William Wyler’s The Best Years of our Lives is one of those movies that stays with you. And it’s one of those movies, like Annie Hall, that’s still relevant long after the awards have been presented. I wasn’t alive in World War II and my parents were yet to be born, so to say that I can relate to this movie is something of an understatement. But like many great films it’s all about the messages contained within. Like it’s a Wonderful Life and so many other great films of the time, this film has aged well and it’s one of several Best Picture winners that’s still very deserving of its spot. Oddly enough, it’s also one of three films to maintain its place in the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 American films in both lists (#37 on each) – the only other two were #1 (Citizen Kane) and The Godfather: Part II. While there are those that might debate its place on those lists, it can’t be argued that the film is indeed worthy. Our country has been at war for some time now and we seem to forget some of the sacrifices that our elders went through to ensure that America was, in fact, the land of the free and the home of the brave. Ladies and gentlemen, these truly were The Best Years of our Lives…
The film follows three soldiers, bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) and infantry sergeant Al Stephenson (Frederic March) meet while on the way home to Boone City. Homer has lost his hands and has become skilled at using his new hooks, but he doesn’t know how to deal with his well-meaning family, or how to handle his fiancée (Cathy O’Donnell in her first role). Fred hopes for a new job, but winds up back at the same drugstore that employed him before the war. Fred’s wife Marie (gorgeous Virginia Mayo), whom he married just days before leaving for the war, no longer seems like a good match. Finally, Al returns to his wife (Myrna Loy) and grown kids, gets a new job in his old bank (handling small loans to G.I.s) and spends most of his time drunk. The three men occasionally meet with a stirring camaraderie that could come only with their shared experience. To make matters more complicated, Fred falls in love with Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright).
Director Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood probably had to make several concessions in creating this adult-themed material, and it shows; some characters and sequences are more restrained and tentative than others, but overall it’s still a stirring piece of work. Hoagy Carmichael has a nice, warm role as Homer’s uncle (and plays the piano). Also, be on the lookout for quick glimpses of Gene Krupa and other musicians of the era. Oddly, only March and Russell were nominated in the acting categories, and they both won. Russell was a real veteran with real hooks for hands, and he won a second, honorary Oscar for “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.”
Video: How’s it look?
Warner has taken care of this title and its been presented in a full-frame black and white image, the movie won’t fill up your screen, but right away I did notice an increase in sharpness that wasn’t present before. The movie had always had somewhat of a soft look and feel to it and with increased contrast and black levels seeming more solid, I feel that this is, by far, the best the film has ever looked on a home video format. For comparison’s sake, there are a few scenes of the movie in the featurettes, so you can see how improved the picture is. It’s easy to be spoiled by some of the newer releases, but for a film that’s now sixty five years old it looks pretty darn good. I doubt anyone will be disappointed.
Audio: How’s it sound?
Uncompressed sound is a great thing and I’m usually in favor of involving every channel in my house to justify my purchase of all the A/V gear. Thankfully Warner has a lot more common sense than me and has utilized a DTS HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack. Yes, we only get one channel, but the sound emanating from it sounds rich and natural. This film was made far before the multi-channel soundtracks that we have today and suffers by comparison. But when you consider what you’re listening to, it doesn’t sound that bad. Vocals are rich and warm and there’s even a few songs that liven up the film. I didn’t detect a ‘hiss’ that’s sometimes associated with films of the era. This soundtrack won’t blow the roof off the place, but I was pleasantly surprised with how this mono track sounded.
Supplements: What are the extras?
You would think that one of the most acclaimed movies of all-time and a Best Picture winner to boot might have a little more to offer on Blu-ray, but sadly we only get the same recycled extras that appeared on the standard DVD from HBO (issued in 1998).
Introduction by Virginia Mayo – As stated, it’s a brief one minute introduction to the film by Virginia Mayo.
Interviews with Virgina Mayo and Teresa Wright – Again, pretty self-explanatory, both actress are interviewed (remember this is “vintage” footage) and both recall some events from the set. Nothing too terribly intriguing, but it does make us wish there were some more features of substance present.