My husband is a chemical engineer. Logic-driven, analytical thinker, understands all math with ease. He isn’t as knowledgeable about Classic Movies as I am, but he knows who James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Claude Rains are. If he were to select a favorite classic film that he truly enjoys, he’d pick 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives. Directed by William Wyler, it won Best Picture, Best Actor(Frederic March), Best Supporting Actor(Harold Russell), Best Director(Wyler) and Best Screenplay(Robert E. Sherman) at the 1947 Academy Awards.
The Best Years of Our Lives is about 3 returning WWII veterans, coming back to their lives in a mid-sized American city, coming back to their loved ones, their friends, and hopefully, to their former jobs or careers. The oldest veteran in our trio is Army Sergeant Al Stephenson(March), a man with a loving wife, two kids, a nice home, and a nice job waiting for him at the bank. The second veteran is Army Air Corps Captain Fred Derry(Dana Andrews), a former soda jerk for a large drugstore. Fred has an elderly father, stepmother, and a vivacious wife. It’s pretty clear that after we see Al’s homecoming and then Fred’s, that Fred lives on the poorer side of town. The third veteran is sailor Homer Parrish(Russell) who will be coming home to his parents, younger siblings, and the neighbor girl next door, but due to a horrific war injury, he is coming home without his hands, just hooks that he has skillfully learned to use. We see Homer’s unease and nervousness about seeing his family for the first time with the prosthetic hooks.
When the three veterans meet, it is evident they didn’t know one another prior to leaving for the War but now they become good friends through their shared experiences of having served their country, having given up part of their former lives in order to fight, and the commonality of trying to adjust to their former lives. Each goes through a personal battle to regain a foothold in American post-war society. Al is older, his kids grew up while he was away. His daughter, Peggy(Teresa Wright) is a college student now and his son, Rob(Michael Hall) is in high school. He feels distant from them and from his wife, Milly(the outstanding Myrna Loy). He also has to deal with his wanting to use alcohol too much in numbing his pain, and clashing at the bank with his boss, Mr. Milton(Ray Collins) over attempts to ease up on loan regulations for returning veterans.
Fred is warmly greeted by his father, Pat(Roman Bohnen) and his stepmother Hortense(Gladys George), but he notices that his wife, Marie(Virginia Mayo) is not at his father’s house to also greet him. Pat informs his son that Marie moved out some time ago, that she decided to get her own place. This news surprises and bothers Fred, as Marie never wrote him about her decision. He gets the address for Marie’s new place and goes there to greet her, but she isn’t home. Through the course of the movie, we learn that Marie is quite the club hopping gal, that she isn’t happy with Fred’s job as a soda jerk as she wants him to earn more money, and Fred begins to have doubts about his quick, war-time marriage to Marie.
Homer arrives at his home and his family eagerly rushes out the front door to greet him. The neighbor girl, Wilma(Cathy O’Donnell) and her family are also there to greet Homer. All are uneasy when they see Homer’s hooks, and his mother breaks down despite trying not to. After unloading his gear in his boyhood bedroom, Homer decides he needs to get away for a bit and he heads down to his cousin Butch’s (Hoagy Carmichael) bar. When he arrives, he meets Fred again, who has gone there to mull about he and Marie’s poor marriage. Pretty soon, they are joined by Al, Milly, and Peggy. The 5 of them have an enjoyable evening. Homer catches a cab ride home. Al and Milly offer to drive Fred over to Marie’s new place, but when Fred passes out due to too much alcohol, the 3 Stephenson’s decide to let him sleep it off in their guest bedroom. During the night, Fred has a very bad dream and Peggy rushes to his side to help him. It is then that Peggy and Fred start to develop feelings for one another, but both are cautious due to Fred being a married man.
As the movie advances from Butch’s Bar, the three veterans have their own personal mountains to overcome. Peggy decides to inform her parents how she feels about Fred despite he being in a bad marriage. Her parents try to counsel her that she really cannot know how a marriage really is between two other people and that she should give Fred space to work this out on his own. Fred needs to decide what he wants to do career -wise, and what to do about Marie. Homer needs to realize that Wilma loves him, whole-bodied or not.
The Best Years of Our Lives will be airing on Turner Classic Movies on Sept. 30th at 1:30 am(EST)/ 12:30 am(CST) so set that dvr machine! It is also available to view via Amazon.com http://www.amazon.com/The-Best-Years-Our-Lives/dp/0792846133 to either buy or see it on their instant viewing, it is available to rent through Netflix http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/The_Best_Years_of_Our_Lives/299970?locale=en-US, and many clips of famous scenes are up on Youtube. For an evening in the company of a very true to life tale of returning veterans, don’t miss seeing The Best Years of Our Lives!
One interesting side note, Harold Russell was not a professional actor. He was in the US Army during WWII and lost his hands during a training exercise at Camp Mackell, in North Carolina. A defective fuse detonated on an explosive he was handling, and that is how he lost his hands. After his recovery and rehabilitation, he was a student at Boston University and had appeared in a film made by the US Army, called Diary of a Sergeant, about the rehabilitation of injured soldiers. Director William Wyler happened to see that film and cast Russell to play the part of Homer.