The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
One of the best – if not the best – post-World War II dramas was a triumph for all concerned, a seven-time Oscar winner that showed the difficulties of servicemen returning home and facing a range of difficulties in readjusting to “normal” life. It’s a powerful movie, and thanks to an unusually subtle screenplay (for the time) by Robert Sherwood, matched by astute direction from William Wyler, has remained as impressive a movie experience today as it was then. Not that you’d guess from the poster…
First off, it’s not the greatest of posters. It’s fairly typical of the time the movie was made, and in some respects – the embracing couple, the bold assertion at the top – it’s content and approach aren’t dissimilar from many other posters. Even the image of the “good-time girl” (representing Virginia Mayo’s character) isn’t unusual. And then there’s the two quotes, from two of the most respected journalists and critics of the time, and which prove to be the only clues – albeit as vague as possible – as to the movie’s content (unless you’ve read MacKinlay Kantor’s novel). But then there’s that tag line, that bold description of the movie’s merits, and if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know: “The screen’s greatest love story” is pushing it a bit too far.
In truth there are several love stories in The Best Years of Our Lives, and they are all “heart-warming” to one degree or another, but they’re not the movie’s focus, and nor are they the “engines” that drive the various storylines. There’s much more going on than just a love story, and the movie’s various themes were more dramatic than audiences were used to – just the word ‘divorce’ caused a furore at the time – but again you wouldn’t guess that from the poster, which instead advertises what seems like a grand romantic experience. It’s a lie, a deliberate falsehood designed to bring people in to see a movie that often reflected uncomfortably their own lives and their own problems in putting the war behind them.
Here then is an example of a movie poster that has a different agenda to the one the movie it’s promoting. Here is a poster that undermines it’s own movie’s message: that even the worst difficulties in Life can be overcome, and that life itself is something to be treasured above all. It’s a shame then that RKO, the releasing studio, couldn’t see that, and create a poster that supported that ideal. But if you think a movie might be a tough sell…
(For an intelligent, well thought out appraisal of The Best Years of Our Lives, by my fellow blogger Rachel T, please click here.)
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.