When Wyler came back

When I walked into Spaulding Auditorium to see The Best Years of Our Lives as an undergrad, I had never even heard of the film. When I walked out three hours later, I couldn’t believe I had never heard of it. It is a great film with a lot of truth and a big heart in it. Tonight TCM is carrying the film as part of its Memorial Day lineup. It’s a movie every American should see. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to try to catch it tonight.

Mark Harris tells the highly improbable story behind the making of the film in Five Came Back, his terrific account of the prominent directors who volunteered to use their filmmaking skills on behalf of the United States in the armed forces during the war. The Best Years of Our Lives provides a sort of postwar capstone to the story.

Telling the story of returning veterans was Samuel Goldwyn’s idea; he commissioned MacKinlay Kantor to write a screenplay. Instead Kantor turned in a treatment in blank verse.

Goldwyn somehow thought to solicit playwright and Rooosevelt confidant Robert Sherwood to draft a screenplay based on Kantor’s treatment. Sherwood declined, but Goldwyn persisted. Goldwyn also turned to William Wyler — one of the five who came back in Harris’s telling — to direct. Wyler enlisted the great cinematographer Gregg Toland to film it, and Toland’s contribution was invaluable.

Wyler had virtually lost his hearing while serving on the Memphis Belle in Europe during the war. He jumped at Goldwyn’s offer and worked with Sherwood to shape the screenplay. Indeed, as Harris demonstrates, Wyler poured himself into the film and each of its three leading characters. “As they collaborated,” Harris writes, “The Best Years of Our Lives gradually evolved into Wyler’s own story.”

If you’ve seen the film, you haven’t forgotten the performance of Harold Russell. While serving as an Army instructor, Russell had lost his hands handling explosives in a training accident. In the film his efforts to return to his prewar life hold a special challenge.

Goldwyn doubted that they would be able to find an amputee to play the role and said so in his pungent style: “You can’t have a Jew playing a Jew, it wouldn’t work on screen.” The disabled veterans visited by Wyler in search of the right man to play the part shared Goldwyn’s skepticism.

Wyler found Russell in a documentary made during the war. (The documentary is posted online here.) Harris quotes Russell’s words in the documentary: “I got [my injury] on D-Day, all right, but it was in North Carolina when half a pound of TNT exploded ahead of schedule. I didn’t have a German scalp hanging from my belt. I didn’t have a Purple Heart. I didn’t even have an overseas ribbon. All I had was no hands.” It wasn’t long before he had an Academy Award (actually, two of them) for his performance in the film, which swept the Oscars for 1946.

Russell lived a long life, dying in 2002. Here is his New York Times obituary.

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