For an extremely sensitive and poignant study of life like your own, carrying constantly threatening overtones during this early stage of postwar readjustment, it would be worth your while to see “The Best Years of Our Lives,” even at the present inflated postwar prices.
The sparkling travelogue opening shows three jittery veterans flying home to up-and-at-’em Boone City, a flourishing elm-covered metropolis patterned after Cincinnati. They are too uneasy about entering their homes as strangers to eat up the scenery. The chesty, down-to-earth sailor (Harold Russell), whose lack of sophistication and affectation furnishes a striking contrast to his two chums, is hypersensitive about his artificial hands and is afraid that his girl (Cathy O’Donnell) will marry him out of pity rather than love; the sergeant (Fredric March), whose superiority rests in his being old and experienced, a survivor of the infantry and before that a successful banker and father, feels he has changed too much for his old job and his family; the bombardier (Dana Andrews), who has about him that most-likely-to-succeed look of the Air Forces, got married on the run during training and hardly knows what to anticipate.
After they get through their first night home by painting the town cadmium red, they start civilian life like balky, truculent steers. Their new lives are awfully rocky, particularly the airman’s, but after two and a half hours of difficulty that often seems as authentic as a Brady photograph, the air clears considerably. The sailor realizes what you know from the first moment she appeared on the screen: that Cathy with the Sad Eyes worships him; and the bombardier lands a job symbolic of this transition period—turning B-17’s into prefabricated houses—and is freed by divorce to marry Teresa Wright.
While the movie bites off more than it can chew (it never has sufficient nerve to hit hardheaded business or toadying clerks as well as it would like to), it is far and away the least sentimental, most human, of current films. The love affair between the married airman and the banker’s daughter is handled with rare candor, their every action seeming to arise out of natural, human, instinctual responses that fly in the face of convention. There are wonderful domestic exchanges between these two and the girl’s parents.
Fredric March does a superb job in mixing the rebellion and feeling for humanity that he achieved as a sergeant in the Army with the qualities of the solid citizen-banker that he was before the war—reactionary and closemouthed, conforming, respected in the community, a model for the kiddies. Every touch seems exactly right for the hard-bitten successful executive—his knifelike movements, the tight self-control, the ferocity and self-hatred of his type of alcoholic. While she seems too experienced and wise to be playing a daughter role (half the time Myrna Loy looks like her daughter rather than the other way around), Teresa Wright plays so completely from the inside and has so labile a face that some of her scenes—the one in which she quiets a soldier having a nightmare and is painfully affected by the experience—rock with emotion. Hoagy Carmichael gives an adroit soft-shoe rendering of Hoagy Carmichael being genteel, and Walter Baldwin, the father of the boy with articulated hooks for hands, is as authentic as the rest of the production.
I haven’t seen a movie with better examples of American housing since “Greed.” This is one of those rare films in which a pose or a gesture stands out so significantly that you feel the cameraman (Greg Toland) has as much to do with the story as the director and writer. The work in every department is so realistic and serious that “The Best Years of Our Lives” doesn’t seem at all like a Hollywood job.
December 2, 1946
From Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, edited by Robert Polito (The Library of America). Used with permission of the publisher.