The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Dir. William Wyler. Starring Fredric March, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews

In 1979, Jimmy Carter gave a speech that, in my mind, ranks with George Washington’s Farewell Address or Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural as one of the most important in the history of the American executive. The “Crisis of Confidence” speech speaks to a statistic that I think people my age have taken for granted rather than found shocking:

For the first time in the history of our country a majority of people believe that the next five years will be worst than the past five years.

For Carter, the roots of that doubt are in the 1960s: the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King (though he doesn’t mention Malcolm X), the Vietnam War. And, as the icing on the cake, there was Watergate; Nixon’s resignation was, for Carter, only as distant as the Tucson shooting (which is most famous for nearly killing Representative Gabrielle Giffords) is for us. Carter’s time was not a good time for closure; there was no great battle to signal the end of the Vietnam War, and the rapid exits of two of the last three presidents before Carter provided no real closure to the American people; neither Lee Harvey Oswald nor Richard Nixon ever stood trial. But roots have roots.

Richard Yates, whose Revolutionary Road remains one of the most scalding, scouring novels of the 20th Century, described the fifties as a decade in which there was a general “lust for conformity.” That lust for conformity was gifted to the public by people like William Levitt and Ray Kroc, but also by people like Joseph McCarthy. These roots have roots as well.

In 1946, two of the top eleven films in AFI’s “100 Years…100 Cheers” were released, both with delightfully cryptic names. One of them is about how the American Dream chews you up and spits you out, requiring divine intervention just to keep you alive. The other wonders how America’s military, built from plain folks from across the country, will adjust to peacetime, and finds that there will be relief for them. It’s a Wonderful Life flopped so famously that no one bothered to renew the copyright. The Best Years of Our Lives went on to resounding critical and popular success in the way that only a handful of other movies can claim to have done. In either case, both films are, in the end, optimistic. Even if George Bailey’s life seems to have escaped from a Chekhov play, it turns out that he is a good man with a good family and a good town to live in. And even if Homer’s hands are replaced by hooks, or if Fred’s first marriage crashed and burned, or if Al’s idealism will probably cost him his bank job someday, there’s light on the other side. They’ll become somebodies. They’ll realize, like George Bailey, that there are other people who need them and want them to come home. Perhaps, as it is so artfully said in Next to Normal: “And you find out you don’t have to be happy at all/To be happy you’re alive.”

I like The Best Years of Our Lives. I loved the scene where Al (March) calls out Fred (Andrews) in h’h’s, to ward off a “smooth operator” from his daughter; you can see how huge Andrews’ head is in that scene, and you think that if they’d made that movie in 2006 instead of 1946, it’d be Jon Hamm playing him. March, for his part, plays Al with a darkly comic aspect. No one in the film has more to come home to than Al, with his ritzy position at the bank, his handsome wife, Millie(Myrna Loy), and his two children. Peggy (Wright) is perfect. His son, who disappears mysteriously from the film, is bright if a little odd. And yet no one responds to an opportunity more self-destructively than Al does; he jeopardizes his position at the bank, first by doing the right thing (giving a former farmer and Seabee a loan to buy farmland despite the fact that the guy has no collateral), and then by getting drunk and calling out his boss at a company dinner. He has real problems with alcohol, which are evidenced early in the film and are thrown in repeatedly along the way. To continue with the Mad Men references, he’s what Roger Sterling would have been if he were ten, fifteen years older. To top it all off, he seems to have no idea what to do with his wife and children. Frequently, he asks Milly if he’s really married, if he really has kids, if he’s really home. He seems to know that he has everything to live for, and yet he wants to crawl and hide somewhere with a bottle of bourbon. I loved Peggy’s line where she announces boldly to her mother and father that she can see that Fred’s marriage is a disaster, and that since she loves Fred and she is convinced that he loves her as well (she at least has collateral – he kissed her in a parking lot), she means to break up that marriage. I don’t often root for adulterers in film – it’s admittedly one of the most old-fashioned things about me – but Peggy’s willingness to do something that she knows is probably a tad loathsome is enervating. My eyes opened up real wide when she said it and everything; it’s a sentence that I could have hardly imagined in a movie, because before the sixties it would have been lewd, and because after the sixties it would have been hopelessly unironic. I love how (and maybe this is why I have Chekhov on the brain) during Homer’s piano duet with his uncle, Butch (Hoagy Carmichael), the real focus is on what Fred must be saying to Peggy, how he’s breaking up with her before they ever really got in with one another; it reminds me of how Chekhov argues that while people’s lives are being “smashed up,” their surroundings and conversation must be perfectly ordinary.

I like all of these things about the movie, and many more. But its optimism is so jarring that it left me skeptical, even cynical. Were people really that sure things would turn out right? Did people understand that defeating Hitler and Mussolini could segue with almost terrifying neatness into fighting Stalin and Mao? In The Best Years of Our Lives, people talk about the likelihood of nuclear annihilation, or the probability of a postwar lull in production leading to a recession. For goodness’ sake, the entire movie is about three former soldiers who struggle to become civilians once again. The movie is most famous because Harold Russell’s character, Homer, had his hands burned off, has hooks for hands, and can’t seem to accept his charming girlfriend (Cathy O’Donnell) or even his family any longer. There is significant sadness in Boone City, and yet the film ends with Homer’s marriage and with the hopeful next steps of Fred and Peggy’s love. The optimism isn’t even blind; Fred speaks the last words of the movie to Peggy, and they ought to temper anyone’s optimism, for should they marry one another, they would have no money and great struggle for years to come until he could make something of himself. But the optimism is there. And all of that optimism seems to place a weird burden on the women in the story.

Predictably, none of the men stay home on their first night back in the bosom of their families. Homer’s hooks cause no small amount of mutual embarrassment, and he bails on his family; Fred can’t find his wife, so he goes out looking for her in the nightclubs; Al suggests to his wife and daughter that they go out on the town. The three men collide at Butch’s; in the end, Butch makes sure Homer gets home, but it falls to Milly and Peggy to get Al and Fred back to where they belong. As it turns out, Fred comes home with the Stephensons, sleeps in Peggy’s bed, has some night terrors, and wakes up to Peggy making eggs and coffee for him before driving him back to the apartments he presumes his wife lives at.

Much later in the story, Homer tries to convince Wilma, his longtime sweetheart who is literally the girl next door, that she ought to give him up. He shows her how he looks without the hooks, taking them off and revealing the remains of his arms. Once the hooks are removed, he cannot read a book, or open the door, or do much of anything until someone helps him put the hooks back on. Wilma is not deterred. She affirms her love for Homer in what I presume is the movie’s most heartwarming scene, the one most individually affiliated with this film. One imagines that Fred and Peggy falling for each other could have happened in just about any movie, but only in The Best Years of Our Lives do we get a scene like the one with Homer and Wilma.

In both cases, though – whether Fred is too drunk to get inside his wife’s apartment complex, or Homer is too torn up about his hands to get married – The Best Years of Our Lives presupposes that when these soldiers come home, there will be a woman (or two!) there to help him do the rehabilitating. Peggy and Wilma are both angels. Neither one of them has a thought outside their heads but to increase the quality of life for the man who’s come home. (A fifties sequel to The Best Years of Our Lives would have to take into account how these marriages work out once the immense store of pity is either run dry or deemed unnecessary.) Without those women, Homer lives upstairs in his parents’ house, brooding about his lost hands, and Fred disappears somewhere on the east coast, leaving no trace of himself. That’s read as tragic, and of course it would be deeply sad. But it is also deeply sad that Peggy and Wilma exist, in the film’s cosmology, to fix war veterans with their love and attention and affection, that in watching the film the audience comes to expect that they will retreat into someone else’s house from a job (Peggy is in nursing) or from a new opportunity (Wilma’s been dating Homer since forever). Women like them are the optimism in this movie, that same optimism that is so unusual given the state of the nation’s mood just twenty years after this film was made. That optimism that the film has – that a man like Fred will make something of himself, that Homer will become whole again, that Al will manage to maintain his conscience – rests disproportionately on Peggy’s encouragement, Wilma’s service, and Milly’s monitoring.

Most of the signs in the first twenty minutes of the movie or so lead us to believe that the initial homecoming is a positive experience. Homer’s entire family piles out on the lawn to see him home; Al’s wife and children are pleasantly surprised by his dropping in; Fred’s father and stepmother are thrilled to see their boy home, especially with all of his ribbons and medals. The movie, of course, works for nearly three hours to problematize those homecomings. But at the end of the film, when we see that glowing optimism again, we realize that in the ’40s, they must have anticipated a return to normalcy not unlike whatever it was Warren Harding promised. They’ll return to their conservative homes, where the only god is the Christian god, and the only economic system worth practicing is capitalism. The flag ought not to be burned, and black people should be seen and not heard, but preferably not seen either. Homosexuality is right out, and marital rape is a non sequitur. Those immediate post-war years had to be the best years of somebody’s life, but there’s no question that the optimism this film feels so surely is misguided. The goal is to make everything the way it was before the war (but not like it was during the Depression); in 1946, it must have been difficult to realize that that goal was neither possible nor, based on what Jimmy Carter reported in 1979, all that desirable.


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