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movies matter | criticism by maryann johanson

The Best Years of Our Lives (review)

As the World War Turns

In postwar 1946, three soldiers are coming home to their small midwestern city. Air Force Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a soda jerk before the war, returns to the railyard slums of his parents; Army Sergeant Al Stephenson (Frederic March), VP of a small bank, has a lovely wife (Myrna Loy) and two perfect children waiting for him in their luxury apartment; Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a Navy grunt and a kid from a middle-class family, has lost both his hands and hides himself away in his parents’ house.

These returning GIs are just as nervous about coming home as they were going overseas. And rightly so: they must rebuild relationships with the family and friends from whom they’ve been parted for so long, and the world they’re returning to is not the same one they left years earlier. These three men, whose paths would have been unlikely to cross before the war — and even now back in civilian life, there are worlds between them — find themselves turning to one another for support, united by their experiences in the war and their disconnection from their homes and families.

The Best Years of Our Lives is the very best kind of soap opera, detailing the problems and heartaches of people we come instantly to care about. It’s impossible not to get caught up in their lives: Will Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) go after handsome and tormented Fred, who’s actually already married to the faithless and heartless Marie (Virginia Mayo)? Will Homer accept that his fiancée Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) still wants him, prosthetic hands and all? Will Al risk his VP position approving risky loans to GIs?

The Best Years of Our Lives is a long movie, but that just means there’s no need to tune in tomorrow — you’ll get all the sudsy answers in one viewing.


Oscars Best Motion Picture 1946
AFI 100 (1998 list): #37

unforgettable movie moment:
Homer shows Wilma how he must remove his prosthetic hands every night in preparation for bed.

previous Best Picture:
1945: The Lost Weekend
next Best Picture:
1947: Gentleman’s Agreement

previous AFI 100 film:
36: Midnight Cowboy
next AFI 100 film:
38: Double Indemnity

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures


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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | directed by William Wyler
US/Can release: Nov 26 1946

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated U

viewed at home on a small screen

IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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