The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Directed by William Wyler

I’m not sure why, but The Best Years of Our Lives one has been sitting on my shelf for some time. I couldn’t seem to get up the enthusiasm to watch it; probably because the cover makes it look like such a wholesome movie (in the 1950’s, “Father Knows Best” sense).

Big mistake. This movie is great.

Clocking in at just under 3 hours (168 minutes), it flew by. Almost from the opening scene of the airport I was pulled into the movie.

And yes, it does have that glossy, white bread Americana look to it but in many ways that is exactly the point. The movie perfectly evokes the post-war period (40’s through 50’s) — a white middle-America vision of American life.

This is deliberate in order to enunciate the irony of the movie’s title and to illustrate its theme, war heroes returning to a life they barely recognize and into which it is so difficult to re-enter.

Director William Wyler also manages to perfectly juggle and balance three storylines, interweaving them here and there. The three storylines are why the film is long but more importantly, the fine balance the filmmakers strike is why the film holds you and makes the film seem short.

While all the actors give great performances (like Dana Andrews and Fredric March), I think Myrna Loy is the real standout. In a role that could easily have been a cliché of the American housewife of the period, she provides nuances, largely through a subtle, ironic smile, that gives the character a depth and interest that involves the audience. Though lacking the nuances of Loy, Teresa Wright (Shadow of a Doubt) is also wonderful as the bright-eyed, optimistic daughter.

Winner of 7 Academy Awards in 1946, including Best Picture, this is one award winner that easily stands up with any other film. It’s a great movie on its own terms, but also a fabulous insight into a period of history.

It could be argued the film is unrealistic in the sense that there is an utter absence of any group other than white Americans but I think this is partly what makes it such an interesting cultural document as well.

It doesn’t show us America as it was but how America as a country saw itself (for good or ill).

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