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Monday, March 24, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Director: William Wyler
Starring: Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright

The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the few films that can be accurately described as timeless. It is a film that’s as powerful today as it was when it was released in 1946, when it was both a critical and commercial success and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. This is a film about coming home from war and finding it changed, returning to a life that fits like clothing you’ve outgrown. At once heartbreaking and uplifting, joyous and sad, it is above all a powerful statement about the cultural narratives and myths surrounding the idea of war.

The story centers on three ex-servicemen: Al (Frederic March), Fred (Dana Andrews), and Homer (Harold Russell), who meet, discover that they’re from the same home town, and get back to it together. Homer is the first to arrive home and his reunion with his family is marked by a mixture of happiness and uncertainty. He’s lost both hands and he and his loved ones are tentative as they approach each other. No amount of training could prepare him or the other men for the human element of returning home, for the way people will treat them and the ways that they’re almost strangers to people they’ve known all their lives.

Al is the next to go home, and his return is one of the great moments in cinema as he walks in the door and puts his finger to his lips so that his children won’t announce his presence. His wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), calls from the kitchen to ask who was at the door and slowly realizes that it must be Al. She goes into the hallway, looks at him for a moment, and then runs into his arms. Fred has a less welcoming homecoming when he finds that the woman he married before going overseas is nowhere to be found.

Soon after returning home, the intensity of these domestic scenes becomes too much for all three men, and they find themselves at the bar owned by Homer’s uncle. After Homer leaves, Fred and Al, along with Milly and their daughter, Peggy, (Teresa Wright), spread the party over the rest of the town until Milly and Peggy can finally convince the two men that enough’s enough and bring them home to get some sleep. Fred ends up at Al and Milly’s house after being unable to gain entry to his own (his wife is still MIA), and when he’s awakened the next morning by Peggy, it’s the beginning of a love affair, though neither knows it yet.

The lives of the three men are irrevocably altered and each struggles to be relevant in a changed world. Al was a banker before and returns to his job now charged with the task of granting or refusing loans to men returned from overseas. A conflict arises in him because the banker in him knows that his first client is a bad risk, but the serviceman in him wants to give him a chance. He grants the loan and is forced to explain himself. “I tell you this man Novak is okay. His ‘collateral’ is in his hands, in his heart and his guts. It’s in his right as a citizen.” This is one of many instances where the film is critical of the treatment of veterans, expressing that anyone who risks their life for their country has the right to return to it and be repaid. Another moment comes when Fred returns to his former workplace, seeking a better job than the one he had before. The manager tells him that since he has no applicable training, he can’t be promoted to a higher position. Fred points out that he was fighting in a war during the time he might have had training, but the manager is unmoved. Fred walks out but is eventually forced to return and accept his old job working as a soda jerk in order to support himself and his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo). The scene where the film is most critical of public reception of veterans comes when a stranger expresses to Homer that he lost his hands for nothing, that the war was pointless and driven by corrupt governmental powers. This is a striking moment, especially when seen today, and one of many which keeps the film seeming so fresh.

Director William Wyler guides the film with a light touch, guiding it towards the right notes and never allowing the material to become heavy handed or preachy. When Fred reconnects with his wife, we sense immediately that both were so caught up in the romantic idea of Fred going to war and coming home to Marie, that neither really bothered getting to know the other. Marie likes Fred’s uniform, which he of course no longer has a reason to wear. Fred wants a down-to-earth wife, which Marie, who likes to party, certainly is not. What Fred wants, he discovers, is to be with Peggy. She wants the same and announces to her parents one night that she intends to break up Fred’s marriage. Her parents are understandably unhappy about this, but receive the news calmly and the scene leads to a great speech by Loy about the struggle to maintain a relationship. Frederic March gets a number of scenes in which to show his considerable talent, my favourite coming after Peggy’s announcement, when Al goes to meet Fred. They sit across the table from each other and have a clipped conversation in which a couple of things are established: 1. Al doesn’t like the idea of Peggy running around with a married man; 2. Al wants to remain friends with Fred, but not if he puts Peggy in a compromising position; and 3. Al ultimately recognizes that Peggy has become an adult in his absence and understands that he has to let her make her own mistakes.

This is a wonderful and moving film with too many fantastic moments to name. If forced to choose the most powerful, I would have to say it’s the scene where Homer shows his fiancĂ©e Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) just what his night time ritual entails, when he must remove his hooks and be “helpless as a baby” until someone can put them back on for him again in the morning. This scene transcends mere fiction because it was a fact of Harold Russell’s life. I dare you to try to watch it without getting misty.

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