News and Commentary – The Best Years of our Lives

The allied triumph in the Second World War is remembered – fondly and correctly – as one of the great and inspiring moments of modern history, and the quarter century that followed was a period of economic growth and prosperity almost unimaginable in the context of the miserable decades that preceded it.  But all periods have their troubles, and the immediate post-war era had its own healthy portion: real fear that the peacetime economy might slip back into depression, emerging cold war anxieties, and the chilling social paralysis that went hand-in-hand with anti-communist hysteria.   

Arriving on the scene ahead of all of these, quietly but ubiquitously, was what has been dubbed “the post-war disillusionment”: the challenges faced by servicemen returning home from overseas after years of war, often witness to unspeakable horrors, navigating an uncertain return to civilian life, and at times finding a society that fell short of the ideals expressed by its wartime propaganda.

The postwar disillusionment was an important element of the late 1940s films noir; Humphrey Bogart’s Frank McCloud in Key Largo (John Huston, 1948) was perhaps the poster-boy for this cohort: a wartime hero, and for what?  And what now?  But film noir (and its subtexts) flew largely under the radar; more remarkable was that red-carpet Hollywood, which had been at its flag-waving best during the war, cautiously turned its eye to some of these issues in 1946 and 1947 before retreating into a bland, blacklisting, obsequious crouch in response to Washington witch-hunts and accusations of anti-Americanism.  

The Best Years of our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) was the most beloved of these films, a hit that was showered with eight Academy Awards in 1947, sweeping most of the major categories. Viewed today, two aspects of the movie leap out at the viewer.  The first is the film’s exceptional and daring maturity—especially for a mainstream film produced by the Hollywood studio system.  In Best Years, the camera is often locked in on themes that the industry usually banished from the screen, peeling back the myths of an idealized Americana as three servicemen face their own challenges of readjustment.  Yes, the film ends well (we are still in Hollywood), but not before establishing poverty, articulating frank assessments of marital complexities, and painting the backdrop with suggestions of anesthetizing alcoholism, the emerging indignities of mass consumerism, and the fragile constitution of masculinity. The film also includes a confrontation with an “America-first” type brandishing a fringe right-wing newspaper (the moral equivalent of today’s venomous talk radio), a scene which fell afoul of the censors and was subject to trims. (Moments like these led Best Years to be included among those movies that caught the attention of a surveilling FBI and suspicious House Un-American Activities Committee.)   

Some of these controversies seem all-too relevant today, but from Best Years, even more enduring for film lovers are the glorious deep-focus compositions of legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland.  This is not to take anything away from William Wyler—a real pro who was clearly in charge and knew what he wanted.  The film was also a deeply personal one for Wyler, who, like Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) flew on extremely dangerous bombing missions over Europe; the director returned home with seriously damaged hearing and deep concerns about what that meant for his own future.  And the performances – headlined by Andrews, Teresa Wright, Fredric March and Myra Loy – are first rate.  (Also among the fine cast are Orson Welles affiliate Ray Collins, Gladys George, and Hoagy Carmichael, picking up where he left off two years previously in To Have and Have Not.)  But the film indelibly bears Toland’s stamp, a style so distinguished that Orson Welles shared his title card with the cinematographer on the credits for Citizen Kane, a tribute to his enormous influence.


Deep Focus

Foreground and Background in a Classic Toland Composition



The Banquet in Best Years Echoes a Similar Shot from Citizen Kane


Phone Booth

Deep Focus in Action: The Drama is in the Phone Booth



Dana Andrews, among the many Looking for Work



Fredric March, Alone with his Thoughts