The Best Years of Their Lives

You really cared about these people. Over nearly three hours, the different stories of the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives flowed across the Redford Theatre screen, and when the movie ended, you felt privileged to be part of the experience.

At the matinee showing on July 7, 2007, the ongoing Classic Movie Series of the Redford presented this famous epic of life just after World War II. It starred Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, and military veteran Harold Russell, who earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar award for his portrayal of a disabled soldier.

“The joy of The Best Years of Our Lives is that it details at least one character with whom anybody in the audience can identify,” wrote Leslie Halliwell in Halliwell’s Harvest: A Further Choice of Entertainment Movies from the Golden Age (1986). Halliwell also noted that “All of its actors prospered because [director William] Wyler’s skill had painstakingly caught every character nuance of which they were capable.”

And the magnificent Redford screen caught all of those nuances. This Best Picture Oscar winner was a fitting way to end a week in which the United States celebrated its freedom on the Fourth of July. Redford organist Gus Borman added depth to the entertainment with a performance of “God Bless America”.

The movie was a very emotional experience, because of the vivid way the story was told, and because of the parallels between those years and our current time at war.

Every word, facial expression, camera angle and musical accompaniment seemed to naturally spring from the passion that the producer Samuel Goldwyn, director Wyler and others had for the story.

And it was all expressed so simply and directly, as if all the film crew had to do was just tell the story in the most honest and respectful manner possible. Every scene seemed to build to a moment of truth about the past, present and future.

I can close my eyes and still see the principled directness of Fredric March, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance. I’ll never forget the idealistic realism of Teresa Wright’s face. And the scenes between Harold Russell and his “swell girl” Cathy O’Donnell took on a new poignance and tenderness as I watched them on the big screen.

Then and Now

With many current veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, this film helped the audience better understand what those soldiers are now going through. You could empathize with Dana Andrews’s determined effort to find himself in this new post-war world.

There were also some sobering parallels. Like many war opponents now, one character in The Best Years of Our Lives questioned the identity of America’s enemies, as well as the honesty of the government about the war. And the general anxiety about nuclear war in 1946 was ominously similar to the current apprehension about global terrorism.

But the movie wasn’t all doom and gloom. Pianist/composer Hoagy Carmichael livened up the movie with his music and friendliness. Myrna Loy was as delightful and loyal a companion to Fredric March as she was to William Powell in the 1934 movie The Thin Man, which I saw a few days earlier at the Michigan Theater.

I discovered Virginia Mayo to be one of the great beauties of Hollywood, as well as a good actress who skillfully delivered the line that gave the movie its title. And the hard-earned joy of the wedding ceremony in the final scene left a heartfelt smile on everyone’s face as the closing credits rolled.

So I walked slowly out of the theater into the sunshine of a beautiful summer day. The quiet intimacy of the afternoon showing helped me get inside the souls of the characters of The Best Years of Our Lives.

I had also thought about another enduring 1946 film which came out shortly after The Best Years of Our Lives. On December 14 and 15 (when it will be a little cooler than today’s 95 degrees), Redford audiences will be treated to this movie—the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life.

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Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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