January 21, 2014
The Academy Awards present what Hollywood considers its best face to the world. Never an objective measure of artistic accomplishment, if such a thing is even possible, it instead functions as a self-justification that the almighty dollar doesn’t decide their every decision. Any self-serious title has a shot at the gold, so it’s only through luck or strong-arm tactics that historically significant work is awarded. Instead of bemoaning the unearned influence of the awards, or the value of this year’s nominations, I’m devoting space to one of those rare, remarkable Best Picture winners, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Released late last year in a richly detailed Blu-ray transfer from Warner Brothers, it is a patient, empathetic examination of soldiers re-entering American society following WWII. In its even lighting, off-the-rack costuming and deep focus long takes, Andre Bazin found “the perfect neutrality and transparency of style”.
Director William Wyler was a serviceman for three years, as part of the Eighth Air Force Technical Training Unit, whose orders were to produce films for “public morale and education” and capture “events of historical value.” He accompanied bombing raids from England into Western Europe, filming as much as he could. His technical crew was exposed to the same dangers as the pilots, and Wyler’s sound man Harold Tannenbaum was killed after his B-24 Bomber was gunned down over Brest, France. Wyler grew fond of his crew mates, writing at the time, “they’re the most alert, most alive and most stimulating group of young men I’ve ever met.” This footage was edited into his War Department documentary about the Memphis Belle bomber, which occasioned the first front page film review in the NY Times’ history (“thorough and vivid”, Bosley Crowther wrote).
After the war Wyler formed Liberty Films with fellow veterans and filmmakers Frank Capra, George Stevens and Samuel Briskin. But before starting out on this new venture, Samuel Goldwyn convinced him to sign on to make The Best Years of Our Lives for his production company. Goldwyn became interested in the project in 1944, after his wife Frances recommended a Time Magazine story entitled, “The Way Home”, about soldiers re-adjusting to civilian life. He hired MacKinlay Kantor to write a treatment, now titled “Home Again”, and he produced 100 pages of blank verse that eventually turned into the novel Glory For Me (1945). His treatment was thoroughly re-worked by Robert Sherwood, who wrote the shooting script with input from Goldwyn and Wyler. A major change from treatment to script was the transformation of the disabled character, Homer, from a spastic into an amputee. Wyler saw Harold Russell in an educational short, “Diary of a Sergeant”, who displayed impressive dexterity with his prosthetic hands, after losing both in a 1944 training accident. The non-professional Russell was cast in the film, and would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work, which he would later sell in 1992 for over $60,000.
The script follows Homer (Russell), Al (Fredric March) and Fred (Dana Andrews) as they return to their old lives in Boone City, a fictional Midwestern city modeled on Cincinnati. Homer is a sweet, innocent kid who wants to be treated as a normal joe, but is tormented by how his disability unsettles those around him. People subtly shift the direction of their glances and adjust their bodies, Homer’s hooks displacing the normal flow of social intercourse. Bazin writes that “Almost all Wyler’s shots are built like an equation, or perhaps better, like a like a dramatic mechanism whose parallelogram of forces can almost be drawn in geometrical lines.” In these early scenes Homer is expelling force, not gathering it. Sensitive to these disruptions, he avoids his high school sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) for fear she will marry him for pity rather than love. Fred, a much-decorated Air Force Captain, is busted down to an under-employed working man once he’s back in civilian clothes, a glum perfume jockey at a department store – one that swallowed up the soda joint from his youth. He got married a week before shipping out, and his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) acts like they were never hitched. She’s an underwritten nightclub gal, a thrill-seeking golddigger that’s more of a plot point than a character. She is contrasted against Peggy (Teresa Wright), the no-fuss nurse who falls in love with Fred. Al is Peggy’s father, an Army Sergeant who has the cushiest re-entry, with a stable bank job and a loving (if strained) marriage.
Wyler felt he “knew these people”, and spent the production searching for a lucid realism. Today “realism” invokes images of a handheld camera bobbing around the streets of Italy, but Wyler was not after neorealism’s immediacy, but the power of Hollywood technology to create maximum legibility. In Citizen Kane Gregg Toland’s deep focus is maximal, the chiaroscuro and canted angles touches reflecting Kane’s deteriorating psyche. In The Best Years of Our Lives Wyler wanted “a realism that would be as simple as possible.” One that “could follow an action to its end without cutting. The resulting continuity makes the shots more alive, more interesting for the viewer, who can choose of his own will to study a particular character and who can make his own cuts.”
In many ways Wyler was after the one-shot tableaus of early cinema and the Lumieres, only with more depth of field. This strategy emphasizes groupings and separations, weighing each side of the screen. Imbalances in composition undergird those of the characters, whether it’s the panopticon perch of the department store manager overlooking Fred in the extreme distance, or the famous unbalanced shot of Fred in the far left background (phoning Peggy that he can’t see her anymore) and of Al watching Homer play chopsticks on the piano with his Uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael). This sequence is emblematic of Wyler’s process of reduction – hiding an important plot point in the back of the frame while the soundtrack and visual cues direct the eye to the piano, creating tension without need for cross-cutting. That scene marks a temporary fissure in the servicemen’s friendship, initially composed in a tight clump of three aboard the plane to Boone City. They are reunited in another unbalanced composition, a mass of wedding revelers embrace to the right, while a glance from Fred to Peggy connect fore and background in Wyler’s geometric and deeply moving film.