Sunday, May 29, 2016

Harold Russell, and "The Best Years of Our Lives"

Tonight, as part of its Memorial Day Weekend programming, Turner Classic Movies will be airing the outstanding 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, directed by William Wyler.  Its stars included Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Teresa Wright, and Harold Russell.

The film earned eight Academy Awards in 1947, including the award for Best Picture.

Harold Russell,  Photo © 1946, MGM
Harold Russell, a World War Two veteran, had previously made only one film appearance; he was featured in a brief 1945 War Department film about disability and rehabilitation. Yet he received 1947's Best Supporting Actor award, for The Best Years of Our Lives. Director William Wyler said that Russell "gave the finest performance I have ever seen on the screen."

Russell was also given a second Oscar in 1947, an honorary award, for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans."

As The New York Times wrote, upon Mr. Russell's death, in 2002:  "After basic training [during World War Two], he volunteered to become a paratrooper, and he learned that skill as well as demolition.  The United States Army made him an instructor.  On June 6, 1944, while some of the men he trained were involved in the D-Day landing, Mr. Russell was teaching demolition work at Camp Mackall in North Carolina and a defective fuse detonated TNT that he was holding.  The next day what was left of his hands were amputated three inches above the wrists.

"Walter Reed General Hospital offered him a choice of prosthetic devices: plastic hands or steel hooks.  He chose the hooks, proved unusually adept at mastering them and eventually made a training film for soldiers who had lost both hands. The film, 'Diary of a Sergeant,' showed Mr. Russell in daily activities.

"Wyler saw the film after he had been asked by the producer Samuel Goldwyn to direct 'The Best Years of Our Lives.' Wyler urged Goldwyn to hire Mr. Russell, and after some coaxing Mr. Russell, who was then attending business school at Boston University, agreed to appear in the film."

The Best Years of Our Lives--and Mr. Russell's extraordinary performance in it--can be seen tonight at 10:15 (Eastern time), on TCM.