Let’s Talk About… ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ (1946)

Teresa Wright Centennial

Film #66 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

Directed by William Wyler

Starring: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, Harold Russell, Cathy O’Donnell

 

Samuel Goldwyn was insistent upon making this film and always considered it to be his most important, prestigious project. All of his contract players knew this, almost rolling their eyes each time their boss mentioned it which was undoubtedly quite often. Only after the film came out did everyone stop light-heartedly undermining Goldwyn’s cinematic gem. It was perhaps not easy to admit that this arrogant studio head who twisted the English language in bizarre ways had been correct in his assumption that The Best Years of Our Lives would be one of the greatest films of all time. But, he was.

This masterful picture so beautifully captures a unique period in history that was not so long ago in the past when you think about it. A little over 73 years ago marked the official end to the Second World War. Parts of Europe had been in conflict since 1939 and, in some places, even in the years leading up to the war’s beginnings. The Americans joined the fight in December 1941 after the attack of Pearl Harbor in which thousands of soldiers were killed by the Japanese. After that event, a declaration of war was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt and millions of men volunteered or were drafted for service. Some of the surviving soldiers were in battle overseas for over the three years, yanked from their families and from their native culture. Those who came back home alive were changed men returning to a country that had moved on with time while they were gone. Some of them were able to reintegrate back into society with relative ease while countless others were more affected by their war experience. PTSD, lingering/life-long injuries and amputations, survivor’s guilt and other physical and psychological disorders plagued a lot of these men who usually had no place to go for help. As Virginia Mayo says in a behind-the-scenes short, the film “captured the emotions of the world as (citizens and veterans) made the difficult adjustment to peace time after the worst war in history.”

The Best Years of Our Lives is a truly unique film in the sense that these forgotten servicemen are the central part of the story. For the first time since any war’s end, these soldiers were going to show the world the frank reality of their return to society as well as the ups and downs of rekindling marital love and familial bonds. In addition, it specifically deals with the hardships and challenges faced by a soldier who was handicapped in the line of duty.

Homer & Fred signing-up for their flight.

We are first introduced to the three male leads as they prepare to leave an Air Transport Command Center to board a plane going to Boone City.

Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is an Air Force flyer who was stationed in Europe. He campaigned in dropping bombs on the Germans and was highly decorated for both his hard work ethic and bravery.

Private Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) is a naval petty officer who was stationed in the Philippines. He lost his hands in an explosion that occurred after his ship was attacked; an event that killed 400 of his shipmates. The Navy provided and trained him to use hooks for hands with which he has mastered many simple tasks usually taken for granted such as writing, lighting a cigarette, and autonomous feeding, amongst other things.

Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) is a member of the Army’s infantry and saw battle in Asia. He was in action at Hiroshima as well as the Philippines like Homer. Unlike the other two men, he came face-to-face with the enemy and the actual bodies of the dead.

(Clockwise) Fred, Al & a sleeping Homer

Almost instantly, the men form a bond and start sharing details about their lives. They already realise that they are misfits of normal society having lived through a long, trying war only to be sent back home the moment their service was no longer needed. Fred and Al are initially worried for Homer due to his young age but quickly recognise his courage. All of them are nervous in the cab ride home, each wanting to duck out and get a drink before facing their friends and family.

Homer is the first to be dropped-off at his home. His younger sister greets him, followed by his parents and his fiancée, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell). They are elated to see him though their shock cannot be contained when they see his hooks. Wilma is emotional and overjoyed to see Homer despite his cool attitude towards her. He loves her but thinks that she deserves better than to have a crippled husband.

Next, Al is taken to the condominium that he shares with his family: wife Milly (Myrna Loy), daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) and son Rob. He and Milly have been married for 20 years. Not having seen his children in a number of years, he is taken aback to see them so grown-up. It will also take some time for him and Milly to find each other again, emotionally and sexually.

Last but not least, Fred arrives at his parents’ residence which is little more than a run-down shack. He met and married a woman named Marie (Virginia Mayo) during his military training in Texas. They only knew each other for two weeks before he was shipped off to fight in the war. She does not appear right away because she has taken a small apartment in town and works odd hours, making it difficult for Fred to find her.

Throughout this nearly three-hour film, we witness the interactions between all these characters largely broken down into their respective couplings.

Several themes are prominently featured in the film, notably regarding the sharply different socioeconomic status of the three leads.

Al is upper middle-class and he comes from a comfortable background. He received a good education which permitted him to hold an important banking position. Upon returning home, not one entire day goes by before his old bosses at the bank call and persuade him to come back to work, granting him a promotion as the Vice President of Small Loans. His new annual salary is $12,000 which equates to $167,000+ today. That kind of salary in a medium-sized municipality such as Boone City would likely take them quite far. The family lives in a lovely apartment which has a reception desk in the lobby. They had been reliant on the help of a maid for cooking and cleaning but according to Peggy: “Our maid took a night out three years ago and we haven’t seen her since. But everything’s alright because I took a course in domestic science.” (That last remark is a separate sign of the times! :-)) Although Al would receive military pay every month, it was far lower than anything he ever received in his banking position which is why the family had to downgrade their lifestyle during the war years. Still, they maintained a quality of life that was above many others.

Homer comes from a lower middle-class family who live altogether in a moderately-sized home on a residential street where the houses are located close to one another. He lives comfortably but is in need of constant help. His family is unable to pay for extra help but are accepting of aiding him when needed. The Navy pays him a generous stipend because of his injury and he proudly saves as much as he can in the bank. The love and emotional support that Homer receives is an added blessing. All of this will make it possible for Wilma and him to start a potential married life off in the best conditions possible.

Fred has the most humble origins and comes from an upper low-class situation. His father and stepmother live in a sparsely equipped home with a lack of modern resources. Marie initially came to live there after Fred was sent to Europe but did not stay with her in-laws for very long, likely because it did not suit her lifestyle. The cheap apartment she gets in town is very much of an upgrade. Before he joined the military, Fred was a soda jerk with no post-high school education or real experience. While in the service, he earned $400 a month which equated to $6400+ a month in the beginning of 1942 though decreasing to $5500+ a month in today’s money by the war’s end. When he comes back home, he is adamant about using his military training to get a better job and to never go back to working in a drug store again. Unfortunately, employers do not recognise his war experience as anything valuable in the working world. One of his former colleagues, “Sticky” Merkel feels threatened when Fred comes back as he maintains the attitude that servicemen come back automatically thinking that they will be able to get their old jobs back, leaving non-veterans without work. Eventually, Fred finds it impossible to find any other work than being a soda jerk. His average pay is $32.50 a week which would not even add up to $450 a week today. Marie is disgusted that he gets paid so little after having spent three years receiving the totality of his military pay to do with as she pleased.

Perhaps it is obvious to you that Fred stands out amongst the trio of men in terms of his precarious personal circumstances. He married a woman he barely knew without the faintest notion if he would ever see her again though he knew that he needed to have “someone” back home to give him strength. Marie likely married Fred for similar reasons as she wanted to be that someone who was needed. Maybe she even believed that marrying a lonely soldier was a way that she could participate in the war effort. She is very imperfect and prone to being materialistic which is why she comes off poorly in the film, not attracting much sympathy for the way that she judges Fred. When you think about it, though, Marie was as much of a victim of the war as Fred. She was denied the chance to be a normal newlywed and to get to solidify the love for her husband. Instead, he was not only taken from her but he came back almost a completely different person than he was before he had to fight. Unfortunately for Fred, she has nowhere else to direct her anger, frustration and disappointment but in his direction.

Regardless of their social and economic statuses, the men shared one profound similarity and that was transitioning back to civilian life. Al first brings up this subject on the plane ride to Boone City:

The thing that scares me the most is that everybody’s gonna try to rehabilitate me.”

If anything, the war experience has made Al somewhat of a misfit in his socioeconomic strata. He is no longer impressed with putting the bank’s interests in front of the needs of common men. As the primary loan officer taking care of application from G.I.’s, it is his job to weed out any unacceptable applicants. In other words, if an applicant does not have sustainable collateral, they are automatically denied a loan. There is a moment when a veteran comes to him with plans to buy a farm, a deal for which he thoroughly researched and weighed the options. As a father of four children (one born during the war), this ex-soldier must think of his family’s future. At first, Al knows that he will have to turn down this young man but after a short conversation with Homer, he comes back and approves his loan. This young man had spent three years mapping islands and dropping bombs for the United States, skills that made little sense to those outside of the military realm. These sentiments are mere echoes of what was said earlier about Fred’s difficulties in going back to a soda jerk position after having been a highly decorated pilot. In the end, Al is called out for approving the application though his “error” is quickly dismissed. Later on, he attends an annual meeting with the Board of Directors and other bank members in which he speaks freely and openly (and strongly under the influence of alcohol) to the astonishment of much of the audience. To them, Al was their “representative” in the war and therefore labelled a hero though they understood nothing about his time as a soldier.

Old habits do die hard, however, as proven in Al’s disdain towards Fred when he finds out that he and his daughter Peggy have fallen in love with one another. Ignorant of the fact that Fred is in a loveless marriage, Al disapproves of Fred because he comes from a broken home and can offer no decent life to Peggy, at least in his opinion. Despite his admission that he is fond of Fred, one can easily find that comment very shallow and self-centred. In the end, Al would rather see his daughter married off to someone from a good family than to end up with Fred.

The married home life that Fred shares with Marie is strained soon after their reunion. He comes home in an old suit that he found at his old place and is delighted to be wearing civilian clothes for the first time in years. When Marie sees him dressed like this, she is visibly horrified and pressures him to put his uniform back on, claiming that his old suit is too dingy and worn out to be presentable. After Fred is once again dressed as a flying ace, Marie nonchalantly tells him, “See? You look like yourself!” As their marriage crumbles, Marie is increasingly agitated and impatient. She confronts Fred about a recurring nightmare he has about a friend and fellow soldier whose name he calls out every night. It so happens that he was killed in action and Fred was witness to the incident, unable to save his life. Here is Marie’s response:

Can’t you get those things out your system? Maybe that’s what’s holding you back. You know the war’s over. You won’t get any place until you stop thinking about it. Come on, snap out it!”

This confrontation leads up to Fred getting into a fight defending Homer against a supposed proud American who believes that the country went to war for nothing, fighting the wrong people. The man first approaches Homer to ask him in a not-so-discreet fashion about his hooks. Luckily, Homer has grown a pretty thick skin with people constantly staring at him and being inquisitive so he responds favourably. Afterwards, the man makes a comment that what Homer went through was a shame and due to an error in judgement in going to war. This enrages Homer who believes that he lost his hands in an attempt to bring good to his country and that what happened was simply an unfortunate accident. Although Homer is largely at terms with his handicap, there are moments when he is very fragile. As a former All-Star American football player, it is difficult to accept that he will no longer be able to play again. He knows that he can live with himself as an amputee but believes that no one else can, especially a beautiful girl like Wilma. He attempts to isolate himself from her so that she can find eventually find happiness elsewhere. In one of the most touching moments of the film, Homer invites Wilma to his bedroom to show her his nightly routine thinking that she will be horrified to see that she has to manipulate his hooks and help him with his clothing. It is the first time that we, the audience, and Wilma see Homer without his hooks.

While these men will always carry their wounds, they can also move on and grow from them. Luckily they have each other to rely on not to mention the wonderful significant others in their lives.

 

I watched The Best Years of Our Lives again specifically for this article though I had seen it at least 20 times before, if not more. The film never feels repetitive to me and it never fails to move me. This time around, it is as if the performances were heightened, perhaps because I had already discussed World War II in my article for Mrs. Miniver. Added to that overall sentiment is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I on 11 November 2018. This is a very special time that is filled with reflection, sorrow, appreciation, and joy.

William Wyler, like Samuel Goldwyn, was not born in the United States. The same is true for MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer. Nonetheless, these non-native American men managed to create some of the most beautifully patriotic films in cinematic history. The Best Years of Our Lives garnered 9 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor. Among these, Harold Russell was given a special Oscar and Samuel Goldwyn was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Lifetime Achievement Award. When the Library of Congress started preserving films into the National Film Registry, this film was amongst the first that was chosen to be inducted.

Every player in this film deserves a great deal of credit for their participation in this film. Each role was pivotal to the storyline and perfectly played. This is a rare film that is quite certainly amongst the best ever made, regardless of its numerical ranking on a list.

 

Musician & Composer Hoagy Carmichael is sometimes mentioned along with the main cast though this occurred mostly before the film was so critically well-received and particularly before Harold Russell was hailed for his performance by being awarded 2 Academy Awards. After that, Russell was heavily promoted along with the main cast as was his on-screen fiancée Cathy O’Donnell, who would ironically go on to marry director William Wyler’s brother Robert.

The Best Years of Our Lives Trailer:

 

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