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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is an American drama film about three servicemen trying to piece their lives back together after coming home from World War II.

Samuel Goldwyn was motivated to produce the film after his wife Frances read an August 7, 1944 article in Time magazine about the difficulties experienced by war veterans returning to civilian life. Goldwyn hired former war correspondent MacKinlay Kantor to write the story, which was first published as a novella, Glory for Me, which was written in blank verse. Robert Sherwood then wrote the screenplay. It was directed by William Wyler, with cinematography by Gregg Toland. The film won seven Academy Awards. In addition to its critical success the film was a massive commercial success upon release becoming the highest grossing film in both the USA and UK since the release of Gone with the Wind. It remains the sixth most profitable film of all time in the UK.

The ensemble cast includes Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, and Hoagy Carmichael. It also features Harold Russell, a U.S. paratrooper who had lost both his hands in a training accident.


After World War II, demobilized servicemen Fred Derry, Homer Parrish, and Al Stephenson meet while hitching a ride home in a bomber to Boone City, a fictional Midwestern city, patterned after Cincinnatimarker, Ohiomarker. Fred was a highly decorated Army Air Forces captain and bombardier with the Eighth Air Force in Europe, who still suffers from nightmares of combat. Homer had been in the Navy, losing both of his hands from burns suffered when his aircraft carrier was sunk. For replacements, he has mechanical hook prostheses. Al served as an infantry sergeant in the 25th Infantry Division, fighting in the Pacific.

Prior to the war, Al had worked as a bank executive and loan officer for the Corn Belt Savings and Loan bank in Boone City. A mature man with a loving family, his patient wife Milly, adult daughter Peggy and college freshman son Rob; he nevertheless has trouble readjusting to civilian life, as do his two chance acquaintances.

The bank, anticipating an increase in loans to returning war veterans, promotes Al to Vice President in charge of the small loan department because of his war experience. However, after he approves a chancy loan to a veteran, Al's boss Mr. Milton advises him not to gamble on further loans without collateral. At his welcome-home dinner, a slightly-drunk Al gives a stirring speech, acknowledging that people will think that the bank is gambling with the shareholders' money if he has his way, "And they'll be right; we'll be gambling on the future of this country!" Mr. Milton applauds his sentiments, but Al remarks later, "He'll back me up wholeheartedly until the next time I help some little guy, then I'll have to fight it out again."

Homer playing piano.
Note the in-focus figure of Fred in the phone booth in the background, while maintaining clear focus on Homer, Butch and Al.
Before the war, Fred had been an unskilled drugstore soda jerk, having been raised in a poor neighborhood. He does not want to return to his old job, but has no choice, given the stiff competition from other returning veterans and his lack of civilian skills. He had met Marie (Virginia Mayo) while in training and married her shortly afterward, before shipping out less than a month later. She took a job as a night club waitress and set up her own apartment while Fred was overseas. She does not relish being married to a soda jerk instead of an officer.

Peggy meets and falls in love with Fred, and holds Marie in contempt after discovering how shallow and selfish she is. Peggy tells her parents she intends to break up Fred and Marie's marriage, only to be told that their own marriage overcame similar problems. To protect Peggy, Al pressures Fred to break off all contact with his daughter. Fred does so, but the friendship between the two men ends.

Homer was a football quarterback before the war. Before leaving to fight, he had become engaged to Wilma. When he returns, both Homer and his parents have trouble dealing with his disability. He does not want to burden Wilma with a handicapped man, so he pushes her away, although she is the one who has adjusted best to the situation. His uncle Butch owns a bar where the three men meet from time to time. Butch counsels Homer, but is careful not to tell his nephew what to do.

When an obnoxious soda fountain customer, who says that the war was fought against the wrong enemies, gets into an altercation with Homer, Fred punches the troublemaker and loses his job. When Fred returns home to tell his wife the bad news, he discovers her with another man. Marie exclaims:

I gave up the best years of my life, and what have you done?
You flopped!
Couldn't even hold that job at the drugstore.
So I'm going back to work for myself and that means I'm gonna live for myself too.
And in case you don't understand English, I'm gonna get a divorce.

Fred decides to leave town, and goes to his father's house to say goodbye. He gives his father, Pat Derry, his medals and citations, saying dismissively that they were "passed out with the k-rations." After he leaves, his father reads to his partner Fred's Distinguished Flying Cross citation, detailing his heroism.

While waiting for an aircraft, Fred walks around the airport to kill time and wanders into a vast wartime aircraft "boneyard". Climbing into the nose of a B-17 Flying Fortress, he begins to relive intense memories of combat. He is brought out of his reverie by the boss of a work crew. Derry assumes that the aircraft, like himself, are garbage to be thrown away but the crew chief explains that the aluminum is being salvaged to build pre-fabricated housing. Fred talks the man into giving him a job.

Wilma tells Homer that her family wants her to go away, since it seems that he will not marry her. He bluntly and explicitly demonstrates how hard life with him would be, but she is unfazed. When she makes it clear that she loves him regardless, he gives in. Now divorced, Fred is Homer's best man at the wedding. He greets Peggy pleasantly but formally, but they exchange meaningful looks throughout the ceremony. Homer successfully manipulates Wilma's wedding ring with his mechanical hands, and places it onto her finger. As the guests congratulate Homer and Wilma, Fred suddenly approaches Peggy and holds her, telling her that their life together will be a hard struggle, that they'd be "kicked around." However, she beams throughout his discouraging words. They rush into an embrace, and kiss.


Casting brought together established stars as well as character actors and relative unknowns. Famed drummer Gene Krupa is seen in archival footage, while Tennessee Ernie Ford, later a famous television star, appears as an uncredited "hillbilly singer" (in the first of his only three film appearances). At the time the film was shot, Ford was unknown as a singer, and working in San Bernardinomarker as a radio announcer-disc jockey, his singing skills not yet known. They would not emerge until he began making records in 1949. Notable film producer and director Blake Edwards appears fleetingly as an uncredited "Corporal". Actress Judy Wyler was also cast in her first role in her father's production.


Director William Wyler had actually flown combat missions over Europe in filming Memphis Belle (1944) and worked hard to get realistic depictions of the combat veterans he had encountered. One of the innovative elements he introduced was in asking all the principal actors to purchase their own clothes to maintain an affinity for the period and provide a more genuine "feel." Other Wyler touches included constructing life-size sets which went against the standard larger sets that were more suited to camera positions. The impact to the audience was immediate as each scene played out in a realistic, natural way.

The movie began filming on April 15, 1946 at a variety of locations including the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Gardenmarker, Ontario International Airportmarker, Ontario, Californiamarker, Raleigh Studios, Hollywoodmarker and the Samuel Goldwyn/Warner Hollywood Studios.

The Best Years of Our Lives is notable for cinematographer Gregg Toland's use of deep focus photography, in which objects both close to and distant from the camera are in sharp focus.Kehr, Dave. The Best Years of Our Lives. The Chicago Reader. Retrieved: April 26, 2007. His evocative sequence of Fred Derry reliving a combat mission while sitting in the remains of a former bomber, utilized imaginative "zoom" effects to simulate an aircraft taking off.

The wartime combat aircraft that feature prominently in the film were being destroyed in large numbers at the end of hostilities. When former air force bombardier Derry walks among the aircraft ruins, the sequence was filmed at the Ontario Army Air Field in Ontario, California where the former training facility had been converted into a scrap yard housing nearly 2,000 former combat aircraft in various states of disassembly.


Shortly after its premiere at the Astor Theater, New York, Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, hailed the film as a masterpiece, and wrote, "It is seldom that there comes a motion picture which can be wholly and enthusiastically endorsed not only as superlative entertainment but as food for quiet and humanizing thought... In working out their solutions Mr. Sherwood and Mr. Wyler have achieved some of the most beautiful and inspiring demonstrations of human fortitude that we have had in films." He also said the ensemble casting gave the "'best' performance in this best film this year from Hollywood."

A more recent critic, Dave Kehr, is more reluctant to praise the film, but he makes the case for why the film is important today. He wrote, "The film is very proud of itself, exuding a stifling piety at times, but it works as well as this sort of thing can, thanks to accomplished performances by Fredric March, Myrna Loy, and Dana Andrews, who keep the human element afloat. Gregg Toland's deep-focus photography, though, remains the primary source of interest for today's audiences." David Thomson offers tempered praise: "I would concede that Best Years is decent and humane... acutely observed, despite being so meticulous a package. It would have taken uncommon genius and daring at that time to sneak a view of an untidy or unresolved America past Goldwyn or the public."

Not everyone was as complimentary. Iconoclastic critic Manny Farber called it "a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz."

Currently, the film has a 97% "Fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes, based on 26 reviews.

Popular culture

In 1949, characters in the Steve Canyon comic strip by Milton Caniff had to decide on one movie to show Snow Flower, the daughter of an Indian potentate, that would show her how life was in the United States. Notices in the strip asked readers to send suggestions to Caniff. The film chosen by characters in the strip was The Best Years of Our Lives. (However, due to the aircraft carrying the film being shot down, Snow Flower ends up seeing a home movies of the USA, while incredulous Communist rebels watch Best Years.

Awards and honors

1947 Academy Awards

The film received seven Academy Awards. Despite his touching Oscar-nominated performance, Harold Russell was not a professional actor and the Board of Governors considered him a long shot to win, so he was given an honorary award "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance". However, he was named Best Supporting Actor to a tumultuous reception, making him the only actor to receive two Academy Awards for the same performance. He later sold one of them to fund his fight against racism (or to support his wife's medical expenses). He often joked, "I can pick up anything but the check!"

1947 Golden Globe Awards

  • Won: Best Dramatic Motion Picture
  • Won: Special Award for Best Non-Professional Acting - Harold Russell

1948 BAFTA Awards

Other wins

In 1989, the National Film Registry selected it for preservation in the United States Library of Congressmarker as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

American Film Institute recognition


  1. Orriss 1984, p. 119.
  2. Levy, Emanuelle. Film review
  3. BFI'S Ultimate Film Chart Retrieved: August 9, 2009.
  4. Orriss 1984, p. 121.
  5. "Filming locations for The Best Years of Our Lives." Internet Movie Database. Retrieved: April 26, 2007.
  6. Orriss 1984, pp. 121–122.
  7. Crowther, Bosley. The Best Years of our Lives. The New York Times, November 22, 1946. Retrieved: April 26, 2007.
  8. Thomson 2002, p. 949.
  9. Flood 1998, p. 15.
  10. Manny Farber Retrieved: April 26, 2007.
  11. The Best Years of Our Lives. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved: March 18, 2007.

  • Dolan, Edward F. Jr. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Bison Books, 1985. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Flood, Richard. "Reel crank - critic Manny Farber." Artforum, Volume 37, Issue 1, September 1998. ISSN 0004-3532.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies." The Making of the Great Aviation Films. General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Orriss, Bruce. When Hollywood Ruled the Skies: The Aviation Film Classics of World War II. Hawthorn, California: Aero Associates Inc., 1984. ISBN 0-9613088-0-X.
  • Thomson, David. "Wyler, William." A Biographical Dictionary of Film. London: Little, Brown, 2002. ISBN 0-31685-905-2.

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