The Best Years of Our Lives Cast
The Best Years of Our Lives is an elegant classic melodrama with subtle observations about daily life, following three war veterans who try to readjust to civilian life after military service. Al Stephenson is a bank executive; Homer Parrish is an upper-middle-class petty officer; while Fred Derry lives by the railroad tracks with his overbearing stepmother Virginia Mayo (Virginia Mayo).
Each man finds comfort at Butch’s bar, owned and run by Hoagy Carmichael (Fred’s uncle). Meanwhile, their women find lasting happiness with new lovers or husbands.
As its title indicates, this film follows three World War II veterans transitioning back into civilian life following their military service. Set in Boone City in Midwestern America, each protagonist faces unique difficulties upon return home; Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell give stellar performances.
March, who enjoyed an outstanding career on film and stage, shines as Al Stephenson – a prosperous banker turned patriarch with a warm family life, an unsympathetic view of country club presumptions, and a drinking problem. Andrews gave one of his finest performances as Fred Derry (Fred March in real life), whose career is in decline while marriage is in trouble due to a two-timing temptress (Virginia Mayo).
Homer Parrish, the Navy man who lost both hands during World War II, is perhaps one of the most relatable characters. Struggling to regain his former athletic prowess while dealing with concerns that his childhood sweetheart won’t love him anymore, this scene features real-life double amputee Russell giving an extraordinarily moving and powerful performance, which won him both Best Supporting Actor Oscar as well as a special Academy Award for bringing hope to veterans.
William Wyler’s intimate epic about three returning war veterans is one of Hollywood’s most moving and emotionally satisfying postwar dramas. Starring Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Virginia Mayo, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell, this movie will touch your heart and remain with you long after watching.
Though nearly three hours long, this film never drags or loses its grip on its audience. The powerful scenes depicting men returning home are a powerful reminder of just how critical family support is during warfare. Cinematographer Gregg Toland won an Academy Award in 1941 for his cinematographic efforts in Citizen Kane; his cinematography on The Great War featured amazing aerial shots showing aircraft being stored at Ontario Airport’s scrapyard.
Fredric March and Harold Russell star in this intimate epic about three World War II veterans returning home, each facing different issues, such as dealing with their relationships in their family units. It premiered in 1946 and quickly became one of the biggest hits at the box office – it even won an Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award that year! Today, it stands among one of the greatest movies ever made.
Once back home in Middle America, they discover their lives have dramatically shifted since leaving service. Al Stephenson (Fredric March), now a prosperous banker and patriarch with an outraged attitude about country club presumptions, also suffers from serious drinking issues. Meanwhile, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is an overworked bombardier suffering from nightmares while having marital woes; Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) is a shy fiancee with an unfulfilled career as a scoutmaster.
Fred discovers his former employer has sold out and no longer needs him due to the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. Determined to return to work despite his concerns over its relevance, he embarks on his return with mixed feelings: his old job no longer fulfills him.
While waiting for the airport to open, Fred stumbles across an aircraft boneyard. He climbs inside an old B-17’s bombardier compartment – an experience that shakes him awake to his war experiences and helps him come to terms with them.
Homer and Wilma attend their wedding with Fred acting as best man. When Wilma tells Fred it will be difficult if she stays together, Fred responds that Wilma is his love and that things won’t change soon.
Marie becomes attracted to Cliff, a bartender dating Peggy, but attempts at breaking up their relationship fail as Peggy loves Fred too much and refuses to listen. Cathy O’Donnell excelled as Wilma Cameron, who became engaged to someone different after World War II; Gladys George from the classic film noir The Maltese Falcon was an outstanding supporting cast member as Hortense Derry (Fred’s mother).
The Best Years of Our Lives is an Academy Award-winning drama that brilliantly conveys many World War II veterans’ disillusionment after returning home from battle, yet its themes are still pertinent today. Other recent films (Rambo starring Sylvester Stallone; Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July and Bruce Willis in In Country) have dealt with similar themes, yet The Best Years of Our Lives provides a more nuanced portrayal of postwar veteran struggles than these other works do.
Harold Russell was himself a WWII veteran. Hailing from Nova Scotia and living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after the death of his father, Russell worked in various odd jobs before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which prompted him to enlist with the Army as soon as the following day and become a parachute and demolitions instructor at Camp Mackall NC; on June 6, 1944, while handling dynamite at this base when it exploded in his hands amputating both fingers three inches above their wrists.
His acting career may have been short, but he was an extraordinary real-life hero who provided hope and inspiration for many veterans. After appearing in an educational short called Diary of a Sergeant produced by the military, it caught the attention of government higher-ups who recruited him as part of their eighth war loan drive promotion tours across the country – screening and then discussing his personal experiences as a disabled vet at events around the nation.
William Wyler recruited Russell to portray Homer Parrish in The Best Years of Our Lives, a considerable success that won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture (beating out Gone With the Wind for that honor), a benefit for inspiring hope and courage among soldiers, as well as being nominated for an additional special award honoring veterans’ contributions to society. Russell won both of these Oscars – one for his performance and another as an example to other veterans.
Dana Andrews was already an established star, while Fredric March was best known for supporting roles in The Thin Man and several classic Hollywood musicals. Harold Russell made headlines after receiving two Oscars for playing real-life hero Harold Russell, who lost both arms due to a grenade explosion during WWII – yet still managed a brief acting career following this film’s release.
Recent films about returning war veterans often star significant stars. Still, one older film offers a kinder, gentler (but no less pointed) view on these issues: 1946’s critically acclaimed Oscar-winning classic, The Best Years of Our Lives.
This story centers on the intertwined homecomings of three former WW II veterans. Al Stephenson (Fredric March) returns home to Milly and their two children, Peggy and Rob (Teresa Wright and Michael Hall), all grown up while he was away. However, Bomber Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) finds adjusting to civilian banker life difficult. At the same time, Amuptee Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) struggles to reconnect with his family despite returning with hooks instead of hands!
O’Donnell, known for her chorus girl role on the Goldwyn lot, shines here as an emotional yet rebellious ingenue. Her sensitive acting and captivating beauty made her famous in Gone with the Wind; their scenes together are both moving and heartbreaking.
William Wyler masterfully orchestrates The Best Years of Our Lives, leaving nothing to hinder its dramatic flow and keep viewers’ attention focused on its plotline. Even at just under three hours in running time, there are no extraneous scenes or instances for their focus to wander; cinematographer William Toland uses deep focus lenses to ensure each character remains visible at all times.
Hoagy Carmichael’s gorgeous and memorable tunes add a lovely atmosphere; Virginia Mayo excels as the double-timing wife; Hoagy also contributes with several key character performances to deliver atmosphere, and Virginia Mayo plays her double role perfectly. Hoagy made many other films, such as the 1949 remake of the Rumer Godden’s novel Take Three Tenses opposite Farley Granger, before passing away in April 1970 of cancer-related complications.