the hooks on his hands. For Al’s readjustment, he simply needs to start accepting that his children have grown up, and when he returns to work at the bank, things are not the same (there is an excellent scene when Al defends a loan have gave to a returning serviceman who did not have sufficient collateral, followed up with a bit later when Al gives a boozy speech at a dinner in his honor decrying his institution’s valuing of profits over people). Fred has the hardest journey. He finds that the more he gets to know Marie, the more she loves the medals on his uniform and material comforts. Although Fred was respected in the military, his skills do not translate into a career that can support his family. Finally, he falls hopelessly in love with Peggy (and she reciprocates his feelings), but the relationship offends Al (who doesn’t want his daughter to accrue a reputation for wrecking marriages), and he casts his true love away. Ultimately, Fred has to look beyond his personal and professional setbacks and accept that he is the master of his own destiny.

There is a sequence in The Best Years of Our Lives that merits extra attention. First is a scene that closes the second act of the film at Butch’s Place. Al has learned of Fred and Peggy’s relationship. By this point in the film, it is clear that Marie doesn’t love Fred, Fred doesn’t love her, and Peggy and Fred are absolutely right for one another. At the bar, Al confronts Fred, and tells him “I don't like the idea of you sneaking around corners to see Peggy, taking her love on a bootleg basis. I give you fair warning. I'm going to do everything I can to keep her away from you, to help her forget about you, and get her married to some decent guy who can make her happy.” Crestfallen, Fred “guarantees” that he will end things with Peggy, not wishing to sour the relationship with a true friend. As Fred slinks off to the phone booth in the back of the bar, Homer enters, and he shows Butch that he is skilled enough with his hooks to play “Chopsticks” on the piano. Cinematographer Toland makes excellent use of deep focus photography in this shot, with the happy faces of Homer, Al and Butch filling the foreground and the small, hunched over and pained figure of Fred in the background in clear focus as he makes the call that will break Peggy’s heart.

After a sequence where a heartbroken Peggy has received Fred’s break-up call, the film follows Fred to his job, where he reluctantly returned to work as a soda jerk. Homer follows him there, and one of Fred’s customer’s asks Homer about his hooks. Homer uses humor to diffuse the situation (“I got sick and tired of that old pair of hands I had. You know, an awful lot of trouble washing them and manicuring my nails. So I traded them in for a pair of these latest models. They work by radar.”), but the customer persists in the conversation, implying that Homer’s sacrifice was in vain, and that the country went to war for the wrong reasons. Fred will not tolerate his friend to be made a pariah, and he demands the customer leave. The argument escalates into a physical confrontation between Homer and the customer, and Fred ends it by socking the man on the jaw, sending him crashing through a glass-covered jewelry display. Fred is fired, and Homer feels responsible. Fred isn’t sorry though and offers this piece of advice: “Take [Wilma] in your arms, and kiss her. Ask her to marry you. Then marry her. Tomorrow if you can get a license that fast. If you want anybody to stand up for you at your wedding...”

This sets up the climax of Homer’s story. That evening, he is confronted by Wilma, who is being persuaded by her parents to forget about Homer. She offers Homer an ultimatum: “Tell me the truth, Homer. Do you want me to forget about you?” He replies: “I want you to be free, Wilma, to live your own life. I don’t want you tied down forever just because you’ve got a kind heart.”

He then asks Wilma to follow him upstairs, hoping to shock her by going through his difficult nightly routine—something only Homer’s father has helped him with—to simply prepare for sleep. Without assistance, he removes his robe, his harness, the halter to which it is attached, the braces, the hooks—and places them on the bed. Homer is then able to wiggle into a pajama top, but not button it. At this point, Wilma—in an act of ultimate compassion—buttons his shirt closed. Threadbare and utterly helpless Homer says:

“This is when I know I'm helpless. My hands are down there on the bed. I can't put them on again without calling to somebody for help. I can't smoke a cigarette or read a book. If that door should blow shut, I can't open it and get out of this room. I'm as dependent as a baby that doesn't know how to get anything except to cry for it. Well, now you know, Wilma. Now you have an idea of what it is. I guess you don't know what to say. It's all right. Go on home. Go away like your family said.”

Instead of recoiling, Wilma tells him, “I know what to say, Homer. I love you and I'm never going to leave you, never.” The scene is one of the most tender and intimate love scenes ever put to film, and it is made all the more potent by the compassionate acting from Russell and O’Connell.

Russell deserves special mention. He actually won two Oscars for the part of Homer Parrish, the only actor ever to be awarded two Oscars for one part. Russell was not a professional actor (which some critics have held against the picture), and was essentially playing himself. Wyler used him because he felt that no actor could bring sufficient authenticity to the role. The Best Years of Our Lives was the clear frontrunner to capture the majority of the Oscars awarded that year, and received several pre-Oscar honors. It was also the biggest box office smash since Gone With the Wind. Despite (or perhaps because of) the film’s popularity, the Academy board of Governors felt that as a non-professional, Russell had no hope of being nominated for his performance. They created a Special Oscar for him, “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans”. As it turned out, Russell was not only nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but won the Oscar to rapturous approval.

The scene with O’Connell sealed his victory. Russell is no mere prop, showing off his prostheses in a robotic fashion. Instead, he draws on his own experiences to create the character of Homer Parrish. During the scene, Russell makes the humor in the scene work (“at least I got my elbows”), expresses doubts, and shows that Homer’s vulnerability comes not from removing his hooks but from the fear of Wilma rejecting him because he will be needed to be cared for like a child for the rest of his life. Yes, Russell (and Wyler) uses his real-life status as a double-amputee to ground his performance in reality, but Russell’s choices as an actor give Homer a soul. It is Russell’s probing, deep focus into character—not his disability—that gives the performance unforgettable emotional weight.

Russell’s performance is matched by the rest of the ensemble. The Best Years of Our Lives is a film where the actors are fully aware of the importance of the material, and they each rise to the occasion, delivering humane, compassionate performances. Compassion is the key to the film. It’s easy to make a film that hugs at heartstrings or goes for an easy cry. The actors here dive into the reality of their characters and uncover real emotions, be it Myrna Loy as Milly, assuaging her heartbroken daughter or Teresa Wright as Peggy, who has utmost faith in the man Fred can become. Even in the smaller parts—such as Gladys George and Roman Bohnen as Fred’s parents—are infused with compassion and humanity. I defy anyone to not feel a swell of pride when watching the scene where Pat reads to Hortense Fred’s citation for a Distinguished Flying Cross, whereupon they learn the full extent of their son’s heroism. If you aren’t fighting tears back by then, a part of your soul must be missing.

Coming to accept a new reality is often the hardest challenge a human being will ever face. At the start of WWII, director Wyler made a film that sought to provoke, to anger its audience into action. By the end of the war, Wyler knew that only through goodness, integrity and compassion could a film—and by extension, the audience—find acceptance with a new world. Values such as goodness, integrity and compassion are often seen as square or too passé to make for an entertaining subject on film. The Best Years of Our Lives is 172 minutes of proof that when done right—with unyielding focus on character and humanity—those square and passé values are rich and fertile grounds for the creation of profound art.


The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Director: William Wyler

Starring: Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Cathy O’Connell, Virginia Mayo, Hoagy Carmichael, Gladys George, Roman Bohnen

Studio: RKO Radio Pictures

Total Oscars: 8 (Best Picture*, Best Director—William Wyler, Best Actor—Frederic March, Best Supporting Actor—Harold Russell, Best Adapted Screenplay—Robert E. Sherwood, Best Editing, Best Score, Dramatic or Comedy Picture**) out of 9 total nominations (Best Sound Recording)

* Producer Samuel Goldwyn was also awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Award at the 1946 Oscars. Goldwyn was a highly prolific and influential producer in Hollywood, his Oscar for The Best Years of Our Lives is his only competitive win.
** Best Score was split into two categories—Dramatic or Comedy Picture and Musical Picture

NEXT BLOG: Gentleman’s Agreement


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Found your appreciation of TBYOOL by chance and read it rivetted. Fine commentary on a landmark film. More than anything he ever did for Welles, Gregg Toland did his best deep focus work in this Wyler film. That sequence you describe at the restaurant is absolutely masterly. All our attention is on Dana Andrews as he makes that call to Teresa Wright. The conversation in the foreground is inconsequential. It's an example of how to make foreground and background in cinematography work seamlessly.

    Thank you, Jonathan, for your essay.