Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives

Year: 1946
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 37
Writer: Robert E. Sherwood
Director: William Wyler
Star: Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell

“The Best Years of Our Lives” picks up a few days after every WWII movie faded to black. Instead of just having the three ex-Army and Navy officers ask the question “What do I do now?” the film also, incredibly, has the strength to have other characters ask the question “What do we do with you?” The answers to those questions remain resonant and are, at times, incredibly insightful.

The director, William Wyler, seemed to enjoy embracing the alternate version of what most other movies would present. He focused on the family instead of the soldiers in “Mrs. Miniver,” turned his attention from Jesus to “Ben-Hur,” stuck with the murderer instead of the investigation in “The Letter” and, of course, showed us what Bette Davis might have been like as Scarlett O’Hara in his “Jezebel.” Here we expect that the servicemen returning home will be welcomed with open arms and everything will go back to normal. Whoops.

In the very first scene we meet Dana Andrews’ Fred Derry, who is attempting to get home after years abroad. But there’s no room on the flight he’s booked, and he might have to wait days to get a flight out. Another man comes up to the counter and explains that he has reserved a ticket. We have every expectation that the man will see Fred, praise him for his service and then give him the ticket. Nope. Later, when he returns to his former place of employment (just to look around, he insists), the new manager is quite vocal about the fact that he is not under any obligation to hire him back. And his wife insists she’s being patient with him as she tries desperately to get out and about.

Along with Andrews, the movie follows Al Stephenson (Frederic March) and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell). Al is a family man with a loving wife Milly (Myrna Loy), son and beautiful daughter (Teresa Wright) who not only gets his job at the bank back, but a promotion at that. However, that promotion sees him sometimes having to turn down loans former military men ask of him. His children seem to have gotten away from him in the years he’s been gone. His son recites random facts about the war and asks Al questions about his experiences with radiation that he doesn’t understand. His daughter Peggy seems to have matured, but parts of her remain immature.

Al’s return home is a fantastic example of subtle excellence. When he walks inside he holds his hand to his children’s mouths in order to surprise Milly. Watching Loy and March discover one another again is beautiful. Sure, they remember most things about one another (though Al forgets Milly doesn’t smoke), but they need a few hours to remember how they felt as a couple and why they clicked in the first place. Watching those two actors dance around one another, smiling subtly and frowning at accidentally doing or saying something wrong is one of the most honest, simple moments I’ve ever seen.

Homer returns home with hooks in the place of his hands, but at least on the surface, effects a jolly demeanor. His family embraces him, and we watch in wonder as he manages to do so much with those hooks (I held my breath when he lit not one, but two matches in an early moment). Cathy O’Donnell plays his girl Wilma, and I’m not familiar with her as an actress. Perhaps this is for the best, since Wilma personifies the perfect woman, and no name actress could have pulled it off. Despite smiling and making jokes, Homer has deep emotional scarring, and Wilma gives him the time he needs while supporting him with those big, expressive eyes. We should all be so lucky. Russell was a non-actor who really had hooks for hands, which lends every scene he is in an extra layer of poignancy and beauty. As an actor, he rises to every challenge and, because of that, when his character successfully slips a ring on Wilma’s figure, we are beaming.

Fred was a big hero during the war. He was a fantastic bomber, was decorated many times, and took pride in showing off his bombshell of a wife (Virginia Mayo) to his friends in uniform. But being home is a different story entirely. Aside from his difficulties with finding gainful employment, he just cannot bring himself to emotionally adjust. The nightmares that haunt his sleep certainly don’t help, but Fred seems intent on isolating himself from everyone who cares about him. He ignores his wife and snaps at her, instead focusing all of his intention and affections on Al’s daughter Peggy, who of course he cannot have. At no point does he look to the heavens and scream “No one can ever understand me!” but you get the feeling that he probably would if given the opportunity, and were this film made today, he’d be listening to “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” on repeat for days. There’s an eerie scene where he walks through a graveyard of planes from the war that is the perfect metaphor for his life, and how that graveyard affects his future is just about perfect. Andrews does not play the character in a sympathetic way, but we still understand his situation.

Peggy falls deeply in love with him despite herself, and is open about the feelings with her parents. After a disastrous double date she goes on with Fred and his wife (she is * gasp * nice to Peggy and he broods the entire time), there is a scene between her and her parents that represents the heart of the movie. Peggy rants and raves about her love for Fred and how the parents could never understand because they’ve forgotten what it means to be in love. The scene could have gone in so many directions, with more yelling or slamming doors or just having the editor cut from that line, but instead Al almost laughs off the statement. Milly looks at her husband of twenty years, all the love welling up in her eyes and bittersweet smile, and she says “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?”

Al and Milly find themselves in love all over again, but Fred and Homer have more difficulty. Ultimately, Homer embraces Wilma and the film ends with their wedding, but Fred and his wife eventually divorce. I have mixed feelings about the ending, where Fred claims Peggy for his own. He’s in no state to have a significant other, and Peggy has proven that she has a lot of maturing to do. But perhaps that is the point. The final lines of the film, delivered to Peggy by Fred in between kisses, remind us that they have a hard life ahead of them with many falls and failures. Perhaps they will both mature and be able to work as a couple. Perhaps.

The movie is almost three hours long, but doesn’t feel long at all. The thing that struck me throughout the film is that Wyler lets the scenes breath and create a life of their own before cutting away to other characters. Here, we get an idea of what the characters are like before they enter scenes and how the actions of the scene have affected them. Wyler had the knowledge to understand that we would be interested in these characters enough to be patient with them through six-to-eight pages scenes. As a result every character, even write-offs like Fred’s wife and Homer’s girl, gain an extra dimension and allow us to realize just how amazing the cast as a whole really is.

If there is a major fault here, it’s in the music, which pushes you forcefully toward the feelings you should discover for yourself. It doesn’t let you discover the scenes as much as tell you what you are in for, and I wish that most of the music had been simple underscoring.

“The Best Years of Our Lives” is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. The characters here are more damaged than most modern heroes and heroines, and the film doesn’t given them the tidy endings a lesser film would. Their lives might always be a struggle, but a worthwhile one that will ultimately bring them a lot of joy between the tears.

My Score (out of 5): *****

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