From Epic to Oscar

A friend recently posted this fascinating essay on It's about the literary work that was the basis for one of the finest Hollywood films ever made: The Best Years of Our Lives, about three servicemen returning from World War II. I had no idea that the screenplay was adapted from an epic poem -- did you?

Read Don Bishop's account ...

The book that made the movie that moved millions and won the Oscar
October 12, 2007
By Donald M. Bishop (Virginia)

"Glory for Me" is the book-length narrative poem by MacKinlay Kantor which eventually became the movie "The Best Years of Our Lives." The film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, for 1946. It starred Frederick March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, and Harold Phillips.

In 1970, I was a lieutenant working at the Air Force Historical Research Center. The older historians told a word-of-mouth story how the book came to be. No doubt the story had been embroidered over many years of retelling, but here's the way I heard it.

In 1944, movie titan Samuel Goldwyn knew that whether the allied victory in World War II would come sooner, or later, millions of American veterans would return home. Many -- especially those with physical and psychological wounds -- would have trouble finding jobs and "readjusting."

Goldwyn knew that journalist and playwright MacKinlay Kantor, who had flown missions with the 305th Bomb Group from England earlier in the war, had gotten to know American servicemen in combat at first hand. Goldwyn asked Kantor to write a screenplay for a planned movie on the veterans returning home.

According to the story, Kantor had driven up to a Tennessee mountain retreat to work on the screenplay. He took his typewriter and a case of bourbon. He emerged some months later with empty bottles and "Glory for Me," written in the form of a narrative poem, not a screenplay. Goldwyn was not pleased, and he eventually gave Kantor's poem to Robert Sherwood to reshape for the screen. When the film finally appeared, Kantor was given a minimum of credit. Sherwood -- deservedly -- won the Oscar for Best Writing.

Those, like myself, who come to "Glory for Me" via "The Best Years of Our Lives" will be richly rewarded by reading the poem.

Kantor's and Sherwood's treatments of the same characters and the same American town ("Boone City") shows two gifted men working the same basic story in different literary forms, poem and screenplay. Reading the book allows one to discover how, here and there, they made some different creative choices.

In Kantor's poem, Homer's disability is spasticity, which makes for some painful reading. Sherwood gave Homer a physical disability -- loss of hands and the use of prosthetic hooks. Sherwood's choice was a wise one for the moviegoing public, and few are the hearts not moved by Harold Phillips' portrayal of Homer in the film. But Kantor's portrayal of Homer and his girl Wilma are equally moving, perhaps because the poem gave more room for character development.

When Frederick March played Al Stephenson -- the older sergeant returning to his prewar life as a banker at the Cornbelt Trust Company -- he masterfully compressed much of Kantor's material in eloquent but short scenes. In Kantor's fuller telling of the story, Al was the son of a pioneer banker who had made loans to farmers a generation earlier. The poem has more social and historical texture.

In Kantor's poem, Homer's uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael's character in the movie) provides a vehicle to explore class feelings in pre- and post-war America. This was one of Kantor's themes that Sherwood could not fit into the film. Similarly, Kantor told his readers more about Novak (the veteran asking for a loan to open a nursery) and his experiences as a Seabee in the Pacific. Kantor's use of lilacs as a metaphor for peace and normality could not be picked up in the film.

On the other hand, Sherwood changed the story line to say more about wartime marriages. Marie (Virginia Mayo in the film) proves shallow and unfaithful when Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) returns home. The movie's title, not found in Kantor's poem, came from a scene when the two argued.

The book was published in January, 1945, months before the war ended. Kantor well anticipated the major contours of veteran adjustment, but there was more to his foresight. On the final page of the poem he showed real prescience when he alluded to the unresolved social tensions that all Americans, not just the veterans, would confront in the coming years.

Reading habits have changed in the six decades since the book was published, and readers may now find that it takes some pages to adjust to the poetic form. Kantor's poetic shortcomings earned some dismissive reviews. Poems similar in form by Kantor's contemporaries like Stephen Vincent Benet are now dismissed as middlebrow when they are read at all. I am confident, though, that with each page the reader will find new lines and new scenes to savor and treasure.

"The Best Years of Our Lives" is a truly great American movie. "Glory for Me" deserves equal recognition. Kantor recognized the coming drama of the returning veterans. He dignified their individual struggles in a literary form that recalled the great epics and placed the American veterans among mankind's heroes. He gave an immortal film -- a film that affected tens of millions -- its basic structure, plot, characters, tone, and feeling.

Not a bad result for a few months of solitude with a case of bourbon.

October 16, 2007 8:40 AM |



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This page contains a single entry by Martha Bayles published on October 16, 2007 8:40 AM.

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