The last months of World War II found Hollywood in a difficult position. The end of the war was obviously near - but how near? Any 'peacetime' film put into production might have to sit on the shelf for months before VJ day arrived. The single exception was the subject of the rehabilitation of the fighting man, since this was a predictable problem that would affect Americans from every walk of life.
Sam Goldwyn had read an article in Time which foresaw huge difficulties for returning soldiers. Sensing that the subject-matter could be translated into feature-film material, he commissioned the writer MacKinlay Kantor to supply a 50-page treatment to serve as the basis for a future screenplay on the subject. With the war over, President Truman, to the great delight of Goldwyn's publicity department, set about demobilizing as quickly as he could. By May 1946, over seven million men had been demobbed.
Kantor, having spent the $12,500 Goldwyn had originally paid him, reappeared some three months later with a 268-page novel entitled Glory for Me, written in free verse. Goldwyn, once the total horror of the situation had dawned on him, threw a terrible rage which culminated in Kantor's getting another $7500 to write a screenplay from his novel. When this, too, proved to be a disaster, Goldwyn handed the project over to his most trusted lieutenants - the director William Wyler and the writer Robert E Sherwood.
Both men accepted the responsibility somewhat nervously. Sherwood had spent much of the war writing speeches for Roosevelt, and Wyler had been making documentaries in the combat zone, in the course of which he had gone deaf in one ear. At the same time as they were losing touch with commercial film-making, a new generation had taken their places in Hollywood a town with a notoriously short memory.
Fortunately, Goldwyn's trust was not misplaced and The Best Years of Our Lives was an instant hit both critically and commercially, brushing aside the challenge of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) to make virtually a clean sweep of the year's Oscars. Certain left-wing groups (particularly in the newly-published journal Hollywood Quarterly) dug into Glory for Me to prove that The Best Years of Our Lives was a fraud because Sherwood had softened the almost unrelieved misery Kantor had inflicted on his characters. However, the film's durable reputation has effectively answered most of the criticism.
Much of the credit is due to the actors, all of whom gave inspired performances. Fredric March was never better than as Al, the army sergeant who cannot face life at home or at his old job in the bank without frequent recourse to alcohol. At a pompous formal dinner given by the bank in his honour, Al makes a drunken speech full of mixed metaphors while Myrna Loy (in her first middle-aged role) ticks off on the tablecloth the number of drinks he has consumed.
Unlike March and Loy, Dana Andrews was a Goldwyn contract star whose previous career had given no hint of the success he was to achieve in this film as Fred Derry, the dashing young air force major. Fred simply wants 'a decent job and a little house for my wife' but returns, like so many others, to find only menial work available and to discover that his wife had fallen in love with the glamorous pilot and not the unglamorous civilian.
The remaining member of the returning trio is a sailor, Homer, who has lost both his arms below the elbow. This fate had indeed befallen Harold Russell (though in different circumstances from those described in the film). Wyler had first seen Russell in a training film designed to rehabilitate such men. On the most propagandist level, Russell's role in The Best Years of Our Lives once again merely shows the practical achievements still possible for men so handicapped, but Sherwood and Wyler are not afraid to explore the emotional difficulties which inevitably occur. Thus, in context, Homer's decision to marry Wilma, after considerable doubt on his part, perhaps becomes the film's most positive statement. Despite the criticism levelled at the film for its false optimism (Fred finds a job and faces life with Peggy, Homer marries and Al and Millie seem to have conquered most of their readjustment difficulties), The Best Years of Our Lives succeeds because its treatment of a particular social problem is accomplished with the wit and sensitivity of truly great artists.