Classic 40s Movie: “The Best Years of Our Lives”

September is Classic 40s Movie month. Today’s guest post comes from Shaun Parker.

Title: The Best Years of Our Lives

Year: 1946

Writer: Robert E. Sherwood’s screenplay was based on MacKinlay Kantor’s novel, Glory for Me

Lead Actors: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell, Teresa Wright

Director: William Wyler

IMDb Plot Summary: Three WWII veterans return home to small-town America to discover that they and their families have been irreparably changed.

My Summary: Three WWII veterans return home with hopes of restoring the lives they left behind. Sgt. Al Stephenson, who has been married for twenty years, comes home to his wife and two children and attempts to adjust to a new, high-ranking position at a bank. Captain Fred Derry, who reveals he was married less than twenty days before leaving for the war, must face a strained job market and a wife whose priorities differ from his own. Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost his hands in an explosion, braces for his family and girlfriend’s reaction to his physical limitations.

Why I Think This is a Classic 40s Movie

This post-war film came out only one year after the end of WWII. It’s close proximity to the subject matter gives it an authentic tone. Interestingly, Wyler hired veterans as his crewmen so that the movie would feel more like a documentary. Even though the movie is almost 70 years old, it’s messages are timeless.

The Best Years of Ours Lives presents an interesting view of readjustment to civilian life. Instead of focusing on one main character, it combines three intertwined stories about men at different life stages. Beyond providing social commentary about scarce job opportunities for veterans, physical and mental impairments related to war, and the staggering effects of war on the home front (families surviving with less money, women going to work full-time, etc.), The Best Years of Our Lives is a love story. The relationships take center stage while the social factors are more of an undercurrent.

Milly, Al Stephenson’s wife, goes out of her way to help her husband feel comfortable, even as she witnesses his decent into alcoholism. She never nags about his condition nor does she make excuses for him; instead, she dutifully looks after him, understanding the trials he faces as a man who seems to be a stranger in his own home. Fred Derry comes home with the expectation that he and his wife will pick up where they left off years ago, but his wife has moved on with her life and Fred quickly realizes their marriage will not work. Interestingly, Fred falls in love with Al’s daughter, Peggy, which causes friction between the two men. Young Homer Parrish is so bothered by his injury that he is willing to break up with his girlfriend so she can live her life free of the burden of taking care of him. The movie combines themes of disappointment, loss, change, and sacrifice, but it contends that love and hope are greater than any amount of suffering.

The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Writers can specifically appreciate how Sherwood’s screenplay accurately presents the social difficulties faced by returning servicemen without resorting to heavy-handed melodrama.

My Favorite Moment In The Movie

It is hard to pick just one moment from this film because each scene is well executed. One of the most tender moments is when Homer takes his girlfriend, Wilma, up to his bedroom so she can gain a better understanding of his physical shortcomings. Earlier in the movie, there is a scene where Homer’s father is responsible for helping Homer get ready for bed. In the later scene, we realize how much progress Homer has made in taking care of his needs. Nevertheless, he goes on to explain his limitations:

Another favorite scene is when Al and Milly’s daughter, Peggy, confesses to her parents that she has fallen in love with Fred and plans to break up his marriage. She tells her parents they won’t understand her situation because they “never had any trouble.”

Milly, played brilliantly by Myrna Loy, responds with the following lines while embracing her husband: “We never had any trouble. How many times have I told you I hated you, and believed it in my heart? How many times have you said you were sick and tired of me, that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?”

This scene is important because it highlights the difference between Peggy’s naive expectations about love (she thinks her parents’ marriage is perfect because they had a big wedding and a honeymoon in the South of France) and her parents’ realistic, long-term marriage. The scene also helps us understand the long-suffering stance displayed by Milly. She is able to cope with Al’s alcoholism because they have overcome so much in their twenty years as husband and wife. Perhaps to her, it is just another stumbling block they will deal with eventually.

My Favorite Dialogue

Early in the film while Al, Fred, and Homer are in the plane headed for Boone City, they each express hopes or fears about returning home.

Homer: I can dial telephones. I can drive a car, I can even put nickels in a juke box. I’m alright. But…well, you see, I’ve got a girl.

Later, after Homer has fallen asleep:

Fred: Remember what it felt like when you went overseas?
Al: As well as I remember my own name.
Fred: I feel the same way now, only more so.
Al: I know what you mean.
Fred: Just nervous out of the service, I guess.
Al: The thing that scares me most is that everybody’s gonna try to rehabilitate me.
Fred: All I want is a good job, a mild future, a little house big enough for me and my wife. Give me that much and I’m rehabilitated like that (snaps finger).

Late in the film, Fred goes home to his wife, Marie. Upon entering the apartment, he finds a man named Cliff waiting to take Marie out on a date. After sending Cliff outside to wait, Marie and Fred argue. A disappointed Marie makes a statement which sadly references the movie’s title:

Marie: What do you think I was doing all those years?
Fred: I don’t know, babe, but I can guess.
Marie: Go ahead. Guess your head off. I could do some guessing myself. What were you up to in London and Paris and all those places? I’ve given you every chance to make something of yourself. I gave up my own job when you asked me. I gave up the best years of my life, and what have you done? You flopped! Couldn’t even hold that job at the drugstore. So I’m going back to work for myself and that means I’m gonna live for myself too. And in case you don’t understand English, I’m gonna get a divorce. What have you got to say to that?
Fred: Don’t keep Cliff waiting.

Key Things You Should Look For When Watching This Movie

Harold Russell’s portrayal of Homer Parrish is straightforward and endearing. Russell was an actual veteran who lost his hands when an explosive detonated during the making of an Army training film. Despite being an untrained actor when he was hired for the role, Russell went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The Academy also awarded him with an Honorary Oscar for “Bringing Hope and Courage to His Fellow Veterans,” making Harold Russell the only actor in history to win two Academy Awards for one role.

Pay close attention to the movie’s effective use of contrast. Early in the film, Homer is dropped off at his parents’ home in an idyllic suburban neighborhood. Next, we see Al’s large apartment in an affluent urban area of Boone City. Lastly, we are shown Fred’s father’s home — a shack in a dilapidated area near the train tracks on the outskirts of town.

There are also subtle hints of contrast between the lives each man left behind and their current situations. In Homer’s home, we see a photo from when he was a star high school quarterback. Al admires an old picture of himself in his bedroom and then looks in the mirror at his aging face and graying hair. Fred wants to return to his civilian roots but his wife continuously urges him to wear his military uniform so she can show him off in public.

Lastly, be on the the lookout for the difficult scenes which show how Fred has been psychologically damaged by the war. In the following scene, he has a nightmare and is comforted by Peggy:

Peggy’s sympathetic and gentle response is in stark contrast to Marie who later tells Fred, “Maybe that’s what’s holding you back. You know, the war’s over. You won’t get anyplace ’til you stop thinking about it. Come on, snap out of it.”

Later, after deciding to leave Boone City, Fred walks through the airplane graveyard and finds his old bomber plane. He climbs aboard and faces his demons:

The movie’s original trailer:

Thanks, Shaun! To show our gratitude for your guest post, here’s a dash of creative juju for you. Whoosh!

We already have a set of classic 50s movies, 60s Movies, 70s movies, 80s Movies and 90s Movies. This month, we’re working on 40s movies. And thanks to the GITS community, we’ve got 30 movies in the works, one for each day of the month!

Those who I put in bold have already sent me their posts. If you haven’t sent yours to me, please do so as soon as you can!!!

Act of Violence — Eric Rodriguez
Arsenic and Old Lace — Gisela Wehrl
Bicycle Thieves — Megaen Kelly
Brief Encounter — Emily Bonkoski
Casablanca — Paul Graunke
Double Indemnity — Susan Winchell
Five Graves to Cairo — Jeff Gibson
Foreign Correspondent — Doc Kane
Here Comes Mr. Jordan — Wayne Kline
His Girl Friday — John Henderson
It’s a Wonderful Life — David Laudenslager
Kind Hearts and Coronets— James Calder
Key Largo — Will King
Laura — Melinda Mahaffey Icden
Les enfants du paradis — Brendan Howley
Mrs. Miniver — Traci Nell Peterson
Notorious — Christine Henton
Now Voyager — Melissa Privette
Out of the Past — Brantley Aufill
Rope — Lance Morgan
The Bank Dick — Bob Saenz
The Best Years of Their Lives — Shaun Parker
The Big Sleep — Ipsita Barik
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir — Annie Wood
The Long Voyage Home — Vincent Martini
The Lost Weekend — Liz Warner
The Maltese Falcon — Roy Gordon
The Ox-Bow Incident — Clay Mitchell
The Philadelphia Story — Kristen Demaline
The Sin of Harold Diddlebock — David Joyner
The Third Man — Harry Cooke
To Have and Have Not — Felicity Flesher

Thanks to everyone who steps up for this ongoing project!

For the original post explaining the series, go here.

For all of the 40s movies featured in the series, go here.

Click REPLY and see you in comments about today’s classic 40s movie!

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