For Homer, the change begins before he ever steps foot on American soil. He lost his hands in the line of duty. In place of them are a pair of mechanical hooks. Believing the reception he is going to get from his family members and his girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) will be pity and dismay, he retreats into himself. In the process, he alienates everyone especially Wilma, who deeply loves him. He wants to be treated "just like everybody else" but his self-consciousness and belief that others will only pity him gets in the way.
In the meantime, Al returns to his civilian job as a banker. His military experience makes him partial towards fellow veterans who are seeking small loans, to the displeasure of his superiors. He quickly becomes dissatisfied with his new job and starts drinking heavily. At the same time, a dark cloud looms over his head when Peggy and Fred fall in love with each other. It comes as a one-two punch for Al and Milly not only because Fred is married but also because of Peggy's declaration to "break that marriage up" between Fred and Marie.
Fred himself has difficulty re-adjusting to civilian life. The former soda jerk of the former drugstore is occasionally haunted by memories of war in his sleep, his job at the new mall pays chickenfeed wages next to Marie's nightclub earnings, and his emotional detachment from Marie is rearing its ugly side. Married only after a three-week courtship - a record recently broken by Britney Spears early this year - it is a relationship doomed to fail, especially when there is a 3-year absence between the 3 weeks and the homecoming. As the icing on the cake, Fred finds out that Marie is having an affair.
The Best Years of Our Lives is three interconnecting short stories - Al, Fred and Homer's - in one film. It has all the right workings of themes and emotions to tug at the heartstrings of a post-war audience. Homecoming, re-adjustments to civilian life, loss of youth and innocence, and moving on with life are issues every American, both civilian and veteran, has to deal with immediately after the end of World War II. To say that the film won 7 Oscars because of sentimentality, that the Academy was swept away more by its post-war message than by its artistic merits, is not a stretch. The rest of America felt the same way too, as just about everyone who had experienced the war could relate to it.
The film is also Wyler's last collaboration with cinematographer Gregg Toland, arguably the finest craftsman of his time and who should have received at least a nomination. He realized Wyler's fondness for deep focus photography more than anyone else. In the "break-up" scene, Toland captures in one frame a three-way interplay occuring in Butch's salon: Fred goes into a phone booth to call Peggy (to call off his affair with her) in the background, as Al watches on in the foreground, while at the same time Homer enters the salon. For the ending, Toland photographs Homer's wedding to dual-narrate the re-uniting of Fred and Peggy. It is no wonder Wyler made 6 films with him, more than with any other cinematographer.
Wyler's personal vision is also imprinted in the story. He does not show the full extent of Homer's disability until after Homer invites Wilma into his bedroom. This way, he puts the audience in a position of seeing for the first time - as Wilma is seeing - the 'burden' of trying to get Homer ready for bed, to feel as she feels. Without putting too much attention on Homer's hooks, Homer is another character, who happens to be disabled, rather than a disabled character.
Wyler also knows how to treat an extra-marital affair without drawing offense. Fred and Peggy comsumate their love for each other not by the kiss at the parking lot - that is merely a prelude - but in the photo-taking at the nightclub. The way Fred looks at her when he puts his arm around her, as the photographer snaps their picture, betrays their feelings without any words. As Fred strolls down the airstrip along the rows of de-commissioned military planes, Wyler associates his 'relic' identity with the planes not only by emphasizing their rows of numbers - Toland's deep focus makes it so - but also when he sits inside one in silence while the scene dissolves to his parents reading his testimonial of bravery.
There is no question that the most outstanding performance comes from Harold Russell. A naval veteran in his first acting role, Russell brings a lot of the typical conflicting emotions veterans experience when they lose a limb (or two) in the war. His almost-natural acting, coupled with his real-life disability, boosts his performance on many levels. In addition to an Oscar for his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, he also received another as an Honorary Award "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance (in this film)".
The rest of the cast seem muted compared to Russell, but they have their moments. Best Actor winner Fredric March is brilliantly funny as a drunk Al, with the only other stellar moment being when he confronts Fred about his affiar with Peggy. Myrna Loy, as already mentioned, is fabulous and radiant. O'Donnell and Wright provide good support as the objects of the younger two veterans' affection. So does Hoagy Carmichael as Homer's paternal uncle Butch. Dana Andrews is pretty decent though not remarkable. His 'other half' Virginia Mayo has meatier material, colorful dialogue - including the title line - and a fine, delectable delivery.
It is no surprise that The Best Years of Our Lives earned its place among the classics. More than just a great film, it spoke to people on an intimate level. It addressed issues that everyone during that post-war period was struggling with in some way, shape or form. No wonder it has stood the test of time.
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