Sunday, March 05, 2023

Book Review: Making the Best Years of Our Lives


It was published last year by University of Texas Press, with a paperback edition due to be published in September 2023.

To say I found Macor's book interesting is putting it mildly; it was such a page-turner that I read it over the course of a single weekend afternoon!

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946), a film which won multiple Academy Awards, was directed by William Wyler from a script by Robert E. Sherwood. Sherwood's script was inspired by the MacKinlay Kantor novel GLORY FOR ME. It was filmed by Gregg Toland.

The film, as many of my readers will be aware, is about the postwar readjustment of three World War II veterans, played by Dana Andrews, Fredric March, and acting novice Harold Russell.

Andrews' character has what we now term PTSD, as well as an unfaithful wife (Virginia Mayo) he doesn't know very well; March's character is happily married (to Myrna Loy) but develops a drinking problem; and Russell's character, having lost both hands, faces an uncertain future and questions whether his sweetheart (Cathy O'Donnell) will still genuinely love and not pity him.

The large cast also includes Teresa Wright and Hoagy Carmichael.

As I began the book I was curious how much material the author had been able to gather about the making of the film, given that all of the key players are no longer with us. To say I came away impressed with her achievement is an understatement.

Macor utilizes a variety of resources, including archival papers, previous interviews, and books, to skillfully weave her story.

She places the making of BEST YEARS in the context of director Wyler's own wartime experiences; he filmed military documentaries for the Army Air Force, including the highly regarded THE MEMPHIS BELLE (1944), and lost significant hearing during his service.

During the war Wyler spent time in England, where he came to feel his Oscar-winning film MRS. MINIVER (1942) wasn't quite realistic enough, which would also influence his approach to THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.

Macor also provides key background on Russell's life and injuries before turning to the book's central topic, the making of the film itself.

Macor includes all sorts of interesting details, such as that the film's drugstore interior was created on a soundstage with equipment and merchandise on loan from the Owl Drug Company; there was private security on hand to guard the company's products. That's the kind of "you are there" production insight I love.

She describes the filming of specific scenes -- I'll be thinking about Andrews bumping his head on the car over and over during multiple takes the next time I watch the movie! -- and provides a variety of stories, such as the alcoholic Andrews giving up drinking for much of the production. I especially enjoyed reading about Wyler's work shooting scenes with novice movie actors Russell and O'Donnell.

The book goes on to describe the film's release, critical acclaim, and particularly the impact the film had on the lives of both Wyler and Russell.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book for me was that while Russell's injuries were physically obvious, this is also the story of director Wyler's own "true-life" postwar readjustment as he dealt with hearing loss and returning to his profession.

In the interest of being thorough, I came across one minor error, describing the plot of THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946) -- Veronica Lake does not play the murder victim -- but that's a quibble in an impressively well-researched and well-written book.

The hardcover copy of MAKING THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES weighs about a pound and is 195 pages, including extensive end notes, a two-page bibliography, and the index. There is an insert of 16 pages of glossy black and white photographs.

A recommended read.

Thanks to University of Texas Press for providing a review copy of this book.


Anonymous Barry Lane said...

I know about some of what went on during production, and Wyler's treatment of Dana Andrews did more than make me uncomfortable, I took a dislike to the director. Make that an intense dislike. Without Dana, there is no picture, he is the center of gravity, drunk or sober, an exemplary piece of talent and performance.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for this review. This is one of my most favorite movies, and it sounds like a book I'd really enjoy. I hope to catch up with it sometime. (I was always interested in the drug store scenes, too -- so much stuff to look at.)

12:08 PM  
Blogger DKoren said...

Ooh! This is a book I'll definitely have to check out!

7:17 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all very much for your comments. As admirers of the film and/or Dana Andrews (and aren't we all?!) I think you would all really appreciate this book.

Jacqueline, I also love "looking around" in stores in classic films and trying to read labels, see what's for sale, etc. A fascinating peek at times past.

Best wishes,

9:34 AM  
Anonymous chris evans said...

Nice review! I love 'Best years' and its great to see a book like this. Plus more Dana Andrews is great.

8:21 PM  
Blogger Hamlette (Rachel) said...

This book was already on my wishlist, but it just got bumped a whole lot higher, thanks to you!

7:47 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you, Chris! I agree, anything to add to our knowledge of Dana Andrews is wonderful. I hope you'll enjoy the book.

Thank you for letting me know, Rachel! I hope you'll find it as interesting a read as I did.

Best wishes,

9:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this! The best,best, bestest movie ever! Ha! I have an overwhelming interest in just about anything WWll and this film was so fascinating..... The personal aspect of the film has me going on maybe 30 times? Never will get tired of something this beautiful... Thank you so much for sharing about the book or I wouldn’t have known... God bless you all!

3:49 PM  
Anonymous Harv H said...

Absolutely wonderful, profound film. Great ensemble acting by Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Theresa Wright, Russell and Fred March, etc. Watch it over and over. Great.

6:29 PM  

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