Inherent in a film with this title, much like It’s a Wonderful Life, is the assumption that it is a generally joyous tale full of family, life, liberty, and the general pursuit of happiness. With both films you would be partially correct with such an unsolicited presumption, except for all those things to be true, there must be a counterpoint to that.
Upon watching both these films on subsequent days, that became markedly evident. George Bailey (James Stewart), of course, must go through a perturbing alternate reality where he never existed, and the consequences are catastrophic to all those he knows and loves in his community. But such a paradigm shift or new perspective, does truly revitalize his entire existence. It’s as if he sees the whole world through an unfaltering lens of hopefulness thereafter.
Although it lacks the dark fantasy that engulfs the latter half of It’s a Wonderful Life, Best Years has its own heavy dose of foreboding, that while more realistic, is no less disconcerting. All the boys have returned from the theaters of Europe and the Pacific, including our three protagonists Fred (Dana Andrews), Homer (Harold Russell), and Al (Fredric March). Upon getting back to their old abode of Boone City, sons talk about nuclear fallout in Hiroshima and men at drug store counters warn of the imminent threat of “The Reds.” Some soldiers like Fred have trouble landing work. Others struggle with getting the necessary loans from banks like the one Al works at, or they come back to far less glamorous lifestyles. Homer copes with being a double amputee and simultaneously closes himself off to all those who love him, including his longtime sweetheart Velma (Cathy O’Donnell). He must learn not so much how to love, but the equally difficult life skill of allowing others to love him.
Derry also struggles in a loveless marriage with his superficial wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), while also battling with PTSD symptoms like recurrent nightmares. Even the subtle reality that the only African-Americans in the film work behind soda fountain counters or in nightclub jazz bands has greater implications. Theirs is a relegated status, even in a country of liberty like America. Unlike the former film, we do not see any ghoulish human cemeteries, but we do see plane graveyards like ghost towns where metal is slowly rusting just waiting to get demolished and re-purposed. At this point, it is only a sobering reminder of all those who fought and died in the war years.
Many of these topics are only mentioned for a brief moment or we can only infer them from visual cues, but still, they lurk there under the surface or better yet, right in plain view. These real-life unsettling concerns are worse than It’s a Wonderful Life because they fall so close to home even today.
Wounded veterans are still coming home to a country that doesn’t know what to do with them, or a country that seems ungrateful for their service. Married folks still struggle through marriage and divorce. Single people still struggle with figuring out if they should get married and so on.
I think part of the reason I admire The Best Years of Our Lives so much, despite its nearly 3 hour running time, is its ability to captivate my attention rather like a day in the life of someone I would meet on the street. Although Virginia Mayo and Mryna Loy seem the most Hollywood, most everyone feels rather ordinary. Certainly, Dana Andrews is handsome and Teresa Wright, as well as Cathy O’Donnell, are wonderful as multidimensional girls-next-door, but I feel like I could potentially know people like them. And of course, Harold Russell was unusual since he wasn’t a trained actor. That casting choice pays off beautifully in moments such as the final wedding scenes where in a dyslexic moment he switches up his vows. But it works wonderfully as an authentic addition.
Although Gregg Toland worked on revolutionary fare like Citizen Kane, and William Wyler dabbled in all sorts of genres from westerns to period dramas, they have all the necessary sensibilities for a perfect presentation given the subject matter. The visuals are crisp and beautiful, but never flashy or overly conspicuous. The use of deep focus concerns itself with the overall composition of the frame -never attempting to focus our attention on any singular action. It all becomes equally important. Meanwhile, Wyler directs with a sure hand that makes the actions flow organically and at the same time his ensemble is given the space and the time to grow and evolve before our very eyes.
It’s a timeless film for what it brings to the forefront and also because of what it evokes out of the audience members themselves. There is an underlying somberness to it at times, but most importantly it rings loudly with the high unequivocal notes of hope. In the post-war years, it was a pertinent film, and it still has something to offer even now. More people need to know about The Best Years of our Lives.