|The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
This Academy Award winning masterpiece recounts the problems faced by three returning veterans after WWII as they attempt to pick up the threads of their lives. Fredric March, Harold Russell and Dana Andrews are superb as the servicemen who find that returning to their previous lifestyles after the war is not an easy task.
|Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O'Donnell, Harold Russell
|Won for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor-Fredric March, Best Supporting Actor-Harold Russell, Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Score, 1947.
|Standard 1.33:1; audio English Dolby Surround & Digital Mono, Spanish & French Digital Mono; subtitles none; closed-captioned; double sided - single layered; 34 chapters; rated NR; 170 min.; $24.98; street date 1/19/98.
|Intro and Epilogue with Virginia Mayo; Interview with Teresa Wright; Isolated Music-only Track; Theatrical Trailer.
As someone who wasn't even a glimmer in my parents' eyes when World War II ended - geez, my Dad was only ten in 1945 - I've had to rely on media depictions of the War to communicate what it was like at that time. I've always found that war to be very interesting and I've studied it much more than most folks in my age range.
However, the vast majority of that focus has remained on military and political aspects of the conflict; I know relatively little about the social domains and how W.W. II affected them. To be honest, I'd always accepted the standard line that the entire country got behind the military in a big way and everyone went all-out with their support; we've always been taught that Vietnam was the first conflict during which things went poorly for veterans in the social realm.
For the most part, that may be true, but I was surprised to find the even after W.W.II, the media were willing to recognize that all wasn't just peaches and pie for returning soldiers. The general impression that's always been left is one of men coming back from the conflict, effortlessly re-entering our society and then propelling the US into some of its greatest "boom" years during the Fifties.
Apparently that wasn't quite true, as depicted in The Best Years of Our Lives, a 1946 film that won the Best Picture Oscar. It shows three men, strangers at the start of the movie who become friends after they share a transport back to their home town. The rest of the picture depicts the trials they face as they attempt to reintegrate with society.
TBYOOL offers a compelling picture of their various problems but suffers from this diffusion of focus. Even at nearly three hours in length, the movie doesn't seem long enough to fully document what happens to these men, and I thought it lacked the depth it needed. The tri-focal nature of the piece works in that it shows these reintegration difficulties weren't limited - something we might believe if it depicted only one main character - but I couldn't help but feel that a more specific protagonist might have allowed the movie to flesh out his story more fully.
Actually, one character does seem to stand as the de facto "main" one, although this is never made explicit; Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) definitely appears to muster more screen time than the other two men. Sergeant Al Stephenson (Frederic March) comes next - aided by the fact his tale and Derry's become more strongly interwoven when Derry hooks up with Stephenson's daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) - and injured sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) brings up the rear with the smallest part of the main three.
I think the fact Parrish's story gets the least attention occurs for a few reasons, and none of them good. Parrish lost his hands during the war, and the film used an actor who suffered a similar injury (though apparently Russell lost his during a training exercise gone awry, not through actual combat); this surprised me, since Hollywood usually takes an established actor and fakes the injury rather than work the other way around. Russell was not a professional actor and although his work he earned him serious accolades - he actually received two Oscars for the part - he didn't make another movie until 1980.
Despite this acclaim, I really didn't think much of Russell's acting; he's decent but a bit wooden and ham-fisted in the role. Politics were alive and well in Hollywood even in the Forties, and I'd speculate that he got the awards because of the real-life aspects of his story, not because of his work. Anyway, I feel Parrish's story gets put slightly on the backburner just because the filmmakers knew Russell was the least talented of the actors and didn't want to make him the focal point of the movie.
I also wonder if the potential reactions to Russell's disability may have kept him somewhat in the film's shadows. Although there aren't any graphic "stump" shots in TBYOOL - his arms are always neatly bandaged - I'm sure audiences were probably a bit shocked to see Russell's handless arms and his hooks. The filmmakers may have minimized his screentime to make the project more palatable to the era's tastes.
Which is too bad, because Parrish's story really is the most dramatic and compelling of the three, or at least it could have been, since he really faced the greatest obstacles to reintegration. As it stands, the movie essentially works as a romantic melodrama, since two of the three stories revolve mainly around relationship issues; Derry's in a loveless marriage to a floozy (Virginia Mayo) while Parrish is sure his long-time honey Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) can't love a deformed lump like him.
In contrast, Stephenson's story - which lacks romantic interest since we see things seem good between him and his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) - largely sticks with his issues at his bank management job (which mostly concern his disagreements with his bosses) and his clear drinking problem, which never receives any real attention. As such, although March and Loy appear to be the two strongest actors in the cast and both lend weight to their characters, their story seems fairly disinteresting; I kept waiting for something to occur in regard to the drinking and for the two to interact - especially when Al makes a drunken speech at a banquet in his honor - but this never happens, and the Stephenson family's main concern seems to become Peggy's romantic problems. They have a son as well, but since he doesn't fit that plot, he literally vanishes early on; I can't state for certain we never see him again, but I can't recall observing Rob (Michael Hall) after the movie's first 30 minutes or so.
Despite these criticisms, I did find TBYOOL to offer a generally compelling experience. The film had the potential to be a serious drag considering its length, but that's one area in which the three somewhat superficial storylines help; they make the project move along at a nice clip since the plot never gets bogged down with dull filler. The acting seems uniformly good; as I mentioned, Loy and March seem strongest, but I can't name a weak link. I can't call The Best Years of Our Lives a great film, but it clearly has some merits and it did provide an eye-opening view of the way society reintegrated World War II veterans.
The Best Years of Our Lives appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.37:1 on this double-sided, single-layered DVD. Yes, that's right - it's a flipper! This doesn't bother me especially since the movie runs for nearly three hours, but those of you who loathe flippers have been warned. Due to its dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While in general the movie looks good for its age, what appears to be some poor compression leads to significant problems.
Usually I hesitate to indicate that digital artifacts are the cause of picture problems because they often look so much like film grain; as such, I'll admit that I'm not 100 percent sure the flaws I saw were artifacts and not other concerns. However, I do feel this film's problems are artifacts because the entire picture often displayed some instability. Not only did I frequently witness the graininess associated with artifacts, but the image occasionally seemed to shimmer and flicker in odd ways; these are the kinds of things that did not appear associated with the original material and probably were caused by the encoding itself.
It's a shame that the compression seems so weak because otherwise the transfer looks pretty good. Sharpness can be a little vague at times but usually appears very crisp and accurate. Although I noted shimmering, those issues seemed related to the compression and I saw no examples of true moiré effects or jagged edges. The print itself has been restored and cleaned up, and the technicians did a decent job; it still displays a fair number of defects such as scratches, speckles and tears, but for the most part, the print seems relatively clean for its age.
Black levels are nicely deep and rich and appear quite solid. Shadow detail generally looks appropriately opaque but at times it can be overly gauzy and thick; one early night-time scene seemed a bit murkier than I'd like. To be honest, I feel a little bad about giving TBYOOL such a low rating because it's an old film that remains watchable; however, the digital artifacts seem too strong for me to ignore them.
When they cleaned up the picture, the remasterers also worked on the sound, and it benefits from the experience. TBYOOL can be heard via either its original monaural soundtrack or a newly-fashioned Dolby Surround 2.0 mix; I switched back and forth between them as I watched the movie but I usually listened to the Surround track.
Both provide very similar audio quality, though the Surround mix appears slightly better-defined and brighter than the mono, so it gets a slight nod in regard to tone. Dialogue seemed nicely warm and reasonably natural; I discerned no intelligibility problems. Effects appeared clear and acceptably realistic with no evidence of distortion, and the music was relatively smooth and clean, though it lacked much dynamic range and it favored the higher end of the spectrum. Although not excessive, the mix does feature a fair amount of background hiss and noise; that's really its main flaw. The quality isn't much above average for a film from this era, but it seems decent.
The Surround mix adds a slight broadening of the soundfield but to be frank, it's really still largely a mono track. Dialogue tends to move slightly to the right or left (depending on the speaker's positioning) and occasionally goes all the way to the edge if appropriate, but it generally clings to the center. Effects also seemed very much placed in the middle channel, though during some bigger scenes - such as nightclubs with dancing - they spread lightly to the sides and rears. Music worked similarly, with the focal point staying in the center but also with some gentle extension to the other speakers. This track's broadening of the mix did little for me; I preferred the Surround option because the quality seemed slightly crisper but it doesn't offer much more than that.
TBYOOL doesn't provide many supplemental features but we get a few on this DVD. We find a third audio track that provides the film with just effects and score; only the dialogue has been deleted. Actually, this is an odd track in that we only hear any audio when music plays; during scenes that offer only effects or effects and dialogue, the track is silent. I'd guess that the effects and music were welded in such a way that made splitting them impossible. Anyway, this track doesn't do much for me, but it's a decent addition.
We also find eight and a half minutes of interviews with actresses Virginia Mayo and Teresa Wright. These appear to be fairly recent pieces and offer some nice insight into the production. I especially enjoyed them because both actresses could be pretty frank; while they generally praise the film, they also provide some mildly critical comments about it. While these snippets were brief, they still seemed interesting and informative.
The DVD provides some pretty good biographies for director Wyler, screenwriter Robert Sherwood, and five of the actors. These aren't tremendously detailed but they seemed above average for this kind of piece. Finally, the DVD adds the original theatrical trailer and a filmed image of the movie's poster.
The Best Years of Our Lives provides an unusual experience in that it views the reintegration of World War II veterans, a subject much less explored than, say, the negative treatment of Vietnam vets. I thought the film seemed a bit superficial and perhaps too ambitious but it was generally interesting and provocative. The DVD provides a picture marred by poor compression and only a few supplements but offers relatively strong sound. TBYOOL makes a solid rental for World War II buffs or those interested in Academy Award history.
Note: After this review was completed, the rights to Best Years changed and the DVD was reissued. At$19.98, the new release lists for five dollars less, and it also places the film on one side of a dual-layered disc. However, I'm not sure whether it includes the same supplements as the older release; I checked around on the Internet and was unable to find conclusive evidence in either direction, though I get the feeling the new MGM release lacks the HBO version's extras. Since the latter has been discontinued, it may be a moot point, but you may want to try to find it if you value supplements.