The Best Picture Project – The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Directed by William Wyler

Screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood

Starring Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Harold Russell, Myrna Loy

The Oscars are a cyclical bunch. For a while they lavish awards on movies that aren’t terribly deep, i.e., spectacles- Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, Oliver – only to eventually snap out of it and give awards to more ‘serious’ and ‘earnest’ films, i.e., boring, like Kramer v. Kramer and Ghandi only to fall back into it Forrest Gump and Titanic.

If it came at another time, The Best Years of Our Lives might have been squashed by some piece of spectacle, but fortunately for it, in 1946 the Oscars were ripe to recognize a piece of earnest, not really well written claptrap – especially one that was a problem picture about post-war life for GIs – and so The Best Years of Our Lives managed to snag the best picture Oscar . Not only that, so great was its momentum that it swept Frederic March to his second Oscar for a performance that was more than a little pedestrian and smelled strongly of ham and also an Oscar for editing, which has got to be one of the least deserved awards in Oscar history, at least until Gladiator won best picture – which I loathe having to watch again.

In case you haven’t guessed, The Best Years of Our Lives is disappointing. Unlike many films from the post-war era, which have become timeless and universal, TBYOL is dated to the extreme and therefore singular to its time. But how did it get this way? Certainly there is the subject matter, so specific to that time that it feels like the kind of thing that can only happen in the movies. Then there is the fact that this is an issue movie that has a hard time identifying its issue but is certain it can be solved by the love of a good woman. Then there is the stiff and self-serious acting by the two male leads. For the most part the woman come across fine – though Myrna Loy is wasted and Teresa Wright gets a one note part – and the non-professional Harold Russell is fantastic, but Frederic March (left) and Dana Andrews are alternately awful and annoying. Had it not been a propaganda picture about postwar life for GIs, released in the aftermath of the war, one feels it might have gotten clobbered, especially in a year when the superb and sublime It’s A Wonderful Life was among the nominees.

As disappointing as the film as a whole is, the biggest disappointment is the cinematography. Because it was photographed by the great Gregg Toland the movie had the real chance to be a work of art. After all, Toland had shot Citizen Kane, one of the most visually exciting movies ever, what with the shadows and expressionist flavor, but here, director William Wyler has Toland operating with handcuffs on. Here and there are a couple of fine deep focus shots but they are used sparingly and in general the film is visually bland – it’s almost like Wyler told him not to both with any tricks, don’t point the camera and turn it on.  The still at left is typical of the composition. Given that Toland didn’t even receive a nomination, it’s clear that the films momentum could only carry things so far.  The best shot in the whole film occurs toward the end, when Dana Andrews crawls inside a decommission bomber at a junkyard for planes and has a mini-flashback and as the camera dollies under the plane the soundtrack comes in and together it gives the impression that the plan is flying (see below, at approx. 3:55) but for a three hour movie, that one shot just isn’t enough.

One thing really strange about the movie, though, is that it was a major Hollywood release. Nowadays a movie of this sort wouldn’t come out of Hollywood on a dare, making way for the latest Transformers movie and having to fight for every ticket sold. It’s really strange to think of how the B movies of yesteryear have become the A movies of thisayear.

Trivia:

-Harold Russell is the only man to receive two Oscars for the same role. One of the awards was an honorary Oscar, given to him as a sympathy prize, simply because it was assumed he would lose out the Best Supporting Actor Award to one of the others, probably Claude Rains. When he managed to win Best Supporting Actor – the films momentum carrying him to victory right alongside Frederic March – he walked away with two awards.

-Director William Wyler won an academy award for directing this film. He is one of two men – with Frank Capra – to win three directing Oscars. The only man to win more is John Ford, with four.

-For A List of Movies Watched In This Project, and Those Left, Click Here

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