Friday, 1 January 2016

Film Friday: "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946)

This week's "Film Friday" is a very special one: not only is it the first day of the year and the first "Film Friday" of the year, but also Dana Andrews' birthday. So, to celebrate all of this, I am bringing you what is arguably the most important film of Andrews' career, which also serves as a way to wish you a happy new year. May this be the best year of our lives.

Original release poster
Directed by William Wyler, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) follows three World War II veterans Army Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March), decorated Army Air Force Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and sailor Homer Parish (Harold Russell) as they try to readjust to civilian life after meeting and bonding while flying to their hometown of Boone City. Al is a bank loan officer with a comfortable home and a loving family: wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and teenage children Peggy (Teresa Wright) and Rob (Michael Hall). Fred is a former soda jerk from the wrong side of the tracks who married his girlfriend Marie (Virginia Mayo) shortly before shipping out. Lastly, Homer was a football quarterback who lost both hands in a torpedo blaze and has been fitted with mechanical hooks.

Although Al is lovingly greeted by his family, he realizes that their attitudes have changed. His frustration increases when he returns to his old job and tries to persuade his boss, Mr. Milton (Ray Collins), to provide non-collateral loans to ex-GIs. For his part, Fred returns to find that his wartime achievements mean nothing in civilian life and that Marie, who became a nightclub waitress while he was overseas, is now a stranger to him. When Fred takes up his old job at the drugstore, Marie becomes bitter at his inability to advance himself and begins seeing other men. As for Homer, he finds that his over-caring parents (Walter Baldwin and Minna Gombell) have difficulty adjusting to his disability and starts to believe that his fiancé, Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell), no longer loves him, but feels only pity. During a night out at the tavern run by Homer's Uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael), Al gets drunk and Peggy finds love for the first time when she meets Fred, a feeling he reciprocates. As the protective father, Al attempts to break them up because he does not want his daughter hurt through involvement with a married man. Meanwhile, Wilma assures Homer that she loves him despite his disability and the two decide to get married. By the time of Homer's wedding, Al has happily settled back into the comforts of his old lifestyle and is more receptive to Peggy's relationship with Fred, who has divorced Marie.

Fred Derry: You know what it'll be, don't you, Peggy? It may takes us years to get anywhere. We'll have no money, no decent place to live. We'll have to work, get kicked around.

Three years after Mrs. Miniver (1942) had made him "the toast of American and British film industries," William Wyler seemed to be just another director returning from Word War II and discovering that the motion picture business had moved on without him and was in fact thriving. Between 1942 and 1945, Wyler had served as a major in the United States Army Air Forces, flying dangerous combat missions over Europe to film the documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944). During that period, he also shot Thunderbolt! (1947), which documented the participation of the Twelfth Air Force in Operation Strangle, a series of successful air assaults to interdict German supply routes in Italy. Working on Thunderbolt!, Wyler was exposed to such loud sound that he lost his hearing almost completely. Upon his return from Europe, Wyler was not sure where he stood anymore and did not know how he was going to continue to direct unless his hearing improved. Nevertheless, he was eager "to get back in the game."

In July 1945, Wyler accepted an offer from Frank Capra and Samuel Briskin to become a partner in Liberty Films, giving him the freedom to direct and produce pictures of his own choosing for the next five years. Before he could begin work, however, Capra needed to make a studio distribution deal for the company's films. Luckily, the delay suited Wyler, since the still owed independent producer Samuel Goldwyn one final feature. Goldwyn had two projects in mind for him one was a dramatized biography of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and the other was the family fantasy The Bishop's Wife (1947), based Robert Nathan's 1928 novel of the same name but Wyler was not enthusiastic about either. What sparked his interest instead was a project that Goldwyn had shelved: Glory for Me by MacKinlay Kantor.

Myrna Loy and Fredric March
Goldwyn had originally commissioned the project in late 1944, when his wife Frances recommended he read a TIME magazine article entitled "The Way Home," concerning a group of marines home on furlough after years overseas, who worried about the uncertainties that awaited them in civilian life. Goldwyn recognized that the story "had the makings of a great movie" and assigned Kantor, a journalist and novelist who had flown missions with the Eighth Air Force and the RAF as a war correspondent, to write an original treatment of 100 pages for a picture tentatively called "Home Again," a variation of the original TIME article title.

Kantor began work that fall, keeping his pages to himself and holding off the inquiries of his eager producer. As preparation, he spent several months touring hospitals and studying the problems of discharged patients. When Kantor finally handed in his draft, Goldwyn was perplexed: instead of a treatment or a screenplay, Kantor had created a 268-page novel in blank verse titled Glory for Me. It told the story of three returning veterans — Al Stephenson, a middle-aged officer who feels alienated from his family, his job at the bank and his comfortably upper-middle-class life; Fred Derry, a hardened soldier haunted by the savagery of his time on the battlefield; and Homer Wermels, a seaman second class who suffered a brain injury that rendered him a spastic. Kantor's narrative, which followed the three men back into their lifes as civilians, was "darker, grimmer, sadder, and more explicitly brutal than any movie of the time could have been." While Goldwyn thought Glory for Me was a waste of time and money, the story resonated with Wyler on a personal level. "I spent four years being one of those characters," he said. It would be "the easiest picture I ever made."

Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews
Wyler decided to bring Kantor's novel to playwright Robert E. Sherwood, who was working on the crumbling Eisenhower project and already had a number of impressive screenwriting credits to his name, including Alfred Hitchcock's Best Picture winner Rebecca (1940). (In fact, he would go on to write The Bishop's Wife for Goldwyn.) In addition, he had served as speechwriter for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and headed the Office of War Information between 1943 and 1945. Sherwood, too, preferred Kantor's story to the Eisenhower picture and he and Wyler eventually convinced Goldwyn to go ahead with the project.

Sherwood and his wife, silent film actress Madeline Hurlock, arrived in Los Angeles in December 1945 and were put up at a cottage on Goldwyn's estate while the playwright worked on the script. Despite his enthusiasm for Kantor's book, Sherwood initially struggled to turn it into a suitable screenplay, as he could not come up with a dramatic arc that would unite the various strands of the story. One inspired evening, Sherwood finally "unlocked the key to his script": he decided that the central plotline would be the emerging love story of Fred and Peggy, Al's daughter. Whereas in Kantor's narrative, Fred discovers his wife's infidelity as soon as he comes home, Sherwood's screenplay has the soldier trying to pick pieces of his life with Marie, but discovering that they were never really in love. In the meantime, Fred meets Peggy, whose role in the story was amplified, and a relationship begins to blossom. Sherwood also used the bar owned by Homer's uncle Butch as a central location where many of the story's dramatic events take place.

Harold Russell and Hoagy Carmichael
While revising Sherwood's initial draft, Wyler reached an important decision: the character of Homer Wermels, renamed Homer Parish, would no longer suffer from spastic paralysis. Goldwyn had earmarked the role for Farley Granger, who had made his debut in the producer's The North Star (1943), but Wyler believed that "such a character would never ring true; that no actor, no matter how great his talent, could play a spastic with conviction." Instead, he had Sherwood rewrite the character as a young man who had lost his arms during the war. Much to Goldwyn's chagrin, he also decided that they would find an actual amputee to play him.

After an unsuccessful search in veterans' hospitals, Wyler finally found his Homer in a twenty-two-minute short entitled Diary of a Sergeant (1945). One of the last films the Army Pictorial Service had produced during the war, Diary of a Sergeant was a documentary about Harold Russell, a 30-year-old paratrooper with the 13th Airborne Division who had lost both hands when a dynamite charge he was handling exploded prematurely during manouvers at Camp Mackall, North Carolina on June 6, 1944. The film chronicled Russell's life as he was outfitted with prosthetic hooks and learned to master those devices. With an eye towards casting him in the film, Wyler had Russell flown out to Hollywood for an interview. After meeting the veteran, Wyler and Sherwood had no doubts that Russell was just the person they looking for to play Homer. Wyler noted, "No matter how good a performance an actor gave of a man without hands, an audience could assure itself by saying, 'It's only a movie.' With Russell playing Homer, no such assurance was possible."

Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo
The resolution of the other characters' stories also involved some important changes. In Kantor's novel, Al, disgusted with his bank's attitude toward veterans, quits his job and goes into business with another ex-GI to "grow things" and raise flowers. Homer becomes a alcoholic and contemplates suicide, but Wilma eventually convinces him of her love and even begins studying medical texts in an effort to help him overcome his disability. Finally, Fred, frustrated over his inability to find meaningful work, attempts to rob Al's bank, before being rescued by Peggy's love and making the decision to go back to school on the GI Bill.

True to his committment to realism, Wyler felt (and Sherwood agreed) that the solution to these men's problems should not reflect "the dramatic reverseals of fortune" that audiences might expect of characters in films. Consequently, in the final script, Al does not quit his job; he stays at the bank and announces that he will fight for more liberal loan policies for returning veterans. Homer tries to avoid Wilma not because he does not lover her, but because he feels it would not be fair to marry her. To address this sensitive personal issue directly, Sherwood created a scene in which Homer takes Wilma to his bedroom one night and removes his hooks and harness, showing her how "helpless" he is. (Wyler later managed to direct this unprecedented scene without violating the Hays Code.) As for Fred, Sherwood had him take up a job as a laborer in the construction business, implying that his "fortunes will grow with this burgeoning industry, since more Americans will want houses as the post-war economy continues to grow."

Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright
By mid-1946, many of the script's problems had been resolved and Sherwood handed in his final draft on April 9. At that point, the project's title had been changed, but agreeing on a new one had been difficult; Goldwyn even conducted audience tests to determine responses to such options as "When Daylight Comes," "Three Roads Home" and "No More Bugles." Eventually, Sherwood decided to borrow the film's title from a phrase that Fred uses in a speech to Peggy: dispirited over his prospects, he laments that "the best years of my life have been spent," an idea she rejects. Glory for Me hence became The Best Years of Our Lives.

Casting the film presented few problems, as Goldwyn wanted to use many of his young contract players to fill the roles. Dana Andrews, who had made his film debut in Wyler's The Westerner (1940), would play Fred Derry; Virginia Mayo, known at the time as a comedy actress, was cast as Fred's wife Marie; Cathy O'Donnell, who would later marry Wyler's brother Robert, made her screen debut as Wilma; and Teresa Wright, who had delivered an Academy Award-winning performance in Mrs. Miniver, was assigned to the role of Peggy Stephenson. To play Al and Milly, Goldwyn initially pursued Fred MacMurray and Olivia de Havilland, but they both felt that the parts were insubstantial (in fact, MacMurray remarked that he thought they were "third banana"). To replace them, Leland Hayward suggested two of his clients, Fredric March and Myrna Loy, who was only thirteen years older than Wright.

The Stephenson family
Because of her first husband's long association with Goldwyn productions, Loy knew the producer quite well, though she had not appeared in one of his pictures since Arrowsmith (1931). Even after four years of absence from the screen to focus on the war effort and work closely with the Red Cross, Loy was still a major star and Goldwyn doubted that she would take such a small role. At a dinner party at his home, Goldwyn explained to Loy that the part would not be large or glamourous; she would wear dresses bought off the rack instead of designer clothes and play a woman old enough to have a 19-year-old daughter. To Goldwyn's surprise, Loy accepted the offer without much prodding and was later given top billing. For his part, March had worked with Goldwyn twice before — on The Dark Angel (1935) and the disastrous We Live Again (1934) — and was not too keen on leaving Broadway to work with him again. When he lost the lead on Life With Father (1947) to William Powell, however, he decided to give The Best Years of Our Lives a shot. March was at home playing a banker, as he had had a career in banking prior to becoming an actor.

An example of deep focus cinematograhy
Known as "90-Take Willy," Wyler was an utterly perfectionist director, one who would shoot as many takes as he felt necessary to achieve exactly what he wanted. Striving for "unadorned realism," he relied heavily on Gregg Toland's crisp black-and-white photography and ingenious use of the deep focus lens, which allowed the viewer to see three planes of action (foregound, background and middle) going on simultaneously. This technique is notably used in a scene in Butch's bar after Fred agrees to stop seeing Al's daughter: in the foreground, Homer and Butch are playing "Chopsticks" on the piano; far in the background on screen left, Fred is in a phone booth ending his relationship with Peggy; in the middle distance, but closer to screen right, Al watches Homer play the piano and glances behind him to look at Fred. Although the camera's eye was on Al, the audience could clearly understand Fred's conversation with Peggy without hearing a single word of it.

Wyler wanted to infuse The Best Years of Our Lives with the "pared-down documentary style" of The Memphis Belle and Thunderbolt!. According to Wright, "Willy Wyler and Toland wanted [the film] to have the look of an American newsreel. They wanted it to have the feel of a live newspaper article." Working with Toland in their sixth collaboration, Wyler cut down the number of shots in the picture to a minimum, using fewer than 200, compared to the 300 to 400 shots per hour in the average film. To enhance to film's documentary-style realism, Wyler drew each member of his crew from the ranks of World War II veterans. Wyler also depended on an actor's intuition, shooting long scenes for maximum continuity and refraining from offering line reading of his own. He described his directing approach for The Best Years of Our Lives as similar to that of a theatre director. Prior to shooting a major scene, "we would spend the morning sitting around a table, reading the script, much as it is done in the early stages of a theater rehearsal."

Myrna Loy and Dana Andrews
Although Loy was initially apprehensive to be working with Wyler, due to his painstaking directing style, the two got along famously. The rapport that developed between them on the set astounded by Loy and her co-stars. March told her, "I can't believe the radar you two have going. You don't even need to talk." In fact, when Loy substituted a gesture for a line or sensed that a certain piece of dialogue did not work and should be cut, Wyler allowed her instincts to prevail and thanked her for helping him. One such instance occurred during rehearsals for March's hangover scene. As March was mixing a bromo with two glasses, he accidentally lifted the empty glass to his lips. He stopped the scene to get it right, but Loy suggested that they leave the mistake in because it seemed "real," so Wyler did just that.

Wyler put a great deal of himself into The Best Years of Our Lives. Due to his hearing problem, he had to attach a headset and amplifiers to the sound equipment so that he could ear the actors from a distance. He identified with Russell's disability, comparing his enhanced headset to Russell's hooks. The homecoming scene between Al and Milly also had autobiographical resonance for Wyler. On leave from the Air Force, he had reunited with his wife, former actress Margaret Tallichet, at the Plaza Hotel in New York. She remembered standing in the doorway at the end of a long hall "and he came down the hall toward me. That's how the scene in the picture came about."

After four months of filming, principal photography on The Best Years of Lives wrapped on August 9, 1946. Goldwyn initially wanted to release the film in 1947, but Wyler convinced him to move up the premiere to qualify for that year's Academy Awards. Distributed by RKO, The Best Years of Our Lives opened at the Astor Theatre in New York on November 21 to overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics, with many reviewers heralding the arrival of a maturity and seriousness in Wyler's work that they believed anticipated a new era for American cinema. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times hailed the film as a masterpiece: "It is seldom that there comes a motion picture which can be wholly and enthusiastically endorsed not only as superlative entertainment but as food for quiet and humanizing thought [...] In working out their solutions Mr. Sherwood and Mr. Wyler have achieved some of the most beautiful and inspiring demonstrations of human fortitude that we have had in films." Crowther also said that the ensemble cast delivered "a 'best' performance in this best film this year from Hollywood."

Harold Russell and Dana Andrews
In The Nation, James Agee wrote, "William Wyler had always seemed to me an exceedingly sincere and good director; he now seems one of the few great one. He has come back from the war with a style of great purity, directness, and warmth, about as cleanly devoid of mannerism, haste, superfluous motion, asthetic or emotional overreaching, as any I know." Abel Green of Variety called the film "one of the best pictures of our lives," describing Harold Russell as "inspired casting" and Fredric March's performance as "easily one of the year's cinematic outstanders." Praise for The Best Years of Our Lives also rang out from congressmen, generals and Wyler's fellow filmmakers, with Billy Wilder, the most recent winner of the Academy Award for Best Director for The Lost Weekend (1945) calling it "the best-directed film I've ever seen in my life."

At the 19th Academy Awards, The Best Years of Our Lives received seven Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (March), Best Supporting Actor (Russell), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Dramatic or Comedy Score. It received an additional nomination for Best Sound Recording, but lost to Columbia's The Jolson Story (1946). Despite his winning performance, Russell was not a professional actor. As the Academy Board of Governors considered him a long shot to win, they presented him with an honorary award "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow through his appearance" early in ceremony. When Russell did win the Oscar, there was an enthusiastic response from the audience. In addition, Samuel Goldwyn received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award "for the producer whose creativity over the years reflects consistently high quality of motion picture producion."

Samuel Goldwyn, Harold Russell and William Wyler holding their Oscars

Although Dana Andrews delivered a sincere and heartfelt performance in a difficult role, his contribution to the success of the film was completely overlooked by the Academy. Outraged by this oversight, a viewer back in 1946 put an advertisement in Variety saying, "I would surely like you to watch The Best Years of Our Lives one more time and tell me what Dana Andrews has to do to win an Academy Award." In my very humble opinion, I could not agree more. Not only is Dana's portrayal of Fred Derry the finest performance of his career, but it is also one the best performances by anyone in any film I have seen. Bear in mind that, unlike William Wyler and Harold Russell, Andrews did not serve in World War II, so he did not have any kind of previous experience on which he could base his performance. Still, he played Fred as if he had gone through the same hardships and struggled with the same kind of self-doubt.

Shortly after The Best Years of Our Lives was released, Liberty Films collapsed, taking away Frank Capra's dream of independence he had since before the war. Wyler, on the other hand, was only mildly disappointed and spent little time mourning its demise; instead, for the first time in five years, he looked to the future. With the success of Best Years, his war and his homecoming were over. He never complained what his years in combat had cost him; he spoke only of how enriched he felt. He had gone into the war as a respected technical perfectionist; he had come out, he said, interested in making movies that reflected his deeper understanding of human yearning and vulnerability. Before The Best Years of Our Lives opened, he said, "This is the kind of picture I couldn't possible have done with conviction if I had not been in the war myself."


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SOURCES:
Dana Andrews: The Face of Noir by James McKay (2010) | Five Came Back: The Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris (2014) | Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood by Emily W. Leider (2011) | William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director by Gabriel Miller (2013) | IMDb | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther | Variety review by Abel Green

5 comments:

  1. Nice writeup on my favorite movie. I was unaware of how many changes had been made to the original story, good insight into how much work went into the screenplay.

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  2. I had watched this when I was young and didn't really like it. Then I rewatched it a couple months ago and loved it!! Totally deserved that Oscar!

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    1. I'm glad you liked it the second time. This is definitely one of my favorite films of all time. It did deserve the Best Picture Oscar, but I'm not sure Fredric March was the right winner for Best Actor that year. I think James Stewart should have won instead for "It's a Wonderful Life."

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