Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Virginia Mayo, and Teresa Wright in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)



(director: William Wyler; screenwriters: Robert E. Sherwood/based on the novel Glory for Me by MacKinlay Kantor; cinematographer: Gregg Toland; editor: Daniel Mandell; music: Hugo Friedhofer; cast: Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Fredric March (Al Stephenson), Dana Andrews (Fred Derry), Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson), Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry), Cathy O’Donnell (Wilma Cameron), Harold Russell (Homer Parrish), Hoagy Carmichael (Butch Engle), Gladys George (Hortense Derry), Steve Cochran (Cliff Scully), Ray Collins (Mr. Milton, bank boss), Roman Bohnen (Pat Derry); Runtime: 172; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Samuel Goldwyn; RKO; 1946)

“One of the few films that deserved all the awards heaped on it from the Oscars.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The film won seven Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Fredric March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Screenplay, Best Score and Best Editing. The powerful drama is stylishly directed by William Wyler (“Carrie”/”Mrs. Miniver”/”The Westerner”). It’s an earnest study of three veterans returning to civilian life after WWII, a film that’s still relevant today. It’s based on the novel Glory for Me by MacKinlay Kantor and the screenplay is by Robert E. Sherwood; it’s inspired by a Life magazine article about the difficult readjustments of returning vets that producer Samuel Goldwyn was so moved by. The deep-focus black-and-white photography by Gregg Toland is stunning.

The three shaken returning veterans to their Midwestern hometown of Boone City who form an everlasting bond are: Air Force bombardier hero Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a former drugstore soda jerk; the middle-aged upper-class Army Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March), a prominent banker in civilian life; and the blue-collar Homer Parrish (Harold Russell, a real-life double amputee whose hands had been blown off in a wartime training accident), a sailor who worked as a repairman and lost his hands in a ship explosion and now uses hooks.

Homer is welcomed home by his family and his girlfriend Wilma Cameron (Cathy O’Donnell), and he wonders how she will react to his handicap. Al realizes he’s missed seeing his children grow up, as his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and their grown children Peggy (Teresa Wright) and Rob (Michael Hall) greet the changed man with surprise at his unexpected return and try to adjust to being together again; Fred arrives at his parents’ home and is surprised to find that his restless sexy wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) lives elsewhere and later learns when she returns that she’s disgruntled, thinking she gave up the best years of her life for a life that has turned out to be difficult economically and not as flashy as she thought it would be married to a pilot.

Fred bitterly discovers that his wartime heroics are quickly forgotten in the postwar peace and the marketplace is not kind to him, so he reluctantly returns to his prewar job in the drugstore (under new ownership) and to boot is under his former assistant. When his wife ignores him for a flashier lifestyle and two-times him, he takes up with Al’s daughter Peg. Al has no problem getting a promotion to a vice president of loans and develops a new sympathy for the blue-collar comrades he was in contact with during the war as he goes against the bank elites by offering a Seabee veteran a special deal of a no-collateral loan to buy a farm. Though the sailor’s family and his girlfriend reach out to accept him as he is, there’s nagging doubts about his masculinity and he doesn’t want to be a burden to anyone and has problems dealing with his self-esteem. The film in depth covers both the psychological and the physical impediments the men face, and handles it with a delicate balance between sympathy and reality that was very moving.

The engaging film combines entertainment and provocative thought in a responsible adult drama that asks a lot of questions about us as a society and tells its story about regular guys from all walks of life who served their country but who are now ignored because the war is no longer in the news. It adds up to the best film ever on the dilemma of returning veterans, and one of the few films that deserved all the awards heaped on it from the Oscars.