Unlike the names of Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart, (which usually elicit some sort of recognition even if a person has never seen one of their films) the name Dana Andrews probably fails to register at all with most people. Andrews was a pretty major star in the 1940s, had some solid hits in the early 1950s, and then was not offered the caliber of roles he enjoyed earlier in his career. Perhaps his acting style, the roles he played, and the relatively short period of stardom factors into the lack of Andrews’ modern day popularity.
Despite being a star back then, Andrews’ acting wasn’t flashy enough to garner any Oscar nominations from the Academy either. One of my personal favorite performances of his is in The Ox-Bow Incident, where he plays one of the men faced with lynching after being accused of killing a rancher and rustling some of his cattle. He’s the one whose predicament moves the audience most, and makes us understand that the actions of the mob are dead wrong. The other two big performances that Dana Andrews gets the most recognition for are as WWII veteran Fred Derry in The Best Years of Our Lives, and as Detective Mark McPherson in Laura (Preminger, 1944).
The Best Years of Our Lives, directed by William Wyler in 1946, is basically a social problem film. It deals with the issue of returning WWII veterans. A major part of this film is also the re-integration of disabled veterans, but it also comments on how the home front changed during the war.
Best Years follows the stories of three returning soldiers, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Al Stephenson (Fredric March) and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell). Al is the oldest of the group, and comes from a well-off banking background. He is married to Milly (Myrna Loy) and has an older daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright) and college-aged son. Fred was a decorated bombardier during the war, but comes from a humble background (as my film professor pointed out, it’s literally portrayed as the “wrong side of the tracks” in the film). He married his girl Marie (Virginia Mayo) right before going overseas. Homer comes from a middle class family; he lived in the house with the white picket fence and had plans to marry his sweetheart next door, Wilma. After his aircraft carrier was attacked, Homer had both hands amputated, and was fitted with mechanical hook prosthesis on both arms.
The three soldiers bond on a flight back to their hometown of Boone City. In a nice sequence, we see the families and backgrounds of all three characters as they are dropped off one by one at their homes. Re-integration is a challenge for each. Al realizes his children have grown up in the time he has been gone; Fred comes home to find his wife has moved out of his parent’s humble house and is working late nights at a club. Homer wonders what will happen now with his planned marriage to Wilma, and tries to deal with his family tip-toeing around his disability. Fred and Al both show psychological effects of the war: Fred tossing in his sleep from nightmares, and Al drinking more and more heavily.
The three are reunited one night at Butch’s bar, run by Homer’s uncle (Hoagy Carmichael), where Fred first meets Al’s daughter, Peggy. The two become romantically linked, fueled by the fact that Fred’s wife Marie is only really interested in Fred the Soldier, whereas he is ready to return to civilian life. Fred, however, finds it difficult with his previous level of education, and no strong civilian skills, to secure a job. He ends up taking his old soda jerk position, another thing that annoys Marie.
Peggy, feeling bad for Fred after double-dating with him and his wife, admits to her mother and father that she is going to break up Fred’s marriage. Al, after learning of his daughter’s affections, confronts Fred and tells him to stay away.
Al returns to work at his previously held banking position and is put in charge of loans. After seeing Homer in his bank, Al approves a somewhat risky loan to a veteran wanting to start a farm. He is asked by his boss to not approve such loans without collateral, but is applauded at a work-sponsored welcome home party when he says that the gamble on these veterans is on the future of the country.
Fred eventually loses his soda jerk job protecting Homer after the latter gets into a fight with a man saying the war was fought for the wrong reasons. In many ways, Homer appears as a moral compass for both Al and Fred, spurring them both into action to do what they feel is right in both circumstances. Fred, after days of job hunting, returns home to find Marie with another man in their apartment, demanding a divorce. She says, ” I’ve given you every chance to make something of yourself. I gave up my own job when you asked me. I gave up the best years of my life, and what have you done? You flopped! Couldn’t even hold that job at the drugstore…” (No one really seems to know if this is where the title comes from, or from the idea that the war took the best years of their lives, or the camaraderie during the war was the best years of their lives, etc.)
Wilma also gives Homer an ultimatum. She wants to know if there is a reason to stay, or if she should leave like her family is telling her to and move on with her life. He finally invites her upstairs to see his bedtime routine of removing his hooks, and admits how helpless he feels in this state. Once he understands that she is fully committed and loves him just the same, they plan for their wedding day.
Fred, having nothing to stay in Boone City for, waits at the airport for the next flight to anywhere. In a moving scene, he walks the airfields, seeing all the fighter planes that are now being re-purposed for materials to build other things. He climbs into one of the planes and relives his combat experience. This is to me where Dana Andrews is brilliant. Today, this scene would probably involve a flashback to what his character is thinking, but through Hugo Friedhofer’s score, and Andrews’ face, we see Fred working through that trauma.
Fred is called down by a supervisor on the field, who eventually offers him a job scrapping the planes. It’s very fitting that Fred should get his new start in this job. The planes and their pilots were so instrumental to winning the war, and now they will be the new driving and re-building force in civilian society.
The film concludes with Homer’s wedding day, and all three soldiers are again re-united. Fred and Peggy share a glance across the room that solidifies their relationship, and through each of the three couples, there is a sense of resolution and optimism for the future.
This film was the major picture of 1946, winning 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor and Supporting Actor. Harold Russell, who played Homer, was awarded an Honorary Oscar in addition to the one he won in the competitive category. It is the only time a single performance has won two Oscars. Dana Andrews and Myrna Loy were not nominated.
Which brings me back to Dana. I can’t, like many other people, believe he wasn’t even nominated. Fredric March was a fantastic actor, and does a great job here, but to me, his role isn’t as powerful as Dana’s is. Many today say Dana’s style comes across as wooden, but for me it works, especially in this picture. There is a pride in his character that doesn’t allow for a lot of emotion to be shown, but you can see it in his face. That’s why I personally love Dana. He never over-acted, it was all subtly there.
I honestly didn’t really love this film the first time I saw it. I thought it all resolved too nicely for characters who to me had pretty significant problems. In thinking of the historical context though, it was a film meant to give hope to those returning from the war, and to be fair, it does deal with issues which I wouldn’t have expected a studio system film of that era to deal with.
I know by reading a lot of blogs that for those who have come to love Dana Andrews, they are passionate about it. This film features one of his best performances, and it is worth taking a look at not only because of it’s strong cast, but also the work of Wyler and Gregg Toland (deep focus! long takes!).
Anyways, this really is an essential, and even though it is a long film, there is nothing in there that I could even think about cutting out, and it is paced very well. So enjoy, and maybe you’ll become one of the passionate Dana Andrews fans along the way.
Turner Classic Movies will be airing The Best Years of Our Lives as part of their Memorial Day marathon on Monday, May 30 at 8pm ET.