The Best Tears of Our Lives: A Look Back to the Best of 1946

1946 - Hollywood’s Golden Age of HollywoodMovie magic draws people to a particular film through many forms. It can be comedy so well performed that you laugh hard enough to get stomach pains or horror so scary that you to go to sleep with the lights on for the next three nights. My personal preference is the emotional attachment I feel for the characters of a well-written dramatic story. If a film can inspire me, enough to bring a tear to my eye, than I am all in for it. Two films that do just that were produced in 1946 during Hollywood’s Golden Age and are among my favorite all-time movies―It’s a Wonderful Life and The Best Years of Our Lives.

God has other plans for a man on the verge of suicide and sends an angel to show him how wonderful life can truly be. That’s the premise for Frank Capra’s first post-war film―It’s a Wonderful Life. Based on a short story, originally produced privately on Christmas cards before being purchased, the film went on to receive five Academy Award nominations. But with no wins and poor box office performance it found its way to obscurity, only to be re-discovered 30 years later. Copyright had run out on the film in the 1970s, making it fortuitously available for public domain. At that time it became over-saturated on television, quickly becoming a Christmas tradition in many households and an all-time classic. The film holds significance in cinematic history for its innovation in snow making (shaved ice, gypsum, plaster, fomite and soap as opposed to painted cornflakes,) as well as having one of the largest sets ever constructed (4 acres, 75 buildings and 20 live oaks planted on set). All of this equates to greatness, but the reason I love this movie most is for the main character―George Bailey.

Played by Jimmy Stewart in his first acting role after serving in World War II, Bailey easily wins the audiences hearts by genuinely being a hard-working, honest, loyal, patriotic, loving family man. Capra shows this wonderful personality right from the start as a young George Bailey saves his brother’s life and protects his druggist boss from accidently poisoning someone. These early dramatic scenes set the tone for the whole film and George Bailey never disappoints us. He is there for his friends and family all along, sacrificing his own career and goals for the sake of doing good for the community. The most inspirational/tear-inducing part of the film comes when George needs his friends and family the most. Without hesitation, they come to his aid by filling up his home on Christmas Eve and financially supporting him out of a jam. It’s as if they are symbolically paying him back for all the good deeds he has done for them. George’s war hero brother Harry speaks a line of dialogue that sets off an emotional zenith in this incredible heart-warming scene. After being flown in through a blizzard to be there for George he toasts, “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.”

Three World War II veterans return home to their small town, only to discover how difficult adjusting to civilian life can be. That’s the premise behind the homage-inspired title of this article and Academy Award-winning film―The Best Years of Our Lives. Reluctantly directed by William Wyler, the film–based on Mackinlay Kantor’s novel Glory For Me–went on to win seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, beating out the aforementioned It’s a Wonderful Life. Variety magazine reported it as “One of the best films of our lives.” Many considered it to be the most realistic portrayal of soldier’s hardships following their tenure serving in the war. More recently, Luisa F. Ribeiro of the Baltimore City Paper said, “No film examining that time better details the contradictions, uncertainties and hardships of patriotic sacrifice.”

What brings the emotional element to the film, or who rather, is the all-American youngster Homer Parrish. While serving in the Navy, Homer loses both his hands and returns home with hook replacements.  You feel deeply for this character right from the beginning when you see he has lost his hands and the jolly way he jests about his hooks. Although he learned to use the hooks to do many things, like open doors or light a match, he struggles mentally because he doesn’t want to burden the love of his life and girl next door, Wilma. The most appropriate dialogue in regards to this matter speaks volumes:

Fred Derry: You gotta hand it to the Navy; they sure trained that kid how to use those hooks.

Al Stephenson: They couldn’t train him to put his arms around his girl, or to stroke her hair.

Homer only wishes Wilma to be happy but doesn’t realize that all she still loves him no matter how the circumstances have changed. The allusion to a possible suicide presents itself through mise-en-scene (gun hanging on wall of bedroom,) and a military/depressing score during Homer’s scenes. Harold Russell plays the role of Homer and actually did lose both his hands during a 1944 training accident when TNT exploded in his hands. He was discovered when Wyler saw a short informational training video in which Russell proved to be a natural in front of the camera. For his role, Russell won the Academy Award for best supporting actor and also an honorary Oscar for “Bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans,” making him the only actor in history to win two Academy Awards for the same role.

If you haven’t already seen these films I strongly suggest you do so. If you have, you might want to re-visit them and don’t be afraid to let the tear drops fall.

Craig Pisani is an avid moviegoer and aspiring screenwriter with Bachelor degrees in both Cinema and English.

  • Kate217

    Two of my very favorite movies of all time, I love them both. Unfortunate that they both came out in the same year,since I believe they both deserved Academy Awards for best picture.

  • Marty

    How wonderful it is that you write about two of my all-time favorites, The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life. But for me, The Best Years of Our Lives is a film that I watch over and over again. I’ve lost count on the number of times I’ve seen it. The genius of William Wyler and a wonderful cast, makes it the best of the Golden Age of Film.

  • George

    I’ve never seen these movies before, but I think I will now.

  • TrippyTrellis

    “The Best Years of Our Lives” is indeed a great movie. My best of 1946, however, is Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “Notorious”.

  • Juanita Curtis

    Recently rewatched The Best Years of Our Lives after a long time and i can see why it is still one of the greatest films of the golden years of Hollywood. Above all the storyline is strong and it has a great ensemble cast. This is also my favourite role of Dana Andrews apart from Laura.

  • barbara moss

    Bringing hope to a war-torn world, “The Best Years of Our Lives” covers more than just the physical of Homers hands. That in itself was impacting to the viewer by boldly showing what Hollywood would tend to hide, but….
    the movie also covers the struggles of post war marriage and the adjustment of having to learn to’ ” fall in love again” with a stranger, as Myrna Lloyds line to her daughter so aptly put it in a scene of confrontation on what love is with the naive Theresa Wright. This movie is unusual in that it covers the mental Post Traumatic Flash backs of Dana Andrews tucked up into a relic of a plane sweating it out, all that he knew, the one place in his life that empowered him as a “MAN” was flying through war, and after what he had seen in the horrors of war returning to being a “Soda Jerk”,was impossible. Those dinosaur planes were a metaphor for scrap metal recycled into housing for the baby boomers being born. A new generation to change the world.

    His simple parents reading his citation of honor, after he packs up to go find a new life for himself. His stupid wife that he, like many soldiers desperate for someone to hold on to, while moving through the ravages of war, hastily married strangers, only to return home to a vapid life. Virginia Mayo plays a secondary role, but her star power reins in the role of a woman who married a “uniform”. Dana Andrews quiet internal struggle to adjust to a world he doesn’t know, hits it square on for so many who return from war and weave their way through the changes in the world they no longer understand.
    The intensity of Theresa Wright and Andrews in the last minutes, looking at each other across the room, realizing through “Homers” wedding vows, that they too can make it. It is the quintessential “Hope for the Future”> You gotta love it:)

  • Vinny Castellano

    These are two of the best movies ever made. Best Years has three poignant stories with sympathetic characters you route for right from the start. Everyone is excellent – from the three returning veterans to their loyal family members. I especially like Hoagy Carmichael as the wise uncle of Homer. One of the most heartrending scenes is when Dana Andrews’ father reads his citation, pauses, and gets choked up. … great hepeful ending.

    It’s A Wonderful Life is a totally different movies, but the lead and supporting characters are also decent, honest people. Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are just perfect, as are Thomas Mitchell, Ward Bond, Frank Faylen, Henry Travers, and the host of other actors. The people are so loyal and caring, it makes you hopeful for the human race. This movie has the most upbeat ending of any moving I’ve ever seen. Watch them both. They will leave you with a joyous feeling!

    • Vinny Castellano

      I have to correct two words:
      hopeful – not hepeful
      totally different movie – not movies

  • Mikey Ice Cream

    I never heard of The Best Years of Our Lives but I will check it out.

  • Lisanne

    Both of these films are wonderful. My favorite from 1946, however, is a british film – “A Matter Of Life And Death”. If you’ve never seen it, check it out; great film!

    • nicolas

      YOu are so right. I think it really is the best film of that year. Powell and Pressburger film.

    • Craig Pisani

      I haven’t seen it but I always appreciate a good recommendation so I will definitely check it out.

  • Kevin Albertina

    I love both films. The Best Years of Our Lives did so very well in dealing with the troubles of returning home after years of knowing nothing but war. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my all-time favorites. Capra and Stewart were a wonderful team.

  • D. A. NICASTRO

    Even though I really like IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is the most moving film I’ve ever seen.

  • Frosty

    I never cared for “It’s a Wonderful Life”. George Bailey was a psychopath. Seriously, think about it.

    • jpp452

      I have thought about it at length and I still don’t understand why you consider him a psychopath. He experienced a period of acute reactive depression, that’s all. We all do, whether we admit to ourselves or not. In what way is the rest of his life a sign of permanent derangement?

  • Bill Heyer

    I have to agree with Frosty, “It’s a Wonderful Life” left me cold, too. No, I don’t consider George Bailey to be a psychopath, but the role is NOT his (Jimmy Stewart) best. Therefore, if it’s a question of one versus the other, I’ll go with “The Best Years of Our Lives.”

  • Moosejaw

    Ward Bond (famous western actor and John Wayne’s BFF) along with Frank Faylin (father of Do ie Gillis) are Bert and Ernie.

    Other than that I do not like either film. Just not my style.

  • Ozark Granny

    “It’s A Wonderful Life” is an absolute classic. I own it on DVD and when it wears out, I immediately buy another DVD of it. This is one of the best movies that Jimmy Stewart made. If you think his character was a psychopath, you are not learning the lessons from this movie. Treat others as you would like them to treat you … and … life is worth living if you put your heart and soul into living life without taking life for granted. If you had never been born, this world would be such a dismal place to live no matter who you are and no matter how serious the mistakes were that you made in your life.

  • Old Soldier

    I think that both films are excellent. “The Best Years of our Life”, showed very clearly the
    strugle that the veterans went through after returning from the war. PTSD was not heard of
    then but did exist (battle fatigue, shell shock). There are many parallels between those
    veterans and our veterans today. I believe the film attempted to show these problems. On the
    other hand, “It’s a Wonderful Life” also showed what veterans were going through, especially
    trying to get affordable housing. Films like these are classics because they were about the
    human condition.

  • Robey

    One of a handful of movies I consider nearly flawless.

    • Robey

      Sorry forgot to mention what film: The Best Years of Our Lives.

  • Antone

    You picked one film from the top and one from the bottom of my 1946 favorite films list.

    On the plus side, The Best Years of Our Lives was the best movie I ever saw about the difficulties of veterans returning to their pre-war lives as a vastly different person. It may be the “best” movie of the year, but [as a film noir fan] my favorite films to rewatch are The Big Sleep, Notorious, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Stranger, The Dark Corner, Crack-Up, Gilda, & The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers. Most of this list is not better than Best Years…but is less traumatic to watch.

    On the minus side, It’s a Wonderful Life is a sappy, uninspiring & derivative film. 10′s and possibly 100′s of millions of Americans suffered worse problems than George Bailey during the 20-year depression, war & recovery period. They didn’t hurl themselves off of bridges, but tried to work through their problems. Nor could they rely on the old “saved by an angel trick”; stolen from A Christmas Carol. In addition to the movies in the previous paragraph, a few of the films better than It’s…are: Henry V, Anna and the King of Siam, Black Narcissus, Great Expectations, Humoresque & My Darling Clementine.

  • wade

    Best years of Our Lives is one of my favourite movies and have watched it over and over again. I like the characters and all are performed well by the actors. I pretty much like any movie which starred Myrna Loy. I thought Harold Russell was very effective in his role
    Its a Wonderful Life is ok but not necessarily one of my favourite Jimmy Stewart movies .