The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the best movies I have ever seen. I thought it might be prudent to get that out front because this post will be nothing but praise for the masterpiece. But I’m not alone in my assertion as the flick won eight of the nine Oscars for which it was nominated.
The picture, which came out a year after World War II ended, was about just that: the end. It follows three soldiers who return to the same hometown and try to re-enter their past lives. The Best Actor award went to Dana Andrews who plays pilot Fred Derry and steals away the majority of our attention during the movie. The Best Supporting Actor Academy Award went to first-time actor and real-life soldier Harold Russell, who lost his hands and forearms in a training accident and had them replaced by hooks.
Joining both Fred and Homer (Russell) on a flight home to Boone City is Army Sgt. Al Stephenson, played by Fredric March. The three bond over their short trip home and share the same reluctance to leave their taxicab when it pulls up to each house. Al comes home to a surprised and overwhelmed wife in Myrna Loy, whose emotions overwhelm us as much as she in reuniting with her husband. The couple have a teenage son (Michael Hall)and a slightly older daughter who has been working as a nurse.
Homer, meanwhile, comes home to loving parents and a young sister. His mother cannot help but cry at the sight of his disability, frustrating the soldier who has become accustomed to it. He was set to marry the girl next door, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), before he left for the war. Although Wilma shows no hesitation around her beau, he is too self conscious about the hooks to believe in their future and so avoids contact with her.
Fred, lastly, stops at his parents run-down home to say hello and to reunite with the wife he married 80-some days before deployment. She no longer lives with the folks, however, and has taken a job at a night club and an apartment in town as well.
Unable to handle the home surroundings that are no longer familiar to him, Al takes his wife and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) out on the town, ending their late night at Butch’s Place. Homer too finds his way there after spilling a glass of lemonade he was unable to manage with his prosthetics. Fred, unsuccessful in locating his wife at any of the clubs, joins the gang. A very drunk Fred is forward but polite with Peggy and ultimately spends the night in her bed –although she is on the couch.
The next day, Fred finally reunites with his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), who is thrilled to see him. The couple soon spend down the $1,000 in cash the man has, and the revelation that nightly outings are nixed from their lives frustrates Marie. The two are growing distant as Fred and Peggy are falling in love, a love of which Al does not approve.
Director William Wellman sets up from Peggy and Fred’s first encounter their destiny together. Seating them beside one another in a crowded booth at Butch’s, we naturally pair them. We also see a great degree of interaction between the two before ever meeting Marie, so we make up our minds early about the winning woman.
The two able-bodied men are finding employment to be a challenge but in disparate ways. Al has not only been offered back his job at the bank, but has been promoted to a post where he will consider GI loans. His idea of a safe bet is different from that of the execs, however, stirring some tension. Fred, meanwhile, returns to a job at what used to be a drug store and works beneath the man he used to oversee. He had sworn never to return to such a low position, but has no skills outside of flying a plane. Poverty challenges his home life.
Both men illustrate for the audience the frustration of returning to the mundane experiences of regular employment. Work is not chief among soldiers’ thoughts when imagining their return home, but it nevertheless remains a requirement to maintain a livelihood. Fred, who was a captain in the Air Force and a pro flyer, is disheartened to be placed in such a menial position where he has no control.
My favorite scene in The Best Years of Our Lives is the last. Fred and Peggy are among the guests in a crowded house awaiting the bride’s appearance. Seeing that Al has arrived, Fred goes on the hunt for Peggy, whom he has weeks before romantially rejected as a way to keep her father happy. When he spots the woman, he stops, standing arms at his side facing her across the room, unmoving. The camera’s high-angle shot does not seem to be focusing on anything in particular, but our eyes are drawn to him. Peggy, who has been in conversation, seems to sense his gaze and turns towards him and approaches. They exchange pleasantries but make not gestures of love. Later, as the bride and groom read their vows, Fred is standing as best man but is looking across the room to Peggy, who seems to glow in her light-colored dress, who is also watching him. The cinematography is subtle as the bride and groom take up half the screen and their speaking can distract us from the shot’s true meaning. The recitation of the vows and pronouncement of man and wife seems as much meant for the bride and groom as for Peggy and Fred. When the ceremony is over, Fred walks directly to Peggy and kisses her as though they are alone in the room.
The Best Years of Our Lives is a masterpiece in its gentle conveyance of the harsh realities of returning soldiers who are damaged goods to certain degrees in physical and mental ways. The prolonged friendship among the men is also a testament to how they could feel more at home with each other than with their own families because of the semi-shared experiences they had overseas. Both the men and their loved ones suffer under the circumstances with Peggy being one neutral and healing figure for Fred. This movie is apt to make you cry, sigh and smile and is one of the most touching pictures I’ve ever seen.
- The Best Years of Our Lives is set for 8 p.m. ET Aug. 2 and 2:15 a.m. ET Oct. 10 on TCM.