The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

best years of our lives
Russell, Wright, Andrews, Loy, Carmichael and March

'The Best Years of Our Lives' is one of the great classic movies of postwar Hollywood. It is a deeply moving drama about the problems of adjustment faced by returning ex-servicemen and their families after the Second World War, made in 1946 when these problems were very real. It was directed by William Wyler and stars Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, Harold Russell and Teresa Wright.

The film received enthusiastic critical reviews and the public were in no doubt about its quality, making the movie a massive success at the box office, the biggest since 'Gone With The Wind' in 1939. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won seven, including Best Picture, Best Director for William Wyler, Best Actor for Fredric March, and Best Supporting Actor for Harold Russell. There was even an additional Special Award for Harold Russell, a real-life war veteran and double amputee from a ship explosion, who had already gained the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, for inspiring hope and courage through his appearance in the movie.

In addition the producer, Sam Goldwyn, received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award that year for the "high quality of motion picture production" which the movie embodied.

In the American film Institute's list of 100 Top Movies, 'The Best Years of Our Lives' is ranked at number 37.


The movie explores the intertwined stories of three servicemen who return from their wartime duties to their previous lives which they find much changed. The three returning veterans are from different social classes; the well-to-do Sergeant Al Stephenson, played by Frederic March, middle class Petty Officer Homer Parrish, played by Harold Russell and working class Captain Fred Derry, played by Dana Andrews, but all share the common burden of readjustment. The problems they face are described and graphically illustrated, including domestic tragedies, unemployment, family conflicts, alcoholism and adultery.

The story is brought vividly to life by a highly talented cast including experienced professionals like Fredric March and Myrna Loy and complete newcomers like Harold Russell who movingly and honestly portrays the psychological problems faced by disabled veterans. The stories of the servicemen and their families are the personal dramas of ordinary people to which the audience can relate.

Despite its emotive subject matter, Wyler is careful never to let the film get over-sentimental. It is genuinely moving, perceptive and clever, with some great scenes, and an important message to convey. It is a hugely significant Hollywood masterpiece, quite simply one of the finest movies ever made.



After reading an article in Time magazine in August, 1944, entitled 'The Way Home', about soldiers returning home after the war, Frances Goldwyn suggested to her husband, Sam, that the story could form the basis of a motion picture. Sam Goldwyn was enthused and offered writer MacKinlay Kantor $20,000 to write the story. Kantor wrote a novel, called "Glory for Me" about three servicemen who become friends after returning from the war to the same home town. Goldwyn also hired Robert E. Sherwood, of 'Rebecca' fame, to write the screenplay.


'The Best Years of Our Lives' is expertly constructed by William Wyler. He allows nothing to distract from the dramatic flow of the narrative and although at just under three hours, it is a long film, there are no extraneous scenes and the audience's attention is never allowed to wander. Wyler was himself a veteran of WWII service after service in the US Army Air Corps, during which he had flown combat missions over Europe to make morale-boosting, war-related documentaries.


For his cast, Goldwyn used his supply of contract player, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O'Donnell and Teresa Wright. The key roles of Al and Milly Stephenson were offered first to Fred MacMurray and Olivia de Havilland, who both turned the roles down. Fredric March and Myrna Loy were recommended by agent, Leland Hayward, and both signed on. David Niven, Farley Granger, Walter Brennan and Constance Dowling were also considered for various major roles.

Shooting began on April 15, 1946 and took place in various locations, including Raleigh Studios, Hollywood, the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, and Ontario International Airport, Ontario, California, as well as the Samuel Goldwyn/Warner Hollywood Studios. Wyler discovered a airplane scrapyard at Ontario Airport, near Los Angeles, and used the site for the moving scene in which Dana Andrews wanders among rows of abandoned aircraft.

Chief cinematographer, Gregg Toland, already famous for his work in such films as 'Citizen Kane' in 1941, made a major contribution to 'The Best Years of Our Lives' with his signature, deep-focus camera work, crisp images and well-framed scenes.

The music by Hugo Friedhofer helps to unite the three storylines without ever being intrusive making the experience of seeing the movie a very personal one.

The completed movie was, at 172 minutes, almost twice the length of the average film. Goldwyn and Wyler hoped that the sneak-preview audiences would indicate where cuts could be made but at every screening the audience remained spellbound for the entire film, bursting into applause at the end. The film remained uncut.

Main Cast

Myrna Loy ... Milly Stephenson
Fredric March ... Al Stephenson
Dana Andrews ... Fred Derry
Teresa Wright ... Peggy Stephenson
Virginia Mayo ... Marie Derry
Cathy O'Donnell ... Wilma Cameron
Hoagy Carmichael ... Uncle Butch
Harold Russell ... Homer Parish
Gladys George ... Hortense Derry
Roman Bohnen ... Pat Derry
Ray Collins ... Mr. Milton
Minna Gombell ... Mrs. Parish
Walter Baldwin ... Mr. Parish
Steve Cochran ... Cliff
Dorothy Adams ... Mrs. Cameron
Don Beddoe ... Mr. Cameron
Charles Halton ... Prew
Ray Teal ... Mr. Mollett
Erskine Sanford ... Bullard
Victor Cutler ... Woody


Director ... William Wyler
Producer ... Sam Goldwyn
Screenplay ... Robert E. Sherwood
Story ... MacKinlay Kantor from "Glory for Me"
Music ... Hugo Friedhofer
Cinematography ... Gregg Toland
Format ... B & W
Distribution Company ... RKO Radio Pictures
Release date ... November 21, 1946
Running time ... 172 minutes

Academy Awards

Seven Wins:
Best Picture ... Samuel Goldwyn Productions
Best Director ... William Wyler
Best Actor ... Fredric March
Best Supporting Actor ... Harold Russell
Best Screenplay ... Robert E. Sherwood
Best Music Score (Dramatic or Comedy Picture) ... Hugo Friedhofer
Best Film Editing ... Daniel Mandell
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Sound Recording ... Gordon Sawyer, Sound director
Special Award:
Awarded to Harold Russell for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in 'The Best Years of Our Lives'