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Teresa Wright in 'The Best Years of Our Lives': Mammoth Blockbuster Was Career Highlight

The Best Years of Our Lives'The Best Years of Our Lives': Blockbuster with Michael Hall, Fredric March, Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright.

Teresa Wright: Missing out on 'Duel in the Sun,' but scoring with 'The Best Years of Our Lives'

(See previous post: “Teresa Wright in 'Shadow of a Doubt': Alfred Hitchcock Heroine in His Favorite Movie.”) Following Casanova Brown, pregnancy prevented Teresa Wright from being (absurdly) cast as fiery “half-breed” Pearl Chavez in the film version of husband Niven Busch's 1944 bestseller Duel in the Sun. Jennifer Jones eventually landed the role.[1]

Two other projects that went to other actresses were Those Endearing Young Charms (Laraine Day) and The Enchanted Cottage (Dorothy McGuire, whom she had understudied in Our Town on Broadway).[2]

On loan to Paramount, Wright was back in front of the camera in spring 1945, but – for reasons unclear – The Imperfect Lady and The Trouble with Women, both co-starring Ray Milland, would be released only in 1947.

Hence, after about two years away from the big screen, Teresa Wright would next be seen in what would turn out to be the biggest box office hit of her career: William Wyler's 1946 homecoming drama The Best Years of Our Lives.

'The Best Years of Our Lives'

A bowdlerized, sentimentalized version of MacKinlay Kantor's blank-verse, 1945 novel Glory for Me, The Best Years of Our Lives – screenplay credited to Robert E. Sherwood – tells the story of three World War II U.S. veterans attempting to readjust to civilian life.

In this Samuel Goldwyn production, Teresa Wright played Peggy Stephenson, the all-American Daughter of all-American Wife and Mom Myrna Loy and all-American War Veteran and Husband/Dad Fredric March (instead of original choices Olivia de Havilland and Fred MacMurray).

Although once again the epitome of Hollywood's demure, desexualized girl next door, Wright's Peggy is also a determined go-getter, eager to proceed romancing hunky ex-pilot Dana Andrews – even if that means ruining his marriage.

Lest audiences (and Production Code censors) find the character less than the perfect embodiment of Why We Fight, Andrews' wife is played in sultry, selfish, bitchy fashion by Virginia Mayo, begging for a fate worse than divorce. (The censors did demand cuts to make Peggy less of a homewrecker, but Goldwyn stood firm.)

She and Frances Dee had faces then

Regarding Teresa Wright's performance in her third and final collaboration with William Wyler, James Agee wrote in The Nation:

“Like [Little Women and I Walked with a Zombie actress] Frances Dee, she has always been one of the very few women in movies who really had a face. Like Miss Dee, she has also always used this translucent face with delicate and exciting talent as an actress, and with something of a novelist's perceptiveness behind the talent. And like Miss Dee, she has never been around nearly enough. This new performance of hers – entirely lacking in big scenes, tricks, or obstreperousness – seems to me one of the wisest and most beautiful pieces of work I have seen in years. If [The Best Years of Our Lives] had none of the hundreds of other things it has to recommend it, I could watch it a dozen times over for that personality and mastery alone.”

Teresa Wright The Best Years of Our Lives Myrna LoyTeresa Wright in 'The Best Years of Our Lives,' with Myrna Loy.

Seven Academy Awards

The winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and the top choice of the New York Film Critics Circle, The Best Years of Our Lives became one of the most widely acclaimed movies of the 1940s. Film Daily, for one, said it “comes close to being the perfect film – as close indeed as you've ever seen.”

Audiences apparently agreed: The Best Years of Our Lives went on to earn Goldwyn and distributor RKO a total of $11.3 million at the North American box office, nearly $10 million of which in its first year out – thus trailing (by a wide margin) only Victor Fleming's Gone with the Wind up to that time.[3]

Yet Samuel Goldwyn failed to capitalize on the film's success – at least as far as the career of his most prestigious female contract player was concerned.[4] As a result, even though she was bypassed for the Academy Awards, The Best Years of Our Lives would remain the apex of Teresa Wright's film stardom.

In fact, William Wyler's socially conscious blockbuster was to mark the apex of Goldwyn's prolific four-decade career as well. Tellingly, the producer and his top director – acrimoniously – parted ways at that time.

Teresa Wright: The miscast leading lady

In all fairness, at first Samuel Goldwyn did at least try.

Henry Koster's The Bishop's Wife, however sappy, could have helped to solidify Teresa Wright's standing in the industry since she would be co-starring with Cary Grant and fellow Goldwyn contract player David Niven in what turned out to be both a huge moneymaker and a Best Picture Oscar nominee. However, Wright got pregnant once again and at the last minute had to be replaced by Loretta Young.

“Goldwyn never forgave me for that,” Wright would later say. He had reportedly bought the film rights to Robert Nathan's novel for $200,000; The Bishop's Wife, in fact, was to have been Wright's first film under her new seven-year contract with the producer.

But instead of David Niven or Cary Grant, in 1947 she was seen opposite another British actor, Ray Milland, as Paramount had finally decided to release her two 1945 movies:

  • Lewis Allen's The Imperfect Lady, an ineffectual period drama with Wright (instead of the better suited Paramount contract star Paulette Goddard) utterly miscast as a 19th-century dancer.
  • Sidney Lanfield's minor comedy The Trouble with Women, with Milland as a professor out to prove his thesis that women enjoy the rough treatment.[5]

Despite Ray Milland's prestige – he had won the 1945 Best Actor Oscar for Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend – neither film caused much of a stir with either critics or audiences.

Teresa Wright PursuedTeresa Wright not in 'Duel in the Sun,' but in the much more modest – and less commercially successful – Western 'Pursued.'

'Out of sorts' near Robert Mitchum

Teresa Wright's other 1947 release was the independently made, Warner Bros.-distributed Pursued, written by husband Niven Busch. This psychological Western – supposedly the first in the subgenre – about revenge and redemption was directed by veteran Raoul Walsh (Sadie Thompson, High Sierra) and co-starred Robert Mitchum (instead of the originally announced Fred MacMurray) in his first important lead.

In Lee Server's Robert Mitchum: “Baby I Don't Care,” Pursued supporting player Harry Carey Jr. recalled that Teresa Wright found Mitchum “physically overpowering, and with that sort of bad boy sexuality, she just became out of sorts when he was near her.” (If Carey's story is true, that could be the reason for her uncomfortable look throughout the film.)

Pursued was well-received by critics, but Wright's part was hardly the sort of stellar role she needed at that stage in her career. Her next vehicle – based on Rumer Godden's mystical novel Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time – did nothing to help matters.

'Enchantment' disappointment

Notwithstanding a cast that also included David Niven, Columbia leading lady Evelyn Keyes, and Goldwyn discovery Farley Granger, Enchantment (1948) was anything but – at least as far as critics and audiences were concerned. “A crabby reviewer might take exception,” wrote Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, “… to the obvious intoxicating purpose of the film's gauzy sentiment.”

On the positive side, the Times reviewer did comment on Wright's “breathless, bright-eyed rapture,” while Newsweek remarked, “Miss Wright, one of the screen's finest, glows as the Cinderella who captivated three men.” But such notices were hardly enough to justify Goldwyn's – however half-hearted, at times downright myopic – investment on his property.

The near-decade-long Teresa Wright-Samuel Goldwyn association was about to come to an end.

“Teresa Wright in The Best Years of Our Lives” follow-up post: “Teresa Wright vs. Samuel Goldwyn: Nasty Falling Out.”

Teresa Wright David Niven EnchantmentTeresa Wright and David Niven in 'Enchantment.'

Teresa Wright notes: 'Duel in the Sun' co-starring John Wayne

[1] Initially slated as an RKO release, Duel in the Sun was to have been co-adapted and produced by Niven Busch himself, with Teresa Wright and John Wayne as the leads.

Hedy Lamarr was Wright's initial replacement – only to bow out because she was also pregnant. Next in line was Jennifer Jones (and possibly Paramount's Veronica Lake).

At that point, independent producer David O. Selznick – Jennifer Jones' boss, lover, mentor, and Svengali – acquired the film rights to Duel in the Sun. John Wayne was dropped and replaced with Selznick contract player Gregory Peck.

Joseph Cotten, Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Marshall, Walter Huston, and Charles Bickford rounded out the cast.

King Vidor eventually received sole director's credit, though Duel in the Sun also had input from William Dieterle (who actually completed the film), Josef von Sternberg, Sidney Franklin, and others. David O. Selznick and Oliver H.P. Garrett were credited for the screenplay and adaptation, “suggested” by Niven Busch's novel.

For her efforts in one of the most successful and most controversial releases of the decade, Jennifer Jones was shortlisted for the 1946 Best Actress Oscar. She lost to Olivia de Havilland for Mitchell Leisen's To Each His Own.

Source for Duel in the Sun's various casting contenders: Paul Green's Jennifer Jones: The Life and Films.

[2] In 1943, Samuel Goldwyn announced that Teresa Wright would star in Bid for Happiness, based on a Helen Hayes radio vehicle, itself adapted from a book by Therese Lewis and Lota Kriendler. The movie was never made.

'The Best Years of Our Live's box office

[3] The $11.3 million figure represents North American rentals earned by distributor RKO and producer Samuel Goldwyn. Thanks to a generous (some would call it “inept”) agreement with RKO, Goldwyn kept the lion's share of The Best Years of Our Lives' receipts.

Therefore, despite the immense success of the Goldwyn production, RKO's top 1946 earners for the studio, which had its best year ever, were:*

  • Notorious (1946).
    Dir.: Alfred Hitchcock (1946).
    Cast: Cary Grant. Ingrid Bergman. Claude Rains. Leontine Konstantin. Louis Calhern.
  • The Spiral Staircase (1946).
    Dir.: Robert Siodmak.
    Cast: Dorothy McGuire. George Brent. Kent Smith. Ethel Barrymore. Rhonda Fleming. Gordon Oliver. Elsa Lanchester. Sara Allgood. Rhys Williams. James Bell.
  • Badman's Territory (1946).
    Dir.: Tim Whelan.
    Cast: Randolph Scott. Ann Richards. George 'Gabby' Hayes. Ray Collins.
  • Till the End of Time (1946)†.
    Dir.: Edward Dmytryk.
    Cast: Dorothy McGuire. Guy Madison. Robert Mitchum. Bill Williams. Tom Tully. William Gargan. Jean Porter.
  • Cornered (1945).
    Dir.: Edward Dmytryk.
    Cast: Dick Powell. Walter Slezak. Micheline Cheirel.

Modern sources claim The Best Years of Our Lives grossed $23.65 million at the domestic box office. If accurate – the figure may have been a calculation based on current rentals/gross percentages – this 1946 release scored approximately $456 million in 2015 dollars in the U.S. and Canada.

That places it in the no. 75 slot on Box Office Mojo's inflation-adjusted box office chart, slightly behind Sylvester Stallone's star vehicle Rocky (1976) and slightly ahead of Ronald Neame's all-star disaster drama The Poseidon Adventure (1972).

A 1975 made-for-TV remake of The Best Years of Our Lives, Returning Home, starred Dabney Coleman, Tom Selleck, James R. Miller, Whitney Blake, and Sherry Jackson, with Joan Goodfellow in the old Teresa Wright role. Daniel Petrie directed.

* Source: Richard B. Jewell and Vernon Harbin's The RKO Story.

Till the End of Time, which was released before the similarly themed The Best Years of Our Lives, was based on Niven Busch's 1944 novel They Dream of Home.

Teresa Wright Ray Milland The Imperfect LadyTeresa Wright and Paramount star Ray Milland in 'The Imperfect Lady.'

Samuel Goldwyn's male stars

[4] In the mid-'40s, Samuel Goldwyn's stable of male stars included box office draw Danny Kaye, and leading men Dana Andrews and David Niven.

By 1946, the producer had also launched the Hollywood career of Farley Granger, in addition to those of Virginia Mayo and Cathy O'Donnell.

Iris Adrian steals 'The Trouble with Women'

[5] Regarding The Trouble with Women, Time magazine wrote: “Best thing in the show: Iris Adrian as a stripteaser, uttering shrill little growls of self-esteem as she does – or rather, undoes – her stuff.”

Curiously, one of the working titles for The Trouble with Women was It Had to Be You, which also happens to be the title of a 1947 Columbia release starring Ginger Rogers and Cornel Wilde, and directed by Don Hartman and Rudolph Maté.

If that weren't confusing enough, another The Trouble with Women working title was Too Good to Be True, which was also the working title for the 1946 Paramount release Cross My Heart, directed by John Berry and starring Betty Hutton and Sonny Tufts

 

Teresa Wright Pursued image: Warner Bros.

Image of Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, and Michael Hall in The Best Years of Our Lives: Samuel Goldwyn / RKO Pictures.

Teresa Wright and David Niven Enchantment image: Samuel Goldwyn / RKO Pictures.

Teresa Wright and Myrna Loy The Best Years of Our Lives image: Samuel Goldwyn / RKO Pictures.

Teresa Wright and Ray Milland The Imperfect Lady image: Paramount Pictures, via Weirdland.


         
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