Three World War II veterans return home to their families to recover from the worst years of their lives.
The Best Years of Out Lives, a misfired title, seems to have started as a gleam in Samuel Goldwyn’s eye when he saw in a mid-war issue of Time a picture and article about returning veterans. At a later stage it was a verse novel by MacKinlay Kantor called Glory for Me—not a very good title either. Robert E. Sherwood turned this into a screen play; the director William Wyler and the camera man Gregg Toland and a few hundred others turned the screen play into a movie. The movie has plenty of faults, and the worst of them are painfully exasperating; yet this is one of the very few American studio-made movies in years that seem to me profoundly pleasing, moving, and encouraging.
The story is a sort that could have been, and often remains, just slick-paper fiction and its most sincere, and that could also have become, and occasionally suggests, a great simple, limpid kind of fiction at its most sincere, and that could also have become, and occasionally suggests, a great and simple, limpid kind of fiction which few writers of serious talent seem able to attempt or even to respect, at present. An ex-bombardier (Dana Andrews), an ex-infantry sergeant (Fredric March), and an ex-sailor (Harold Russell) meet for the first time as they return to their home city, part to undertake the various pleasures and problems of their return, and meet again at various subsequent times as their lives and relationships shake down into new shape.
The bombardier, a highly intelligent proletarian, can find nothing better in the way of a job than his old place in a drugstore. He finds, too, that he and the girl he married just before he went overseas no longer get along. The sergeant, who was once the kind of nervously well-married, vocationess. rather sensitive business man, too good for his job, who tries to sweep along his uneasiness in a momentum of alcohol, clowning, fairly sophisticated wit, and his real but seldom focused affections, finds that none of that has changed for the better. He is made vice-president of his bank, in charge of G.I. loans, and spends a good deal of his time drunk. The sailor, who has lost both hands and has learned to use a pair of hooks quite well, returns to the gentlest and most touching depths of the lower middle class. His chief problem is the girl he had always expected to marry; another is his extreme uneasiness about everybody’s attempt to be good about his hook; a hideous complication is that he is at once intuitively very perceptive and sensitive, and hopelessly inarticulate, and that most of the people he returns to are equally well-meaning and un-sophisticated.
At its worst this story is very annoying in its patness, its timidity, its slithering attempts to pretend to face and by that pretense to dodge in the most shameful way possible its own fullest meanings and possibilities. Perhaps one shouldn’t kick too hard at a “mere” device, but I feel very dubious about the invention of a nice bar in which the veterans keep meeting each other, perhaps because I suspect one of the dodged truths is that, once they become civilians again, most men of such disparate classes or worlds would meet seldom, with greater embarrasment than friendliness, and that the picture is here presenting, instead of the unhappy likelihood, a hopeful and barely plausible lie. I feel a good deal of interest in the love affair that develops between Andews and the banker’s daughter, played by Teresa Wright, but again they have made it easy for themselves by showing Andrews’s wife to be a bag, and they atone for this convenience only in part by making her as well-meaning and sympathetic and essentially innocent as, in the terms invented for her, she could be. Thanks to much of the writing and all of the playing, this illicit affair is by implication remarkably real and mature; but in action, in the good old inevitable Sunday School way, the extra-marital activities are limited to a single Andrews-Wright kiss and a boy-friend, for Andrew’s wife, lolling in his shirtsleeves; and it is the wide who asks for a divorce.
Or again they pretend to his the banker’s predicament between the eyes, and allow him to tell off his careful world which doesn’t want to make loans to veterans without collateral in a speech which, on the movie scale of things, is reasonably bold. They even have the firmness to let March have the last word on that issue; he says that with nearly every loan without collateral he will have to put up the same fight all over again. Yet one is emotionally left with the impression that he has cleverly and lovably won his fight and will win it on every subsequent occasion, and the hints that his own bread and butter are and will be increasingly in jeopardy if he keeps his courage are so discreet as to be all but inaudible. As a footnote to this his boss, played by Ray Collins, is represented, not with the cool realism which could here have been so good and so nearly unprecedented in an American movie, but in the kind of skillful caricature which, like so much of Gilbert and Sullivan, makes every punch a kind of self-caress.
The only boss types represented cruelly are the manager and the floor-walker of a chain drugstore–that is, men in a job predicament in which they are as much bullied as bullying; and it is not shown that they are bullied. The only business type who is represented with what seems like perfect justice is the father of the sailor’s sweetheart, a specialized, fussy, feminine little man who nervously tries to badger the sailor about his plans for the future. Or for still another major fault—and here direction and playing are as much to blame as the script—the very interesting and , for movies, new character of the banker iis only hinted at, not solidly presented. Only the psychologically sophisticated can gather from the film that his marriage is only nominally happy and is actually precarious, and that the people who made the movie may possibly be on to this; and March’s benders though extremely well done in their way, are staged with all but frantic gratitude as broad comic relief, as if professional entertainers who were also good artists were on these occasions very glad to betray their responsibilities as artists for the sake of getting a little bit sure-fire—aand commercially much-needed—fun into the show.
In fact, it would be possible,, I don’t doubt, to call the whole picture just one long pious piece of deceit and self-deceit, embarrassed by hot flashes of talent, conscience, truthfulness, and dignity. And it is anyhow more than possible, it is unhappily obligatory, to observe that a good deal which might have been very fine, even great and which is handled mainly by people who could have done, and done perfectly, all the best that could have been developed out of the idea, is here either murdered in its cradle or reduced to manageable good citizenship in the early stages of grade school. Yet I feel a hundred times more liking and admiration for the film than distaste or disappointment.