Combustible Celluloid
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With: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O'Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Russell, Gladys George, Roman Bohnen, Ray Collins, Minna Gombell, Walter Baldwin
Written by: Robert E. Sherwood, based on a novel by MacKinlay Kantor
Directed by: William Wyler
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 172
Date: 11/20/1946

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

William Wyler's post-WWII prestige project tapped into the social consciousness so effectively that it made lots of money as well as becoming an Oscar juggernaut (it won 7 Oscars out of 8 nominations, plus one honorary award). Mainstream critics not only proclaimed it a masterpiece, but also proclaimed it one of the greatest films ever made, a claim that sticks to this day. James Agee expressed his admiration for it, but also dismantled its many flaws, whereas Manny Farber famously called it "a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz."

I found it notable mainly because its massive 172 minutes are exclusively devoted to exploring characters, rather than showing any giant-sized, dazzling "epic" moments, such as flashing back to explosive war scenes. Likewise, Gregg Toland's cinematography has none of the rich decoration he showed in Citizen Kane and other films; rather, it's merely an effective, emotional exploration of space and location, very humble in its presentation.

At the end of the war, three discharged soldiers, bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) and infantry sergeant Al Stephenson (Frederic March) meet while on the way home to Boone City. Homer has lost his hands and has become skilled at using his new hooks, but he doesn't know how to deal with his well-meaning family, or how to handle his fiancée (Cathy O'Donnell, in her first role).

Fred hopes for a new job, but winds up back at the same drugstore that employed him before the war. Fred's wife Marie (gorgeous Virginia Mayo), whom he married just days before leaving for the war, no longer seems like a good match. Finally, Al returns to his wife (Myrna Loy) and grown kids, gets a new job in his old bank (handling small loans to G.I.s) and spends most of his time drunk. The three men occasionally meet with a stirring camaraderie that could come only with their shared experience. To make matters more complicated, Fred falls in love with Al's daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright).

Director Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood probably had to make several concessions in creating this adult-themed material, and it shows; some characters and sequences are more restrained and tentative than others, but overall it's still a stirring piece of work. Hoagy Carmichael has a nice, warm role as Homer's uncle (and plays the piano). Also, be on the lookout for quick glimpses of Gene Krupa and other musicians of the era.

Oddly, only March and Russell were nominated in the acting categories, and they both won. Russell was a real veteran with real hooks for hands, and he won a second, honorary Oscar for "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance." (Though, perhaps unsurprisingly, he didn't have much of an acting career following this.)

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