Nineteen Forty Six was a pivotal year in the American Century. The United States had won World War II by harnessing the minds and bodies of its people and focusing that output single-mindedly on victory on the battlefield. It had required all its young men to drop their lives and join the most powerful fighting machine ever assembled. But equally extreme was the disruption that this mobilization had on the rest of the population. The industrial capacity of the country was shifted over from producing cars and clothes for the populace to producing battleships, tanks, munitions and supplies needed to maintain millions of men across a far-flung battle field that spanned the globe.
And those industries had to produce this war-time materiel with almost none of their regular workers. They had to train women and older men to take the places of their husbands, sons and fathers. Other disruptions existed because of the male deployment. Marriage and family growth were often postponed until after the war. But equally disruptive were the last minute marriages and even conceptions that were consummated in defiance of the war’s demands. Many a young woman had to raise a posthumous child to a father who would never return to his family.
But finally the war was over. By dint of the effort of millions and with the help of a couple of atomic bombs the war was won and done. Now these millions of soldiers. sailors, airmen and marines were returning home to their families and friends. But in many ways, the returning men were strangers in a strange land. They were changed and so was the country. Whereas, for the last four years, they had been the focus of all that went on, now they were being deposited back in the country to try and restart their lives where they left off. But things were not where they left off. The jobs they had had before their enlistments were either being done by someone else or didn’t even exist anymore. And the meager but regular paychecks they got from Uncle Sam would soon disappear.
And finally, many of these men were physically or mentally wounded. In addition to the injured and maimed a great number of them were victims of what today we call PTSD. The experiences they had lived through had left a mark on their minds that only time might heal. The ones that had lost limbs had the added physical and psychological difficulties associated with these losses.
The Best Years of Our Lives was a movie that ambitiously attempted to portray and speak to these realities. And this was an innovation for the times. Up until this point Hollywood portrayed America’s wartime experience through a patriotic lens that glossed over many of the harsh realities that existed. But this movie cast a veteran who had lost his hands in the war (Harold Russell) as Sailor Homer Parrish one of the returning servicemen. The realities of divorces and unemployment and the depression associated with the alienation and various disruptions impacting the former GIs are openly addressed and nothing is glossed over for the sake of sparing the audience.
Frederic March and Dana Andrews along with the above-mentioned Harold Russel are the protagonists. They meet on the airplane ride back to their home town of Boone City and the three men bond over the relief and anxiety associated with leaving the service and returning to civilian life. March is a forty-something infantry sergeant named Al Stephenson and Andrews is Army Air Corps Captain Fred Derry. But whereas Captain Derry was a highly paid officer and a gentleman in the service he returns home with his only civilian work experience being a soda jerk at the local drug store. Alternatively, Stephenson trades in his infantry grunt existence for the comfortable lifestyle of a bank officer. Homer Parrish returns home to the pity and awkward glances from friends and family associated with his missing hands.
Al Stephenson reintroduces himself to his wife Milly and his son and daughter. Milly (played by Myrna Loy) tries to make Al feel at home but they both are ill at ease trying to take up their relationship where it left off. Finally, nervous about heading to bed early he drags Milly and daughter Peggy off to the local watering holes to drink away his nerves with scotch.
Meanwhile Fred Derry reaches his father’s home to discover that his young wife Marie has moved out into her own apartment downtown and is working as a cocktail waitress in a night club. He heads out trying to find out what night club Marie is working at.
And finally, Homer is home with his and his girlfriend’s families celebrating his return and talking about his future. But he becomes so unhappy with the tense and nervous atmosphere that he leaves to hang out at his Uncle Butch’s bar.
And so, all three ex-servicemen coincidentally meet up at Butch’s Place. And there we see Al and Fred get royally drunk to distract themselves from their domestic issues. And in this impaired condition Fred flirts mildly with Peggy Stephenson. Finally, Butch tells Homer his family wants him home and Milly and Peggy manage to drag Al and Fred into the car and after Fred fails to gain entry into Marie’s apartment building, they drive both men back to the Stephenson apartment where the fall-down-drunk men are bedded down. During the night Peggy hears Fred Derry crying out. He was reliving a nightmare where some of his comrades were shot out of the air. The next morning, he apologizes for waking her and she sympathetically assures him that she didn’t mind. Peggy gives Fred a lift to his wife’s building and this time he gets in. Now we meet Marie. Fred married a very beautiful woman (played by Virginia Mayo) whom he had only known for days when he was deployed to Europe. Now we see that Marie is a selfish, materialistic woman who expects to be supported in the style she has been accustomed to as a night club denizen. While Fred has a thousand-dollar severance payment from the service they live it up. But when the money runs out the couple begin to battle over Marie’s dissatisfaction.
Meanwhile Al and Milly reconnect and talk about their children and Al’s future with the bank he left when he enlisted. Al tells Milly that he feels responsible to help all the other veterans who didn’t come home to a good job and need some help to get their lives back on track. He uses his position as a loan officer to help fellow veterans who need GI loans to try to catch up with the new world they find themselves in. This puts him at odds with the bank president but Al perseveres to champion his fellow vets.
At Homer Parrish’s house we meet Homer’s sweetheart Wilma and find that although she is demonstrably in love with Homer, he is withdrawn and morose. She asks him why he hasn’t asked her to marry him. But he tells her he doesn’t want to ruin her life by tying her down to a helpless cripple. Homer is so unhappy that he explodes in frustration when he thinks his little sister and her friends are gawking in a window at his prosthetic hands. Finally, Wilma tells Homer that her parents want her to leave town to forget him but she wants him to marry her. Homer decides to let her see just how helpless he is when he removes his prostheses. But instead of recoiling from his injuries she embraces him and proves to him that she wants to be with him. They set the date for their wedding.
An additional story line involves a romantic attachment that grows between Fred Derry and Peggy Stephenson. When Al finds out about his daughter’s romance with the married Fred, he angrily confronts him for involving his daughter in an extra-marital affair and Fred stoically agrees to break it off. But even with Peggy out of the picture Fred and Marie fall apart and he leaves home while she declares her intention to get a divorce. When he leaves, he intends to leave town and start his life over somewhere else. But while waiting for a flight at the airport he roams through the warplane graveyard and climbs into a bomber. While reliving some disturbing memory from the war he is discovered by a man who is reclaiming the old planes for construction scrap materials and is told to get out of the plane. Fred asks if he has any jobs available and manages to convince the man that he is a good prospect and so Fred restarts his life again in his home town.
Now the three ex-servicemen meet up at Homer’s wedding where Al, Milly and Peggy are friends of the groom and Fred is the best man. Now that Fred is no longer married, he and Al no longer have a reason for fighting and at the end of the night Fred and Peggy come back together and decide to marry.
Back in 1946 when winning an Academy Award actually meant the movie was good, The Best Years of Our Lives was competing against It’s a Wonderful Life. And I think The Best Years of Our Lives won because America needed to move beyond the simplified vision of life represented by It’s a Wonderful Life and recognize the harsh realities and ugly side to life that came along with the changes that the war generated such as the liberation of women and the choice of some of them to embrace a life style that did not value a traditional family role. But acknowledging the problems facing the returning vets made this movie resonate with the American people.
In my opinion it is one of the best films ever made. The acting by March and Loy is exceptional and Andrews, Russell and several other players are also excellent. It captures the feeling of the time and who the American people were back then.
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