Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Remembering the Best Years of Our Lives

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Remembering the Best Years of Our Lives

Article excerpt

Fifty years after the making of the Samuel Goldwyn-William Wyler film, The Best Years of Our Lives remains worthy of our remembering for its remarkably honest depiction of returning World War II veterans, and of the impact of their return upon the veterans, their families, friends, and loved ones, and postwar society at large. In all these respects, it continues to strike us as an extraordinary production for its historical moment-risking its candor of cultural critique on Americans still proud of a unified national war effort and in the same moment already hearkening to the repressive overtures of the Cold War Right. Indeed, in the calm realism of the movie's concentration on problems likely to be encountered by a cross-section of convincingly representative figures, one might contend that three major American wars and a number of overseas adventures later, we have vet to see its equal.

Moreover, intertwined with this story of the film's unusual success is also a production history perhaps as curious as any recorded for an American popular classic: a process actually beginning, as will be more fully shown, with more than a year of bitter combat ahead for Americans, in the producer Samuel Goldwyn's enthusiastic reading of an August 1944 Time magazine article on returning veterans; and concluding, just before the film's late 1946 release, with the entitling of the as-yet unnamed project by popular vote from a number of choices offered to test audiences. In between-to give but a sketch of events also more fully detailed below-Goldwyn would commission the historical novelist McKinlay Kantor to write a film treatment based on the article. The assignment so conceived would result instead in Glory for Me, a novel in the form of a narrative poem. That strange artifact would then be converted into a screenplay by the prospective director, William Wyler, with playwright and former Roosevelt advisor-speechwriter Robert Sherwood. In turn, with further changes by Goldwyn and others, it would be filmed by Wyler with an ensemble including actors Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Hoagy Carmichael, and, in the role of a maimed veteran, a military amputee named Harold Russell. And after that, the rest would become, as they say, movie legend. The film in its first release would earn eight million dollars. It would receive a total of seven academy awards. Two of these would go to the non-actor Russell -- the only time to date in which a performer has been thus honored.

Attempting to assimilate this complicated set of cultural and commercial vectors, what follows is a history of that production, a particular act of remembering. As is invariably the case with the World War II popular classic, however, the real product ultimately at issue will be America remembering itself

II

To begin with a number of converging accounts, involving various principals in the project, the basic idea for The Best Years of Our Lives truly does seem to have originated as it is said: in a reading -- suggested by his wife, some sources claim, during a quiet evening at home-by the immigrant-patriot Samuel Goldwyn of an article on the problems of returning combat veterans in Henry Luce's Time magazine. Featuring the piece as the lead item in its opening "U.S. at War" section, the issue can easily be identified as that of Aug. 7, 1944 -- although one also suspects Goldwyn's interest in a follow-up editor's column of the next week, elaborating various points in the previous story line. On the other hand, if the Time report can be described as focusing on the transition of returning veterans back to what Vietnam successors would call, simply, "The World," it did so, especially in comparison with the figures depicted in the eventual movie, in an extremely limited way. To begin with, the veterans in question were not discharged servicemen but a trainload of furloughed members of the First Marine Division -- veterans of bitter combat with commensurate homecoming anxieties, certainly, but still active-duty soldiers coming back only for 30 days of leave. …

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