With scheduled guest Mark Harris unable to attend the TCMFF this year and, it follows, unavailable to introduce tonight’s screening of William Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946), it fell to film historian Eddie Muller to step into the breach, with a little assist from Wyler’s son David. The youngest of Wyler’s five children, David was not yet born when THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES went into production (he was a ROMAN HOLIDAY baby) but shared several stories about the film’s production, which had been passed down to him through the Wyler family. David cited that the three returning serviceman protagonists of the film — professional man Fredric March, disabled seaman Harold Russell, and post-traumatic stress sufferer Dana Andrews — all reflected aspects of William Wyler’s postwar life. Like many a Hollywood personality (and March’s character), Wyler had put his career on hold to serve his country and had, like Russell’s character, suffered a disability — in his case, near total deafness while flying over Italy in a B25 as a member of the First Motion Picture Division. And like Andrews’ character, Wyler had difficulties adjusting to civilian life after having seen the horrors of war at first hand — experiences that he channeled into making a film that truly resonated with American moviegoers in that first postwar year. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES would be nominated for 9 Academy Awards and go on to win 8 of those, among them Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Fredric March) and Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell).
For his part, Eddie Muller related several fascinating behind the scenes stories about the making of the film, heralding producer Samuel Goldwyn’s wife Frances as being a driving force behind its production. Touched by the plight of returning serviceman (as documented in an issue of Time magazine), Mrs. Goldwyn compelled her husband to buy an option on war correspondant/novelist MacKinlay Kantor’s poem “Bailey, Who Burned,” which chronicled the tragic fate of 2nd Lieutenant William R. Bailey, a bombardier who was burned alive while parachuting from his damaged B17 over France on the 4th of July 1943. Though Goldwyn had hoped that Kantor might provide him with a proper screenplay, or at least an original story that would give a voice to the horrors American men saw in wartime, Kantor instead turned in a book of blank verse, Glory for Me, which — however comendable — Goldwyn found useless. The independent producer turned to playwright Robert E. Sherwood to fashion a proper story out of the Kantor material – and Sherwood was one of the 8 Oscar winners when THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES swept the Academy Awards in 1947.
Also noteworthy was Wyler’s casting of non-actor Harold Russell (seen left, with Dana Andrews) as a double amputee. Having lost both hands during a non-combat exercise in 1944 and been trained to use metal hooks (subject of the military training film Diary of a Seargeant, which is how Russell came to Wyler’s attention in the first place), Russell was all too perfect for the part of a shy seaman returning nervously from his rehabilitation to his American hometown and childhood sweetheart. Though nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Russell was considered a dark horse candidate at best in the lead-up to the Oscar ceremony, prompting the Academy to bestow upon him an Honorary Academy Award for his participation in the film. Unexpectedly, Russell took home the Best Supporting Actor statuette as well, making him the only actor in the history of the Academy to win two Oscars for the same performance.
The stories from Eddie Muller and David Wyler were the perfect complement to the screening of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES tonight at the Chinese Multiplex, providing the proper context to appreciate how this film touched a nerve with a nation returning to peacetime and became the most profitable Hollywood picture of the 1940s.