William Wyler’s 1946 masterpiece, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, is the story of three servicemen and the trials they face readjusting to society and their families after World War II. It is one of my all-time favorite movies, and though it is almost three hours long, the first time I saw BEST YEARS, I was so impressed that I rewound it and watched it again. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was of the same opinion in 1946 when it awarded the film seven Oscars, including those for Best Director (Wyler), Best Scoring (Hugo Friedhofer), Best Screenplay (Robert E. Sherwood) and Best Picture of the Year. BEST YEARS’ producer Samuel Goldwyn also received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award that year in recognition of the “high quality of motion picture production” which BEST YEARS embodied. Though on lists of the greatest movies ever made, it is often outranked by more stylized films (like CITIZEN KANE (1941)) or more grandiose productions (such as GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)), in terms of pure cinematic storytelling, BEST YEARS is quite simply one of the finest films ever made.
Unlike so many other great movies of the last century … THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is not about the incomparable lives of extraordinary personalities; nor is it about ordinary people thrust into extreme situations. Rather, BEST YEARS relates the story of typical characters facing the then-typical challenge of resuming their lives after years of upheaval, separation and individual growth precipitated by the second World War; it is about people in transition in a world in transition. Brought to life by a cast of exceptionally talented actors, including both veteran performers and screen novices, the personal dramas in BEST YEARS are not only compelling, they also transcend the specific historical period in which they take place, making BEST YEARS a film about people and relationships to which an audience of any time period can relate.
The wonderfully moving scene when Fredric March, as the soldier returning home at the end of WWII, greets his wife, played by Myrna Loy, and kids.
It is not only the timeless characters and performances which make BEST YEARS so universal however, but also the exceptional craftsmanship with which the film is put together. Wyler’s direction and Gregg Toland’s deep-focus cinematography guide the narrative so transparently that nothing about the filmmaking distracts the audience from the drama unfolding before it. Robert E. Sherwood’s masterful screenplay seamlessly weaves together the separate and distinct worlds of the returning veterans. And Hugo Friedhofer’s score manages to both unite and differentiate the three parallel story-lines. Nothing about the production of BEST YEARS — from the acting to the editing — is ever permitted to draw attention to itself, allowing the audience to forget it is watching a movie and making the overall experience of seeing the film exceptionally personal and powerful. If ever there was one, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is a testament to the frequently unappreciated effectiveness of less-is-more moviemaking.