Any other year in the '40s, Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" would have picked up a couple of well-earned Oscars. But it won nothing largely due to "The Best Years of Our Lives," a 1946 drama directed by his friend William Wyler. And for once the Academy got it right. Wyler's film — about three veterans returning from World War II and trying to adjust to life in their mutual hometown — won seven standard Oscars and two honorary statues and it deserved them all.
Fredric March plays Al, a well-to-do bank officer. Homer (Harold Russell) now has metallic claw hands and forearms; he is considering breaking up with the love of his life (Cathy O'Donnell) to spare her from having to deal with his disability. And Fred (Dana Andrews), having held the highest rank of the three, returns to his cheap wife (Virginia Mayo) and a bottom-level job.
There is really too much to say about this film, all of it positive. It's technically and stylistically impeccable. Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland ("Citizen Kane") frequently used deep-focus shots so that we can clearly see anything important happening in the far background. Hugo Friedhofer, never a household name, wrote one of the most effective and beautiful scores in cinema history. The actors are uniformly perfect, down to the tiniest movement of a facial muscle. And Russell, a non-actor who really did lose his hands in the war, deserved the two Oscars he received for the role.
All of this would mean nothing if the film didn't have such depth of feeling. But it would take a truly perverse soul to not be moved. "The Best Years of Our Lives" never cheats to make us cry; it earns our tears. I was able to keep my lachrymal ducts shut for about 15 minutes this time around. And I feel the better for it.
"The Best Years of Our Lives" Warner Home Video, Blu-ray, $19.98