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THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Harold Russell
Director:  William Wyler
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono 2.0
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  MGM/UA
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  168 Minutes
Release Date:  July 18, 2000

Film ****

The Best Years of Our Lives is a truly wonderful film, modest but powerful, made classic by coming along at exactly the right point in history to capture and reflect the mood of post World War II America.  It was also the first major film to deal solely with the subject of war’s homecoming, rather than just being another movie about the fighting itself, where the return to civilization was merely a dénouement.  This picture was about the battles fought from within after war ends.

The film is long…almost three hours, to be exact…but it plays on the screen like a delicious novel.  When a good book seems daunting at 1500 pages, you just start with the first chapter.  If the characters are immediately interesting and winning, you’ll be hooked for the long haul.  Then, when it’s over, you feel a bit sad to have to let them go.  That’s the best analogy I can give for this movie.

Out of a sea of returning war heroes comes our three protagonists, an Air Force bombardier, Fred Derry (Andrews), an Army sergeant, Al Stephenson (March, in an Oscar winning performance), and a young sailor, Homer Parish (Russell, a double Oscar winner for this film), a man who’s lost both his hands in the fighting.  Being from the same small town, they end up sharing a flight back together, where their journey home begins both literally and figuratively.

In a few nicely crafted shots, we see home through these men’s eyes:  first, from the window of the plane, where everything looks small and unreal.  Secondly, from the back seat of a cab, where the world is bigger, but moving by too quickly.  And finally, the inevitable one-on-one returns to their families.  Having never been in a war myself, I would have thought that to be the best part of all, but each of these men is hesitant and a little afraid of their reunions.

Al finds his loving wife Milly (Loy) anxiously awaiting his return.  He also finds that the two children he left behind are no longer children.  Going from war to peace is a radical and uneasy adjustment for him, and he soon finds comfort and solace in the bottle and in the company of his friends.  Soon, he takes a position at a prominent local bank, in charge of issuing G. I. loans…ironic, because though it puts him in a position to help his fellow veterans, his hands are somewhat tied because most of those who came back from the war came back with nothing…no collateral to satisfy the bank.

Homer also finds a family of loving arms waiting to hold him…but he can’t return their embraces.  Though his longtime sweetheart is ready to pick up with him where they left off before the war, Homer’s is going to be the most difficult period of adjustment.  He finds everyone around him either stares at the hooks that replaced his hands…or they don’t look at all, in a way that’s far too obvious.  He has a particular habit of adamantly lighting his own cigarettes, and the ones of those around him, in an effort to prove that everything is normal…but he knows in his heart that change is something he and his loved ones are going to have to deal with one way or another.  The final moment of truth between he and his fiancée is one I’ll leave for you to discover yourself, other than to say it’s a beautiful, unforgettable moment.

As for Fred, he has a hard time finding his wife Marie (Mayo), who has moved and taken a job in a night club.  His first night home he spends getting drunk and having a blast with his war buddies, where he meets Al’s daughter, Peggy (Wright).  As an obvious but nicely done touch, we get to witness the genuine chemistry between them before we ever meet Marie, who turns out to be a sweet but rather vain and shallow showgirl.

Fred’s problem of readjustment?  He was, for lack of a better word, a nobody before the war, and he seems to be going back to being that again.  When everyone looks at him, they don’t see the man, they see the uniform, which becomes both a blessing and a curse. 

If I’ve made the film sound serious, it is…but it’s a well rounded look at these characters’ lives.  It has moments of humor and joy mixed in with the sadness, and overall, a winning, triumphant spirit as these men face their obstacles with dignity and courage…and you believe in your heart that they’ll overcome.

The casting is first rate, but particular mention must go to Harold Russell, a real veteran of the war who actually did lose his hands in the conflict.  That aspect of his life lends a certain realism to his character, naturally, but his job as an actor in conveying those feelings of pain, isolation and fear is really something extraordinary…so much so that the Academy not only honored him with a Best Supporting Actor statuette (the first Oscar won by a handicapped actor), they awarded him a special trophy for bringing courage and hope to veterans everywhere…the first occasion when an actor won two prizes for the same role.

The movie is directed with a sure hand by William Wyler, and became the central film in his critical and box office hot streak between Mrs. Miniver and Ben-Hur.  Also worth noting is the exquisite photography by master D. P. Gregg Toland, the man behind some of cinema’s most influential shots in Citizen Kane.

The two work together to create one memorable image after another, each one enhancing the potency of the message.  Note, for example, how some speaking characters are purposely left out of frame in order to focus on the reaction of one of the three protagonists…there may be romance, family life, and humor in the air, but this picture never forgets that the entire point is these men, and their experiences that were representative of returning veterans all across the country.

Video ***1/2

I’m very happy to announce that this film represents the best looking DVD transfer I’ve yet seen for a film from the 1940’s (and I’ve seen a lot of them, believe me!).  Though MGM’s failure to commit wholeheartedly to anamorphically enhanced transfers for their widescreen films has made the studio a center of controversy amongst digital enthusiasts, one thing I will say in their defense:  when it comes to their older, pre-widescreen era titles, no studio has a better track record.  They took care of their films, so their films continue to take care of them in return.  Singin’ in the Rain, Gone With the Wind, Night of the Hunter and others are all indicative of how well an older film can (and should) look on disc.

All films of that age are going to show occasional bits of scratches, dirt and debris here and there…it’s pretty much unavoidable.  But here, such artifacts of aging are very few and far between.  The black and white photography is simply gorgeous throughout:  sharp, crisp, and finely detailed from the foreground to the background.  The image exhibits a full range of grayscale, along with deep blacks and clean whites, without a hint of problems.  No grain, no compression (save for one single shot of some clouds that shimmered a little around the edges), no images blurred or hazy, and by and large, no complaints.  For me, the biggest joy of DVD has been the ability to see classic pictures look better than ever before, and this title is a good representation of that aspect of the format.

Audio ***

Though only a 2 channel mono mix, the soundtrack is very well rendered, with dialogue and other sound effects mixed nicely and cleanly, with no clarity problems save for one or two very brief dropouts.  The music comes across especially good, from Hugo Friedhofer’s Oscar winning score to the delightful piano work of Hoagy Carmichael.  Overall, the soundtrack is also free from hiss, static, and pops usually associated with older pictures.  This film was nicely preserved and nicely transferred all around.

Features *

Only a trailer…unless you really count the DVD booklet as a feature!

Summary:

The Best Years of Our Lives is an important, classic American film that gets treated as such with this remarkable DVD release.  It doesn’t get much better than this.