Main Street on the March!, a short movie by Edward Cahn, is a forerunner for what has become, beyond the postwar years, a significant mode in World War II filmmaking. Cahn’s picture depicts an American public which is blissfully unaware that war will come to their territorial borders, and that they will send out so many young people to fight in Europe and the Pacific. (Obviously, there are de rigueur scenes of pre-enlistment japing in the prestige World War I dramas, too, and they likewise serve either as a setting for the tragedy that will befall the family, as in Wings, or as a general statement of how little the young men who become soldiers know about their futures, as in All Quiet on the Western Front or The Big Parade. Mercifully, I am not trying to bite off two world wars in one go, but it’s important to note that it’s not like Hollywood hadn’t had real-time practice with this storytelling before.)
In 1940, people are aware of the war in Europe, but still promenade up and down a local Main Street buying luxury items, hobnobbing, and so forth. In 1941, young men in uniforms begin to populate the streets, but even they are more of the Gene Kelly soldier, bopping along with broad smiles instead of brooding over the wrongs that have been done them. One business owner in town has lost an arm from World War I, and he is so familiar to them that the horror of that possibility for their own boys now, even with it so near, does not do much to shock them. The majority of the picture is really about the United States mobilizing its industry and military in order to begin fighting the war that’s coming. The old army training exercises, completed with empty cans instead of ammunition, are scoffed at. The building up of American arms is lauded. Statistics are rattled off rapidly. Footage of destroyers being smacked with a champagne bottle, airplanes on the wing, and soldiers in formation are included. These are the vegetables in the movie, and the cheesy stuff on top is the story of these people who don’t know what’s going to hit them. In 1941, when this movie was made, the drama comes from the fact that all of these people are in it together. They really don’t know what’s going to happen to them. Midway, Guadalcanal, D-Day, the Bulge, Iwo Jima: gibberish to the vast majority of Americans at the time of Main Street on the March!. In the years after that, though, the feeling of prewar innocence became a standard of movies about World War II. From Here to Eternity lingers on a shot of a little daily calendar bearing the date “DECEMBER 6,” and in so doing it makes the petty fights and squabbles of these soldiers and their lovers at a Hawaiian outpost extra small. Mrs. Miniver sends her husband to Dunkirk, her son to the RAF, and her daughter-in-law to an early grave; it begins with the prettiest picture of English life, and how Kay must adjust to giving up her family and, of course, to the drama of a German soldier in her kitchen. The Rowans of Hope and Glory, the Tallises of Atonement, the desert explorers of The English Patient, the citizens of Peyton Place, the Virginians of Hacksaw Ridge, and many more simply cannot imagine what they will be forced to contend with even when it’s on their front stoop or ringing their doorbell. We like to see what the soldiers leave behind before they know that they’ll have to abandon it, and over and over again we get movies about World War II where Pearl Harbor takes the nation by surprise, or young men enlist without really considering what they’re walking into.
In American movies since that war ended, the homecomings from it have not been a going concern. The great theaters of the war have slimmed down into stories of side shows as in The Monuments Men or bands of brothers as in Saving Private Ryan. There’s more room to belatedly tell the stories of people of color, like they do in Red Tails, as a kind of corrective to the overwhelmingly white eye that World War II stories tend to have. (That Dunkirk, which is getting a very positive reevaluation I can’t help finding a little strange, is presented as a story entirely about white people is proof that the roles of people of color in World War II still have a long way to go before they’re adequately “mainstream.”) The Holocaust continues to be the single most difficult event of the 20th century to turn into a movie. Nazis have become convenient villains for the likes of Indiana Jones or Captain America to beat to a pulp. We’ve even begun to reimagine the possibilities of World War II, in movies as different in story and quality as The Final Countdown and Inglourious Basterds. Although all of these genres have been squeezed to some level of dryness, the homecoming drama—about soldiers coming back home from the war and trying to make the adjustment to peacetime and their old stomping grounds—has been largely abandoned since the 1950s. The simplest explanation is that demand dried up for these stories; after a certain point, the men going to the pictures were going to see themselves not as soldiers transitioning back to their day jobs, but as veterans who went into business, or veterans who returned to farms or mines, or veterans with spouses and children. From a movie perspective, I think it’s practically canonical that the emotional resonance of film noir was an essential reflection of veterans’ emotional truth. There are other historical factors at play, too, such as the fact that by 1950 the United States was fighting a war in Korea, and thus the general specter of nuclear annihilation that’s referenced in a movie as near to World War II as The Best Years of Our Lives is a much more specific threat that will feed fears for the next four decades. It’s hard not to sense that as World War II became the Good War, sanitized for history as a righteous victorious fist inside an atomic glove of democracy, the way we looked at its veterans in the immediate aftermath of the war must have been sanitized too. No one ever says if Cincinnatus couldn’t sleep at night while he was back at home on his farm.
The Vietnam War, which no one was able to effectively sanitize even in the moment, gave us homecomings in Coming Home and The Deer Hunter and Born on the Fourth of July which, if they sometimes fell short of demanding justice, certainly screamed in agony about the whole War Is Hell bit. I mean, even Forrest Gump has that undercurrent passing through before it gets to like, table tennis. When the IMDb Voting Bloc style of Internet movie criticism came of age, it chose Saving Private Ryan over The Thin Red Line. Private Ryan ends with an aged war veteran saluting the grave of the officer who was instrumental in going to get him; The Thin Red Line sends its closest parallel to the Tom Hanks character back home, but sends him back alive because he was not obedient enough to his glory hound bloodthirsty superior. Saving Private Ryan skips Ryan’s homecoming, choosing to fast forward to something much simpler, easier to summarize, and vapid. “Tell me I have a led a good life…Tell me I’m a good man.” In a Saving Private Ryan made fifty years before, perhaps we would have gotten to judge that for ourselves, might have seen James Ryan greet Ma in the front yard or get back to work or meet the right girl, and it would have been much more intricate than “Tell me I’m a good man.”
I’m interested in the fact that Americans think these kinds of movies should exist at all. Look at arguably the four greatest Soviet movies about World War II—Ivan’s Childhood, Come and See, Ballad of a Soldier, and The Cranes Are Flying—and you get the sense that, for good reason these were not people who were going to warm to movies about returning from the Great Patriotic War. From there it’s harder for me to say, since I have no clear personal connection to World War II, why this should matter to me. Maybe it’s because this subgenre of a subgenre has fallen away that it’s impressed itself upon me. Or maybe it’s that this is a two-sided subgenre, one which sometimes even knows the two sides. Men are coming home from the war: fine. But they are not coming home to nothing. They come home, primarily in these Hollywood movies, to women. What these women are supposed to be—and some high-profile women at that!—is one of the great questions of these movies of the postwar years, and from where I’m sitting a movie like Mildred Pierce or A Letter to Three Wives has to be considered a movie that fits into this type just like The Best Years of Our Lives and Homecoming do. The homecoming movies of the postwar months and years (September 1945 to December 1949, which I’ll admit is arbitrary but also efficient) are writing the rules to what postwar society ought to look like, and it is writing where and how individuals belong after four years of war abroad have taken a toll on one sex and accidentally freed another. They are hardly the only four movies which are worth exploring in and around this subgenre—a study which considered homecomings in pictures made during the war, such as Hail the Conquering Hero or Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, would certainly be enlivened—but they are standouts in depicting what wounds the soldiers came home with and who was expected to bind those wounds up.
Let’s begin with the one that doesn’t belong. Mildred Pierce, to the best of my knowledge, contains no references to the war. No one’s coming home from the military. It gets up to 1943 or 1944, well short of the end of the conflict, and had it been released about three and a half weeks earlier I wouldn’t include it at all, as one of my rules was to exclude movies which were released before the end of the war. So I agree that it’s wrong to think of Mildred Pierce as a genuine homecoming movie, but it also sets the scene for one of the fundamental questions of the movies in this genre, which is: what are the men good for if the women seem to be doing just fine on their own? Mildred Pierce does not, for the reasons laid out above, answer that question completely, but it does at least give us a sense of what the men are around to do. They hunt. Specifically, they hunt women. Mildred (Joan Crawford) begins the movie with a husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett), who she tells to “pack up” very quickly. It turns out that he’s on the verge of running off with his secretary already; Bert might not be so good at business, and he might not demand the respect of other men, as his partner Wally Fay (Jack Carson) makes perfectly clear, but there’s no doubt that Bert has taken his role as a sort of hunter seriously. He pulls away from the dogfight, and it is no sooner that he’s gone then Wally steps in. Wally comes to the house late one night. Mildred’s in her bathrobe. Wally is all hands, promising that some things (Bruce never kept soda for the scotch around, Mildred doesn’t drink, and so on) are going to change once he marries her. This is what that conversation towards the top of Double Indemnity would sound like if Barbara Stanwyck weren’t into it, too, and Mildred has to work to get Wally out of the house. On the other hand, she falls for the card, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), at speed. His routine is more refined than Wally’s. Wally comes to Mildred in her home she’s shared with the husband she’s divorcing, and basically chases her through the house. Monte gets Mildred to a beach house and in the evening, backs her up against a fire and whispers sweet nothings. Kisses ensue for Monte, whereas Wally was handed his hat and sent on his horny way. Mildred doesn’t have quite as many suitors as Penelope, nor is she as circumspect, but certainly the first half of the movie revolves around who she will or won’t choose. There’s a message there, and it isn’t necessarily that Joan Crawford has kept her looks into her (gasp!) late thirties. It’s about the implication that a woman who has divorced a husband, even a husband who is as empirically as lowdown as Bert, would necessarily be open to marrying someone else as quickly as possible. Security is the name of the game, and Mildred, who appears to have learned very little either from dime novels or her AP Euro class, cannot tell the difference between someone with title and without money and vice versa. In one scene, her elder daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) all but commands her mother to marry Wally, even though she doesn’t love him.
Veda: You could marry him if you wanted to. If you married him, maybe we could have a maid like we used to, and a limousine. And maybe a new house. I don’t like this house, Mother.
Mildred: Veda, does a new house mean so much to you that you would trade me for it?
This is not the hard-headed sociology of Florence Pugh’s Amy March, who recognizes the economic meaning of marriage. Mildred calls Veda’s scheme what it is, a “trade,” and as viewers we are meant to be horrified by Veda’s disrespect. Yet Veda’s implication that her mother ought to marry, that she ought to return to the kitchen without the added pressure of baking pies, does not scandalize because it is an idea that the audience, presumably, had already internalized for itself.
The second half, in which Veda begins to fancy herself a dauphine in training down to the French she’s learning badly, is less important for this particular exercise than it is in the movie itself. By then Mildred has already become a great success in business, able to incur new debts to buy her daughter a car for her birthday and to pay off old ones—Veda’s—to Mildred’s employees. It’s the business success that stands out, even though most of the actual work that Mildred puts into it is elided. Surely it is no more cinematic than Veda believes it is dignified, but the fact that Mildred, former housewife selling pies on the side to supplement her husband’s income, has become something of a tycoon in her middle age is one of the movie’s most remarkable gestures. Mildred has always had the gift of diligence, of practicality. The pies she makes yield to her job as a waitress, one she tells Veda that she’s taking on not just to make money for the family but in order to learn the ropes of the restaurant biz. Her positively Protestant commitment to work is what makes her a success, and it’s not hard to imagine Mildred Pierce during the height of wartime becoming something of a model for good behavior for housewives and mothers; one can practically see her crouched over her Victory Garden or keeping jars of rendered fat somewhere in the kitchen. But because Mildred is outside of her home, that diligence becomes a threat. It is a threat to Veda, who is poisoned by the belief she has in her own nobility, and furthermore the belief that nobility is best signified by lounging about and being served. More importantly, it is a threat to Monte, who has not very subtly been turning his attention and verified charm to Mildred’s daughter ever since he landed her mother, and her mother’s bank account. In a movie filled with electric scenes, the one that riles me up the most is the one where Mildred challenges Monte’s influence on Veda, and Monte in turn condescends to Mildred:
Mildred: You look down on me because I work for a living, don’t you? You always have. All right: I work. I cook food, and sell it, and make a profit on it, which I might point out you’re not too proud to share with me.
Monte: Yes, I take money from you, Mildred. But not enough to make me like kitchens or cooks. They smell of grease.
Mildred: I don’t notice you shrinking away from a fifty dollar bill because it happens to smell of grease. You’re interfering with my life and my business…
Not long after that, Monte leaves the room, declaring that the marriage is over. This should not be surprising; it’s incredible that Mildred dropping “I don’t notice you shrinking away…” on him didn’t crush his spinal column when she said it, and a marriage is a little more fragile than our vertebrae. In that moment, the two of them voice a tension which will be played out again and again in the movies about coming home from the war. The expectation is that women will be a soft place for the men to land. When they are successful at helping these men recover from the trauma of the war, one of the ways that they will do it is to be non-threatening economically speaking. It is not so bad for them to have jobs, for women manned the jobs that their husbands and boyfriends and brothers were sent away from, but those jobs must not seriously endanger the superiority of the men they are nursing back to mental health. Mildred Pierce does not pretend that Monte Beragon is some paragon of clean living or good character, but his only point of pride, to feel like he’s a big shot, is intertwined with his wife’s superiority and deflated by it. In the end, Mildred’s great flaw was committed, we can assume, many years ago, when she allowed Veda to run over her for the first time and never corrected the error. After all the movie is much more interested in the reasons that Monte is murdered, and the fault lines in the Pierce family, than it is in making a point about how men will react to women with power after the war ends. Make a point it does anyway. Mildred’s worst mistakes are as a mother, not as a wife, but in 1945 women with her kind of outward ambitions are not women who will find happy endings in American cinema.
Ulysses Johnson (Clark Gable), a surgeon more commonly referred to as “Lee” and in Europe as a surgeon basically for his own vanity, has been convinced to come to an old Roman fountain by his chief nurse and antagonist, Jane “Snapshot” McCall (Lana Turner). Snapshot and “Useless,” as she likes to call him, have only recently begun to smooth over their differences. On the boat over, Snapshot’s more realistic view of the war clashes with Lee’s halfway Panglossian vision of how it’ll end; to another man aboard, he makes a crack about women trying to discuss world politics. But it’s bathtime, as it were, that shows that this old-fashioned chauvinism is as much a front for his fear of women as it is anything else. We find out that Lee met his future wife when he kissed her at a ballet, even though he’d never met her before. This causes some vexation between the lady and her mother, until he realizes that he has kissed a girl he’s never met before. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen Gable mortified on screen, and while one certainly appreciates the embarrassment he feels and expresses, it’s hard not to think of this sequence around the baths without imagining the scared man-child who pecked the wrong chick at the show. Snapshot is not bashful about the idea of taking a bath while Lee stands watch, and vice versa, but Lee is visibly uncomfortable while Snapshot’s voice is heard offscreen. There’s an awkwardness which has less to do with being a gentleman, or with fear of getting caught, and more to do with the Victorian double vision that men like Lee are still struggling with. On one hand: Snapshot is very beautiful, and he has not seen his own very beautiful wife in some time, and doubtless there’s some sexual restlessness he’s trying to manage. And on the other: women are still more like children than they are like adults. Thus the idea of women trying to discuss politics is as silly as the idea of children trying to discuss politics. And, I think, a sort of awkwardness in confronting the sexualized infantilization of this nurse. Eventually he recognizes Snapshot as an adult, first for her mind and then for her body, but at the time of these very separate and very chaste baths, he has not quite made it there. Homecoming looks to whether or not women can adequately fill the void for men that they need filled. Other movies will assume that women will fill this void naturally, but in Homecoming it is a question of viability. Women might improve men, as Snapshot improves Lee while they’re at war, but whether or not they can heal men is something else entirely.
Homecoming is a somewhat deceptive title, seeing as no more than ten percent of this movie can adequately refer to it. At the beginning, two reporters eye up returning soldiers to decide which of them would give them a good quote about returning from the war, or a story about their wartime experiences. The experienced one picks out a potential winner: Ulysses Johnson. Johnson sits, gazing off into some distance, shrouded in mist. The fog is thick, and there’s plenty of symbolism in that: the fog of war, the mists of memory, and so on. What strikes me about the shot is less the fog but the fact that Gable is smoking a cigarette, too. There are two ways that he’s shrouded, then, as that smoke blows behind him and the mist sits in front of him, and the double obfuscation is striking rather than corny. The low nimbus of the horror movie is a potential signified. He is not enveloped in that double line of fog and smoke so much as hiding in it. His responses to the reporter show as much, as his answers are not even the polite rejection one might expect from a man hiding so evidently, but distracted, Bidenesque reactions. He seems confused, disoriented, and it takes him a moment to shake off the reporter, who tells Johnson that he thinks he might owe it to the people to let them know, on behalf of the returning soldiers, “how they’ve changed.” Later on, when Johnson walks off the airplane and to his wife, Penny (Anne Baxter), she clings to the chain-link fence separating the waiting area from the runway. When they see one another again, they look at each other first, for a long time, before finally embracing. Once again, the signification of distance and separation, and when he gets home their conversations are almost as stilted as the ones that Ulysses had with that reporter.
After a sequence in which Lee greets everyone else in the house (the other African-American servant who wasn’t at the airport and Penny’s mother), husband and wife retire to a sitting room upstairs. Their conversation is stilted and bare of detail. Do you want dinner? – I ate on the plane – How was the trip – “Very smooth” – Do you want to see anyone? – Not now – I understand – Thank you – You must be tired – Let’s “turn in.” It’s that choice not to say “let’s go to bed” which made the greatest effect on me. It’s not that Lee’s return to presumably Penelope (the subtlety! my eyes!) is marred by the fact that he’s bedded a Circe during the war. The love affair of “Useless” and “Snapshot,” a surgeon and a nurse who get on badly before falling for each other, is the major conflict of this movie in the same way that Veda’s slow-burning choice to murder Monte is the major conflict of Mildred Pierce. Little callbacks to Penny at home, reading her husband’s letters which are filled with his reactions to this implacable nurse who looks just like Lana Turner, give us a sense of her anguish that her marble model man might be straying. More importantly it gives her time to get used to the idea that her husband across an ocean was cheating, and to receive him at the airport with a smile and an embrace rather than a shrill accusation is easier to pass off on the audience if she’s already worked through his infidelity. Indeed, reading about her husband’s lover in his letters home makes her wonder what it is that she’s been doing wrong all of these years. They have been so insular, she decides, that he’s jumped at the possibility of someone good, perhaps someone who has been able to break him out of his self-interested shell and open him up to human interaction which does not necessarily benefit him.
What hurts about the idea of “turning in” is that it purposefully, perhaps cruelly, keeps her at arm’s length. It is clear that Ulysses intends to do the work of recuperating by himself, and that the double recuperation of surviving a terrible war and surviving the lover he took during it will necessarily exclude his wife. When Penny’s mother (Gladys Cooper) gives her son-in-law a kiss and holds onto him near the stairs, she says, “We can begin to live again.” That statement is at the heart of these homecomings. The families are ready to live again, but the tension in the statement is that the veterans coming home are not sure how to begin. Based on Lee’s initial reaction to his wife, it’s clear that the date at which everyone will “begin to live again” is much further in the distance for him than his mother-in-law would like. Before he left, he implored Penny not to change anything at the house; he wants to return to the home as he remembers it, and of course that signifies that he is not willing to change, either. He expects that he will come back to the war basically unmoved by it, capable of having stood up to the greatest horror and worthy of it, able to be the same smiling surgeon who hosts cocktail parties and can charm just about everyone into submission. “You’re a wonderful homemaker,” he tells his wife, and it is the finest compliment he can imagine giving a woman.
The final scene of Homecoming is a pure expression of this idea that women are responsible for opening up their men for fixing, like cans of tuna, as they come back. Mervyn LeRoy, as he did towards the beginning of the picture, obscures Gable to start with. He and Baxter are sitting across from each other in a room filled with plants which seem particularly viney. Clarity in the vision of the viewer will ultimately mean clarity for Lee as well: it’s not until the camera is re-placed that he can open up to Penny about Snapshot’s death, the only death among the many he’s witnessed that has shaken him to his core. His voice, which has been offhand and distant ever since he came back to the States, finally cracks. “I had to tell you,” he says, “because it isn’t just my problem, it’s our problem, together. And I couldn’t go on living with this inside me without your sharing it. Penny, bear with me a while, can you?” Penny can, for as Lee has been softened and molded by his love affair, she has been made wiser by a local doctor, Bob Sunday (John Hodiak), who is like Jiminy Cricket for Lee, if the bug had a barbed tongue and a heart for poor malaria patients instead of celestial wishmaking. He helps Penny to understand that the war will change Lee even if he left with such an ego that he believed he would be able to shoulder the burden without crumbling under it at all. Most of all, in talking to him, he makes it clear that such a change in Lee might not be a bad thing after all. Recognizing this change as it’s presented to her, Penny’s eyes glow sadly. “The worst of it was I couldn’t help you,” she tells him. “I couldn’t do anything for you. But Lee, the thing that gave me more courage than anything else was that somehow, the hope when you came back, you might need me. And now you do need me, Lee.” Her voice changes here. There’s a confidence in her voice, a spring in it, like she’s at a USO performance for one. “I’m in it again.” Having made herself available—having changed herself, changed to become accepting of her husband’s affair, and to even feel good about what it might have altered in him—having prepared and thought out what she would do for her husband when he finally, spontaneously opened up—now, Penny can be “in it again.” He will give, and she will take, and if he’s a better man, Homecoming assumes it’ll come out because he’s doing more in Chester Village to help the sick and impoverished as opposed to doing more to make his wife his equal. Whatever struggles she has had on the homefront are not going to be remediated when he listens and comforts her, it seems. She may be filled with his tears and trauma like the saddest silo, and there is no intimation that he will give her space to reciprocate when she needs it.
There are plenty of movies about World War II which include nurses, which is to say that, like Homecoming, there’s gotta be someone out there that our handsome and randy leading men can be handsome and randy toward. The Navy WAVES, the women reservists in World War II, get much less play in the cinema, and even when they do they are, you guessed it, primarily there for our male soldiers to romance in lieu of nurses. Interestingly, one of the three wives of A Letter to Three Wives is, like her husband, a veteran of the war, one of the Navy WAVES who enlisted in order to get out of a directionless farm life. Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain) met husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) during the war, married him, and came back to his hometown to live with him: both of them come back, but only one of them comes home.
It’s a hometown which, thanks to the cooing, velvety narration of Addie Ross (the unseen Celeste Holm), is expressed as extraordinarily normal, a little less than an hour’s commute on the train from this suburb to the greater city it’s attached to. Unlike The Best Years of Our Lives, which takes place in “Boone City” which is meant to be Cincinnati, I get a significantly more East Coast vibe from the people of this unnamed suburb. It’s likely as not that I’m leaning into my own East Coast upbringing here, but it is all too easy to imagine this commuter community with enough money in its upper-crust feeding New York from an agreeably safe distance in New York or Connecticut. In any event, the idea is to make the setting as normal as normal gets. The intended purpose is to rile up the housewives in the audience who no doubt flocked to the theater to get the thrilling exposure of a woman stealing someone else’s husband from a safe distance, sort of a suburban emotional experience if ever there was one. The consequence, though, is to make the movie’s two veterans feel as much like the rest of the returning veterans on the East Coast and elsewhere, too. When Deborah explains to Rita (Ann Sothern) why she joined the Navy in the first place, it’s with an almost offhand comment in the “see the world, join the Navy” cliché. The only detail about either of their naval service which seems particularly surprising is that they got married before they got back to Brad’s hometown. They couldn’t wait for the discharge? For their parents to be at the ceremony, if there were parents to have? Brad is given to us as the golden boy of the entire town, and he could not wait for the town to be there? It’s no wonder that Deborah’s first party in this place is so unsettling; it is a way for him to show off the bride that nobody could have expected, for the bride that everyone would have put money on is Addie Ross.
Each of the three wives who receives that letter from Addie—who coyly declines to state which of the men she’s taken up with—at the first opportunity begins to recall the event which might have precipitated an affair. For Rita, she recalls a recent dinner party with her radio boss, scheduled ominously on the night of her husband’s birthday; George (Kirk Douglas) is an intellectual and a schoolteacher, and the first makes him ill-disposed to his wife’s vapid overseer, Mrs. Manleigh (Florence Bates), and the latter chafes at his ’40s masculinity in one of those gems of anthropology one occasionally divines from older pictures. The only bright spot on his birthday is a present from Addie, who has remembered Rita’s husband’s birthday even though Rita has not, and which Mrs. Manleigh breaks. For Lora Mae (Linda Darnell), aside from her presence in the other two wives’ segments, the entire story of her courtship with the brusque and wealthy department store owner Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas) is given. The girth of that story in comparison with that of her compeers makes it feel bloated, even if it’s fairly tight as its own subplot; for me the most interesting in a vacuum is what’s happening with George and Rita. But it’s the one with Brad, who out of the six of these people easily the one with the least screentime, and Deborah which is the most relevant to this idea of returning vets.
It’s the night of that first evening at the country club (and the pre-club drinks) for Deborah. Having gotten buzzed for courage and then sloshed for fear, we see her at first at her mirror, fighting her hair, not yet dressed for the night out. Brad walks in, needing only his tuxedo jacket to complete his own ensemble, and how dapper he is contradicts how out-of-sorts his wife is. (He enters the room in one of those deep-focus shots that Joseph L. Mankiewicz is a little hooked on in this picture; he splits the screen in half, with his main character of the segment in the right foreground and someone speaking to them from the left background.) Brad is a little put off by the ferocity of how his wife is combing her hair, and drops the first of what has to be fifteen little references to military life in this segment alone: “conduct unbecoming an officer and a lady.” Later on, George makes a comment about battle fatigue; most important is a picture that Brad’s keeping on their piano of Deborah in her WAVES uniform. It is a portrait of her head and shoulders, and she’s totally put together; “very flattering,” Rita observes, and mentions that “maybe it’s the uniform.” She is so put together that the camera catches George sneaking an extra peek or two at it when his wife isn’t there to smack his arm to stop him. It is not difficult to imagine what Brad found so enticing about her while they were both in uniform (and she him, I guess, although she makes a comment that of course her husband is the only man who looks better in civvies than his uniform), the composure, the organization, the beauty. Nor is Deborah ignorant about what the uniform gave her. She calls it a “leveler” once she’s alone with Rita, knows that she was “pretty cute in that uniform.” And she also has the insight to know what it is about this night out that terrifies her even more than her first night away from the farm. In the WAVES on that first night, she tells Rita, they at least were all alone together. In town, she is alone alone, and she can feel the eyes on her from her own bedroom: who did Brad come home with anyway?
What stands out about Brad’s admittedly limited appearances in this chapter is how he seems to be having the same set of questions. You’ll notice that Deborah shares all these insecurities and anxieties with Rita, a woman she has literally never met before; her husband, who she has the benefit of like, having seen before the sun set that day, is chauvinistically dismissive of her terror. Deborah tries to share them with him: “out of the Navy, out of uniform, new town, new clothes, new friends.” Brad pours her another martini. Deborah is worried about her dress, one that she’s had since before the war, and one that was “not exactly the last word” then, either. Brad’s response is the response of ineffectual husbands and future dads everywhere. He gives her a little peck on the mouth, puns into calling that “the last word,” and, on his way out, suggests that she take “another whack at that hair.” Perhaps it is the first time that he’s asked himself these questions, the sort of hackneyed questions that people living together for the first time frequently have to answer, but the specter of the last girlfriend has rarely hung so closely to the one asking the questions. Addie Ross would not need to take another whack at her hair. Addie Ross would not be scared about her unfashionable dress, and if she were she would have figured out a way to finagle another without bothering her husband about it. Tacitly, Addie Ross would not have been in the process of homemaking while her man was homecoming. If Deborah was meant to be like Addie Ross bought on clearance, then surely it is going through Brad’s mind that he got what he paid for. Deborah’s fears of judgment are really profound ones, and while Rita tries kindly to humanize the faceless haute bourgeois waiting at the country club (“You must think we’re terrible snobs”), Deborah has really gotten the measure of the town, or at least picked up what Brad is putting down. The country club itself is the spitting image of that ostentatious, ugly wealth that those of us who can’t get into the club summon up for it. Deborah understands what no one is saying out loud, and in trying to express her anxiety to Rita she cannot quite find the words that would best describe the scenario she’s walking into. In this town, Brad Bishop is like a prince, and he is returning with a rube infanta rather than picking out the comeliest flower of the local gentry.
The evening at said snobbish country club does not go much better. In an attempt to fix the dress up a little bit, Rita and Deborah cut the flowers off it (this is a historically bad dress). Deborah, drunk or clumsy, gets part of the dress while cutting the giant flower off her stomach, and Rita ironically muses about sending Deborah out with a “bare midriff” before safety pinning the flower back on. That was always a recipe for failure, but the conversation at table between dances does not do much to build her confidence. A little too hammered to get on the dance floor, Deborah hears from the lead-footed Porter a heavy-handed account of Addie’s excellence. Addie has class, he says; George and Rita come back, and George suggests that Addie has “taste and discrimination,” which is not as important to Porter as “class” is. (This goes without saying, but what excites these men about Addie is that she is what their wives are not. Rita’s trashy radio programs don’t measure up to George’s books, and Lora Mae’s childhood home was not merely on the wrong side of the tracks but practically on them, too.) Addie has arranged to send a bottle of champagne to Brad’s table even though she has not yet arrived at the club, and it’s the first sign the movie gives of the mirroring that keeps these men hooked on her. She seems to always be thinking of them, giving them things, and of course that keeps her front and center in their minds as well. The toast that Brad asks for splits the glass: first, to his new wife, and second, to Addie. Not long after, he literally drags Deborah and her spinning head onto the dance floor, where his exuberant dancing leads to her tummy-flower falling in a man’s food like, fifty feet away. Rita gets the flower from the flummoxed fop (“Pardon my fingers,” she says daintily), but Brad lacks the humor to find what’s funny in the situation, or, more importantly, to comfort his mortified wife. “Deborah,” he asks, “what on earth have you done to yourself?” When Deborah walks out of the bathroom, where Rita has gone to help the crestfallen newbie out a little bit, she finds her husband in the moonlight, speaking, naturally, to the recently arrived Addie.
Brad’s discovery of Deborah’s insufficiency is a form of prewar nostalgia not unlike Useless telling Penny to keep the house the same. In a single night, the woman in the uniform becomes a girl in an awful dress, practically picking hay out of her hair and then chewing on it for the nutrition. Later on (but earlier in the movie), he gets Deborah a stylish new dress. Because this is the 1940s, he has to come up with a story about how he might know that dresses exist before they wind up on one’s wife; he says he found it in a copy of Vogue he happened to pick up on the train after some woman was done with it. The hayseed is not fooled by her husband’s cock-and-bull story. She saw that dress on Addie Ross a fortnight earlier. In the uniform, or maybe in that dress, it’s possible for Brad to imagine a wife who might stand toe-to-toe with Addie, someone who could supplant the old flame and scratch an old itch. Here Hollywood has something sordid to say about homecoming: if the first one doesn’t take, he’ll make another one.
A Letter to Three Wives has a gorgeously twisty ending. Deborah gets home from the charity event and finds that her husband, who said earlier that he’d probably have to stay the night in the city for a conference, has not come home. The camera lingers on her a little. She looks like the air has left her lungs, flattened her out with the same kind of despair that was beginning to infect her on the evening of her first trip to the country club. George, who was acting a little suspiciously earlier in the day (like most teachers, he shuns his good clothing on weekends, but on this fine Saturday he’s not gone fishin’, and is in one of his better suits to boot), is home when Rita arrives. Porter is home when Lora Mae gets back, too, even though their marriage is the one most obviously in peril based on the three previous chapters. At the country club that night, the ladies all have the sense that Brad is the one who’s left his wife, and as Deborah gets up to leave, Porter makes a confession: I left with Addie Ross. But you’re here, Deborah says. Man’s got a right to change his mind, Porter replies, and with a weak smile on her face and some hope in her breast, Deborah heads home. It’s the most human thing that Porter has done in the entire movie, and it seems like it could even be the basis for repairing the Hollingsway marriage; Lora Mae pretends not to hear this admission of infidelity which would give her the opening to divorce her rich husband and take the booty with her, now that he’s a person who’s worth more than his price tag.
But! Of course Addie and Brad (ahem: “Braddie”) are in a hotel in Manhattan, ordering champagne and soiling the linens. They are turning back time, replaying the scene that they were supposed to have played out in August or September or October of ’45. The homecoming signifying the promise of the future, of real happiness, is beginning anew at the Plaza like some horny draft of a Fitzgerald short story. A Letter to Three Wives is, in these sections with Deborah, quite seriously about the mathematics of the World War II homecoming. With one person already at home, with the man coming back from the military and the woman coming back from the kitchen or bedroom (or, heck, even the factory!) it is possible for this homecoming to lead into a Golden ’50s. In a situation where the woman is unsettled, where she has no attempt to reconnoiter the ground or get her bearings, it is distinctly possible that she will find herself like Deborah Bishop, marooned by her husband. There is no epilogue for this movie, but if there were, surely it would find Deborah on the bus back to whatever windswept hamlet she should have stayed in.
Probably the greatest movie of the subgenre on either side of the equation of whose wounds and whose job to bandage them is The Best Years of Our Lives, the first movie William Wyler made after his own return home from the war. During the war, he had been one of the Hollywood filmmakers who went abroad to make documentaries for the armed forces; his Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, gets inside a B-17 during its last bombing raid before the crew members are allowed to go home, and it is one of the most stunning films I’ve ever come across. Once the bombers get up in the air, the images that Wyler and his crew got are quite literally unforgettable; I’ve had a spiraling, smoking B-17 spinning aimlessly in the sky branded into my mind ever since I sat down and watched the movie a few years ago. It is no surprise, then, that the central character of The Best Years of Our Lives is like the guys on the Memphis Belle, nor is it surprising that his recurring nightmare, screaming for a fellow pilot to bail out of his plane as it goes up in flames, is not so different from what Wyler saw from his vantage point in 1943.
Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is a working-class guy who made good in the military, having risen to a captaincy as a bombardier; the old job waiting for him in Boone City is that of a soda jerk, not that he wants it. His new buddies who fly back to Boone City with him, Al Stephenson (Fredric March), a former banker, and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), who had just graduated high school before entering the service, represent three branches of the military between them. Their flight into Boone City and their taxicab ride to their homes shows how little has changed in Boone City since they left. The streets are hustling and bustling, Main Street on the March! style, with people buying and selling. The golf course, they saw from the air, has plenty of people on it. The Boone City Beavers are in sixth place. (This gets them all shaking their heads at their baseball bums. “Still in the second division,” Fred laments.) The only proof from the air that a war changed Boone City at all is a huge graveyard of airplanes somewhere outside the town, a number so great that Homer is a little amazed that there could be planes other than those. “From the factory to the scrapheap,” Fred says. This early proof that nothing’s changed at home is scrambled by the changes in the people they’re coming home to, obviously. When Al surprises his family at home, he is a little surprised, even miffed, that they had plans to go to someone else’s house that night. It is unfair for him to think that his family was stuck in amber while he was in the Pacific, but based on the evidence, why wouldn’t he expect it? The links were as crowded as ever.
They have more awe for their wartime jobs, more affection in their voices for them, than they do for their prewar work. Fred’s ascent from “fountain attendant” to bombardier is an obvious glowup, but even Homer, who has lost his burned hands when his ship went down, speaks fondly about his role aboard his ship. Al, as usual, expresses his opinion about his old job ironically. Amazed to see an aging Army sergeant deposited at what must be the most handsome set of apartments in town, Fred asks what Al is, “a retired bootlegger?” Al hefts his belongings and replies that it was nothing quite so dignified: he’s a banker. What strikes me about these men is that, short of a vague suggestion from Homer that all of them should meet at his uncle’s bar sometime, there’s no sense that they’ll run into each other again, and there is no intimation that they’ll miss these comrades with whom they’ve undertaken this final journey. Maybe this is military wisdom they all share, that you don’t linger on goodbyes; maybe they understand that compared to “the war in Europe,” Boone City isn’t all that big a place. In either case it’s striking.
They also all have ladies waiting for them. Harold’s high school sweetheart, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), lives, and I can’t overstate this, literally next door. (Sometimes I wish movies could get away with this absolutely immolation of subtlety more often than they do.) Al is married to Milly (Myrna Loy), with whom he’s had two children in the uneasy gap between their teen years and their adult ones. And Fred has Marie (Virginia Mayo), who he married a matter of days before he went into the military, and who is not precisely waiting for him when he gets home. Like A Letter to Three Wives, The Best Years of Our Lives gets into the territory of who the wrong woman might be to come home to, but unlike Letter, Best Years finds some room for castigation. A Letter to Three Wives does not blame Deborah for the sin of not being Addie even if Brad does, but The Best Years of Our Lives lives to put Marie up against a better wife in Milly, a better woman in Wilma, and a better fit for Fred in Milly’s daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright).
First off, Fred can’t even find Marie when he gets home. He is strategically the last man out of the taxi that Homer and Al share with him, and by the time we get to his own initial homecoming, we’ve seen two already. They both follow a basic script: soldier comes in, kids react excitedly, wives and sweethearts seem to have their breath taken away before a long embrace. The script is put on its head when Fred gets home, as he expects to see her at his dad’s house, but she’s moved out so long ago that his stepmother says that the last time they heard something from her was the previous Christmas when she brought them some presents. She has a job at a nightclub, and so his first night back in Boone City is spent looking for his wife in these various joints, and getting soused along the way. On his first morning home, he wakes up in another woman’s bed, who chivalrously slept on the couch so he could sleep off his booze and his nightmares, and who then makes him eggs and coffee. (Wyler mirrors this pattern with Peggy and Fred via Milly and Al. Like Peggy, Milly had to get her inebriated fellow into bed that night, and like Peggy, Milly pulls out the stops to make sure he gets something in his stomach that morning.) When he does finally get back to Marie, she is quite different from Peggy and Milly and Wilma, for that matter. Peggy is already at work and nursing by the time Marie rouses herself from her bed, wearing some shiny nightgown, her hair as messy as her apartment. It is the first time of many that we see Marie lounging about somewhere, another way in which she is inferior to the up-and-at-’em ethos of the Stephenson women. Managing to pin up her hair a little to answer the door and get her husband back, her reaction to seeing Fred is unlike Wilma or Milly’s reactions to their men. Wilma, having been alerted to Homer’s homecoming from the wild yelling of Homer’s little sister, comes out of her home luminous with an unspeakable happiness. Slowly she walks up to Homer and throws her arms around him, keeping them there even when he does not return the embrace. Milly’s reaction to Al is much the same. She comes out of the kitchen where she’s washing dishes (I know), and she hangs on to Al while he hangs on to her. “I look terrible,” she says after a minute, and he replies, “Who says so?” Marie says something similar (a comment about not having her face on, which I’ve always found to be a profoundly creepy expression, but more importantly, a statement about the varnishing that a spouse might not do but a girlfriend would), but it’s her tone that’s wrong compared to the women Best Years has set up as her betters. She’s loud, a little screechy. There is no expression of heartfelt reflection which cannot be put into words, no sign of relief that after years of constant danger Fred has come home safely and in one piece. Neither Wilma nor Willy need to see their man, but are happy to feel him. Marie has the opposite reaction: “Let me look at you,” she cries, and it is the first sign that her reaction to the talisman of Fred’s uniform had a similar effect on her as Deborah Bishop’s had on Brad, and that the ultimate absence of that uniform spells doom for the marriage.
It does not take long for Peggy, whose two years of nursing appear to have taught her how to pity mentally scarred servicemen, to fall for Fred, and he for her. Marie had gotten very comfortable being the apple of the eyes of many men; on a double date with Peggy and her boyfriend, Marie puts far more of her attention and charm towards Peggy’s wealthy beau than to her recently penniless husband. She enjoyed the independence of her own income at the nightclub (supplemented, she admits, by Fred’s military pay). But her great sin is to fail to put her own inclinations after Fred’s. Fred doesn’t want to wear his uniform out and about, but Marie insists. When Marie is woken up by Fred’s murmuring of his dead pilot’s name in his dream, she waits until the next day to tell him how annoyed she is by this interruption to her sleep, that her husband has failed to accede to a better job than a return to the soda fountain counter, how he ought to let the war go. “Come on, snap out of it,” she tells him. It is not long in movie minutes until we see Peggy visit Fred at his job and then go out to lunch with him. When Fred woke up screaming Gadorsky’s name, Peggy was there to get him back to sleep, ordering him firmly but kindly to rest. Marie doesn’t even get the departed’s name right when she’s imitating her husband’s night terrors. Marie complains about the measly salary that Fred’s making at the drugstore; Peggy’s lunch date with Fred centers on his dreams. What did you hope for while you were in Europe? she asks him, and when it turns out his dreams are primarily domestic and attainable, she asks why he couldn’t hope for those things at home. Peggy speaks to him about the future, while Marie is vocally invested in the past, using phrases like “just as if nothing had ever happened” or “back where we started” when she thinks she’s speaking kindly to Fred. In other words, Peggy is attuned to Fred rather than forcing Fred to attune himself to her, as Marie does, understanding with an instinct that Marie appears not to have that Fred’s future is much more appealing to him than his past. Ultimately, neither Fred nor Marie changes. Fred, who kisses Peggy in a parking lot and immediately voices what a bad idea—and what a necessary action—that was, is not a heel at heart. Peggy voices to her mother the foolishness of her belief that she can be some kind of savior for this obviously wounded warrior, but cannot complete the thought before she runs out of the room weeping. And Marie tells Fred she’ll be getting a divorce from him when he kicks out an ex-serviceman who is waiting in his apartment to take his wife out on the town. The Best Years of Our Lives believes in a certain temperament for its women who are effective in managing the feelings of the men who have the greatest need. They must be willing to make their emotions subservient, and yet they must also be fiery with passion. The movie’s most shocking scene, as I think I say every time I write about it, is the one where Peggy coolly explains to her parents that she intends to break up Fred’s marriage because she feels so strongly that Fred’s spirit is being squashed by an inconsiderate wife who doesn’t love him.
Wilma has no such histrionics with Homer, but there can be no doubt that she feels as strongly about her high school sweetheart as Peggy feels about the guy she’s known sober for about fifteen minutes. For much of the movie, she presses Homer to open up to her, to even say as much as “I still love you” or “I still want to marry you.” Homer is adamant with everyone that this is something he needs to work out for himself, even though it’s obvious that working this out for himself is not going particularly well. He’s in the woodshed, practicing his shooting with a homemade target. (It is remarkable how dexterous Russell was with his hooks, and Wyler takes pains to show him doing a number of different things which are occasionally awkward even with fingers. He signs his name, pulls matches from the pack and lights them with ease, drinks from a glass, eats an ice cream sundae, holds a wedding ring…I mean, really, anything a person with hands does, Homer can do too. I joke sometimes about how awkward it is that Russell won two Oscars for the same part, but I have a hard time recalling a more positive depiction of someone with a disability new to them as someone who is fundamentally competent to do just about anything he needs to do.) He’s with his uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael), unable to order anything harder than a beer, taking piano lessons that turn out to actually be piano lessons. But he is not with Wilma much longer than the time it takes him to ask her politely to leave, nor does it seem like he’s confiding much in his parents. His dad tells Wilma one sunny afternoon, “I wish there was something I knew to do for him.” Homer puts a good face on for acquaintances about how little he cares about his hooks, but anyone who might be able to see through him and recognize his own misery about having been maimed—someone who can see that the problem with him has more to do with his self-deprecation rather than the unwanted pity others might drop on him—gets the boot. In a scene that is unbelievably sentimental but falls well short of saccharine, Homer tries to scare Wilma off. His pre-bed routine requires him to take off his prosthetics, a time-intensive routine which requires help from someone else. “I’m lucky to have my elbows,” he says offhandedly to Wilma as he starts to get his pajama shirt on; she buttons it for him and, for good measure, straightens his collar. Homer begins to murmur, more to himself than to Wilma, about how totally helpless he is in this moment. He will need help to get the prosthetics on properly again, and until then he cannot do anything. He cannot smoke a cigarette or read a book; if the door should blow shut, he will not be able to open it again. The boy who had hands before, who was on the basketball and football teams in high school and who still sleeps underneath the pictures of him in action, pities himself rather than allowing anyone else to do it for him, and he assumes that this will, finally, push Wilma away. She is not scared off, and tells him so. She is willing to bear the responsibility of caring for his extraordinary needs because she loves him. Saint Wilma is willing to make her life more difficult for him, which I don’t think is unbelievable or anything like that. People devote themselves to causes with more challenge and less reward than Homer Parrish all the time. But the movie does not see a way for Homer to recover without her, and so she becomes as necessary for him as a ring finger is for a wedding band.
As much as women are there to solve male problems in The Best Years of Our Lives, there is one relationship which I think is cracked beyond even the ability of a good woman to fix it, and it’s taken me four or five viewings of the movie to get to this point. When Peggy is, reasonably, scolded by her father for deciding that she has the responsibility to get a man divorced for no good reason other than her intuition, Peggy responds by suggesting that her parents have had no real troubles of their own and cannot relate to Fred. Al and Milly look at each other. They have been together for twenty years, which doesn’t require much math to realize means that they made it through the Depression together, and of course stuck to one another through World War II. We haven’t had any troubles, Milly says dryly. How many times did we say that it was over, that we hated one another? they reminisce. Before I used to think that this was proof that Al and Milly were going to be able to hang on for life; the war and Al’s rocky homecoming would be the latest in a series of troubles and disputes that festooned a lifelong marriage. Now I’m not so sure. Al comes home less like his old self than the other two, and I realize I’m saying this about a guy who left two hands in a naval hospital somewhere. On the morning after his historic homecoming bar crawl with his wife and daughter, he takes a look at a picture of himself from before the war. I mean, he looked better before; we’re comparing doughy Frederic March to like, Frederic March, one of those famous Latin lovers looking at him lustily from the frame. In the mirror, Al sees a bad haircut, some weakness in a previously strong cheek, a desperate need for a good shave. Nor does he really recognize his family. He has missed the transition from child to young adult in both of them. He brought home a samurai sword and a ragged Japanese flag as war souvenirs for his son, Rob (Michael Hall), who is too old to be awed for them, and in fact is a little unnerved by the implication that he is supposed to keep reminders of some dead Japanese man’s remains in his bedroom for the foreseeable future. Before his dad broke out the goodies, he was having a discussion with him about a lecture on atomic energy he heard from school, in which the physics teacher explained that everyone was either going to have to learn how to live with one another or, well, not live at all; it must be one of the first references to the Cold War in a movie. (Hilariously, no one has to adjust to Rob much in this movie; my man absolutely disappears after three scenes, and no one even mentions him after he goes to school one morning.) When Peggy comes in talking about having taken a course about “domestic science,” Al can’t hold back a comment about how different his family is. Like Useless Johnson, Al seems to have thought that he could have frozen time at home while his life—he is the protagonist of his own life, and so why not the protagonist of his family’s?—went in an entirely different direction on islands in the Pacific. Peggy tells him on his first night back, only halfway joking, “You’ll get us back to normal.”
The Best Years of Our Lives is not unaware of the fact that things have been abnormal at home too, if less harrowing than they must have been for the soldiers, and it is deeply effective when it nudges the audience about it. One of the movie’s small, better moments comes when Peggy and Milly start giggling together after they’ve managed to get their drunk adult charges into bed, a wordless expression of the relief of having these people back and having the war over, but also a frustration that the men react so aggressively to breathing in the salutary air of Boone City. The first act of the movie is about that collision. No one is quite able to act fittingly around the people they fit in seamlessly with a few years ago. Homer’s mother begins sobbing when Homer comes home, and as much as we’d like to believe it’s the thrill of having her son home, it surely has more to do with the fact that he’s fresh out of fingers. Fred’s dad is awed by having his son back, almost as if an angel of the Lord down from his B-17 had graced his shack with the tin roof. And Al, for his part, cannot imagine a possibility for this first night other than putting his energy into drink after drink. America is crowded, from Main Street to the drugstore, but nowhere is it more crowded than the nightclubs. Al is not alone in this impulse, but it is an impulse completely absent from his family, who spend most of their first night back with him making awkward glances at each other and trying to make sure that he doesn’t upchuck over a waiter at Butch’s while he’s dancing a very exuberant, very terrible dance.
“Gosh, you’ve gotten tough,” Milly tells him the next morning after her husband has put away a breakfast worthy of Walter White, Jr., and like the comment about “You’ll get us back to normal,” it’s not really a joke. The night before, Al was a firecracker of energy. He wanted a drink. He cannot sit still, must pace around the room. He wants to know about Peggy’s dating life, and asks his wife in a surprisingly forward way if she’s had discussions with her daughter about her sex life. While Milly was getting him into his pajamas the night before, she tried to kiss him goodnight, and that kiss leads to a fierce growl from the husband we thought was sleeping. There’s a self-assured antagonism in Al that the war either gave him or sanded away, like it did his gut. There’s an exchange about needing to get his trousers tailored in which Al suggests that he’ll need to get it done soon, but Milly rejoinders that a couple weeks of home cooking will plump him up to his previous size. I’m this way forever, Al is saying, where Milly is suggesting that he ought to wait and see if he’ll change just from the new-old environment. The breakfast scene ends with Al getting a call from his old boss as the bank, Mr. Milton (Ray Collins, as oleaginous as ever), asking when he can come in. Ultimately this ends with Al getting a promotion and an uptick in salary, but it’s also part of what frustrates him. He doesn’t want to take a vacation—Milly’s suggestion—but neither can he see himself returning to work at the bank so quickly. “Last year it was ‘Kill Japs’ and this year it’s ‘Make money,'” he complains. “Why can’t they give a fellow time to get used to his own family?” As the movie continues, Al’s primary method for getting used to his family and to the Boone City he left behind is alcohol. The first night at home turns prophetic, as Al swabs up any booze lying around like the Bounty you can’t get at the supermarket wipes up spills for the remainder of the picture. Peggy makes a cocktail for her boyfriend Woody (Victor Cutler) to have once he shows up; Al finds it first and claims about two-thirds of it for himself before Woody even shows. Milly keeps a tally of how many drinks Al has before he gives a speech to a bunch of financial bigwigs at the country club. It’s a speech that ultimately comes down to something admirable: he’s willing to gamble the bank’s money on small loans given out to ex-servicemen who represent the “country’s future.” (Al has had his mind changed about the regular policies of banking and collateral after a meeting with a former sharecropper and Navy Seabee named Novak. Novak wants the loan to help him get forty acres to grow crops on; farmer is about the most important job in the world, according to him, and something about Novak’s sincerity and character moves Al.) She embraces him after the speech, which is certainly a thumb for Milton’s eye, but it’s an embarrassing moment, too. At Homer’s wedding, Al finds the punch immediately, and Milly scolds him about it. It’s the last moment where Al and Milly genuinely figure in the movie, for the rest of the picture is about Homer and Wilma’s wedding and the longing glances that Fred and Peggy are telegraphing at one another from across the room. The alcoholism that Al is nursing will come to a head someday, but it will come after the end of the picture; whether or not Milly will be able to handle the travails of Al’s boozing into the 1950s is something the movie does not answer. Gadorsky’s death at 30,000 feet is something that Peggy might be able to help Fred overcome, but the challenge of Al’s nascent alcoholism may be, for all Milly’s grace and patience, beyond her ability to fix.
The Best Years of Our Lives is a movie which firmly believes that women will be necessary to fix their men, as Wilma will help fix Homer in the long run. It’s also a movie that, while placing an immense burden on women, does not find them wholly responsible for changing their men for the better. Purpose, as Peggy realizes, is as important as a soft hand at the temple in the night. This is where Fred suffers the most. He promised himself in Europe that he would never go back to the drugstore. He does go in to visit, to see the old boss of the place who sold out to a national chain, but he then gets a short interview with the new manager, Thorpe (Howland Chamberlain); it certainly freaks out Clarence “Sticky” Merkle, who stayed home during the war and moved up the ladder to be a floor manager; all these servicemen will be after our jobs, he says, surely knowing that Fred Derry’s handsomeness and charisma are an obvious step up from his bespectacled frizziness. Thorpe’s interview with Fred is surprisingly amiable; Thorpe looks for ways to get an Air Force captain into the drugstore trade, asking about a number of areas that it turns out Fred has no experience in. Procurement? Personnel? Even just leading men and maintaining morale? Fred had no experience except dropping bombs, and Thorpe says, well, we’re not dropping bombs at the drugstore. This is not a man with an eye on repurposing a returning serviceman’s skills, but copy-pasting them. Fred was smart enough to learn how to drop bombs from thousands of feet up on strategic targets over Germany, but Thorpe doesn’t trust him enough to learn how to do payroll for salesmen and soda jerks.
In the end, getting a job is the one thing that keeps him from flying east in despair at the end of the movie. The movie’s most resounding scene, perhaps even its best, takes place in that bomber graveyard that Fred saw from the air weeks before. The objective correlative screams. He wanders into one of the bombers almost at random, pulls himself up and sits motionless and expressionless for minutes as the movie’s loudest music roars. He’s chased out of it by a junkman, another former soldier, a man who worked in tanks and castigates the “glamour boys” of the Air Force while he’s telling off Fred. I don’t have any experience in this field, Fred says, but I’ll learn this field like I learned to drop bombs. It’s good enough for the junkman, and at the wedding it’s clear Fred has gotten his chance to get this job repurposing the metal from these planes to make prefabbed homes. One of the movie’s loveliest gestures is the suggestion that amid all the mindless commercialism pushed by good-time Charlies in the postwar years, there is a chance to turn swords into plowshares.
It doesn’t fit in neatly here, so I want to consider Let There Be Light as a kind of postscript as opposed to its own entry. John Huston’s documentary about soldiers suffering from what we modern medicos would accurately diagnose as PTSD is, arguably, the greatest film about American soldiers returning from World War II, and in my view the most moving and emotional. Naturally, the movie was buried by the military brass and only got its first screening in 1980. John Huston at least lived to see its quality admired, but should have had decades more to gloat in his characteristic fashion about what a triumph it is. It’s not a long picture, and it’s in the public domain, available on Wikipedia and YouTube and probably a hundred other sites besides; in other words, it’s a movie you should watch if you haven’t seen it already. Huston and his crew went to a military hospital in New York where men with PTSD were treated with chemicals and talk alike, sometimes one-on-one and sometimes in groups. Surprisingly, Teresa Wright and Anne Baxter are nowhere to be found.
The subjects of Let There Be Light, men from all over the country, black and white alike, don’t seem to need women to affirm their manhood. They are not sexed or mothered back to normalcy; there is no expectation in Let There Be Light that women will need to subjugate themselves to the men as they come back, either. One gives a great deal of credit to the doctors and nurses, who are at once professional and gentle with the men in their care. One gives at least as much to the men themselves, who, and I mean this seriously, seem to be good. They are good men, and Let There Be Light expects that these good men who were fundamentally damaged by the war they fought against fascism will be made whole again by their country when they get back to it. It has a right to expect that, and in that expectation there is a tacit second expectation: that it is not the personal responsibility of the womenfolk of the nation to do the fixing. Near the end of the movie, it’s suggested to the men that they can go home now, without shame, and choose to do what they want to do. They can pick up where they left off, or maybe they have professional or personal goals they’d like to attain. They fought the war; they took the treatment; they will be the ones, in the end, who ultimately decide how fixed they’ll be. It’s the proudest message that soldiers returning home could have hoped to hear.