Monday, May 31, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives: Honor Them

Happy Memorial Day, everyone!  I hope you are having a good day off.  Did you get to watch any of the marathon on TCM this weekend?  If so, you might have caught one of my favorite war dramas, the one I'm going to talk about today - "The Best Years of Our Lives."

From 1946, it's the story of three GIs, one family man, one poor man, and one boy next door, as they return home from war.  It's all about how war has effected them, changed them, and the people and loved ones they left behind.  It stars Fedric March as the family man and the wonderful Myrna Loy as his wife, Teresa Wright as their daughter, Dana Andrews as the poor one, Virginia Mayo as the new wife he left behind, and Harold Russell as the boy next door who returns with no hands.

Harold Russell is the greatest story about this movie I think.  A real disabled WWII veteran and not an actor, director William Wyler discovered Russell while watching a training film called "Diary of a Sergeant" about rehabilitating war veterans.  Russell had been training paratroopers at a camp in the US when some TNT accidently went off in his hands, causing him to lose both of them.  They were replaced by hooks.  He became so good at using his hooks, though, he joked he could pick up anything but the dinner check.  When Wyler saw Russell in the training film, he decided to change the character of Homer from a war trauma victim to a double amputee.  Russell did such a good job that he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  However, the Academy's Board of Governors thought he would be a long-shot to win, and they wanted to honor him anyway, so they created a special award for him "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance."  When he won for Best Supporting Actor that night, not only was everyone there exuberantly happy for him, but he became the only person in Academy Award history to receive two Oscars for the same performance.

This was the first film William Wyler made after WWII.  He had been a major in the Army Air Force during the war, shooting footage for training films and documentaries.  When he got the job to direct "The Best Years of Our Lives," he wanted to make it as realistic as possible, to honor all the veterans he had met.  He made the cast buy their own clothes off the rack and wear them around before filming so that it had that natural lived-in feel.  He had all the sets built life-size (sets were usually built a little bit larger than normal because of the size of the camera).  He even hired only WWII veterans for his film crew (that's props, grips, set builders, lighting, everything) so that every part had a realistic touch to it.

Wyler's dedication to this project paid off.  "Best Years" became a huge success, both critically and commercially.  When it was released, it became the largest box office success since "Gone with the Wind" seven years before.  It is still ranked as the sixth most successful film in UK history (from the UK's Ultimate Film list, which is based on number of tickets sold and not price).  As for Oscars, it won six more to add to Russell's, including Best Director and the ultimate Best Picture.  It also became the first film to win the BAFTA Award for Best Film after the event was established in 1948.  Its acclaim still even reaches to today, ranking #37 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies list (both editions).  And it got the great honor to be one of the first films to be chosen to go into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry when it was created in 1989.

I think it's pretty obvious why I love this film.  Not only is it a great movie, but, as I've mentioned before, I am a romantic.  And sad (and maybe a little twisted) as it might be, there is nothing more romantic than WWII dramas to me.  I do not condone war in the slightest, but there is something noble and raw in any story based during that time.  It's war, which brings out human nature at its truest, at its purist.  And I feel "The Best Years of Our Lives" hits those human elements right on the nose.  I guess that's the true meaning of "a romantic," someone who longs for pure human emotion.

So, if you get a chance on your day off, go out and rent "The Best Years of Our Lives" (or click here).  Honor those men and women who gave their lives, their sanity, their humanity for our country.  Whether you believe in what they were fighting for or not, they still deserve our respect.  Have a wonderful rest of your holiday!  Be back Friday.

(Post-tidbit:  Producer Samuel Goldwin ended up sending Harold Russell to acting classes without William Wyler's knowledge.  When Wyler found out, he was furious because it was Russell's untrained acting style he wanted.)

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