Sixty years ago tomorrow on March 13, 1947, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” won a basket full of Academy Awards. This week is devoted to that film.
It was a film made in 1946, and was essentially about 1946, illustrating a year ironically more tenuous than celebratory, in a victorious nation etched with anxiety about its future. The year 1946 means a little less to us today, except as the start of the Baby Boom. We are fairly egocentric about things like that.
Director William Wyler shows the problems of three veterans: of Homer’s prosthetic hooks; of Al’s restless dissatisfaction with his bank job and his ready relief in drink; and of Fred’s disillusionment that the wife, home in the suburbs and good job he thought would be waiting for him after the war have fizzled out, one by one. Dana Andrews plays Fred, spending much of the movie lugging around an overstuffed army suitcase, trying to find “home.”
Wyler’s treatment of Homer, played by amputee Harold Russell, was sensitive and straightforward. Homer pulls his hooks out into view early in the film when he signs his name on a paper. We see Homer shaking “hands” repeatedly through the film, knocking on doors, drinking, eating, handling money in a billfold, never hiding his hooks but using them as naturally and as often as he would his hands, even playfully banging out “Chopsticks” in a piano duet. Wyler forces us to look at the hooks. In one splendid scene, Homer visits his uncle’s bar, and feeling at home with his pals and away from the nervousness of his family, proceeds to hold a conversation while pushing his sailor hat back farther on his head, handling a beer in a pilsner glass, shaking “hands”, and slamming his hook down on the bar as a man might slam his fist to make a point. It is stupendous for its very naturalness and simplicity.