Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Best Years of Our Lives

"Give 'em time, kid; they'll catch on. You know your folks'll get used to you, and you'll get used to them. Then everything'll settle down nicely. Unless we have another war. Then none of us have to worry because we'll all be blown to bits the first day. So cheer up, huh?"---Butch Engle to his nephew, Homer (The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946)

I don't know now whether I am searching for meaning and emotion in these remaining films of the 1940s to suit my own thesis or whether I'm actually catching on to something.  I feel like this film is what would happen if Father O'Malley left the church and went to war for a few years, came back, and started hanging out with Don Birnam after he tried to sober up.  I loved it--even with the corny and predictable ending.  Because I felt that maybe, just for a moment, it might not end so happily.  For making me question the sunshine ending, and for making me yell at my television screen, this movie makes it near the top of my list.

The Plot
It's the end of World War II, and soliders are trying to get home.  Three different men are all trying to get to their hometown of Boone City in the mid-west.  The men, Air Force Captain Fred Derry, sailor Homer Parrish, and Army Sergeant Al Stephenson, all come from different backgrounds, but bond quickly in their shared insecurity about finally coming home as civilians.  Al, played by Fredric March, is a former banker, an older man with a wife and two nearly grown children.  Fred, played by Dana Andrews, is a former soda-jerk with a new bride and big dreams, though he comes from a lackluster upbringing.  Homer, played by Harold Russell, the youngest, has lost both hands in the war and must return to his close-knit middle class family and girl-next-door fiancĂ©e.  As the three nervously take a taxi home, they pass a tavern run by Homer's black sheet uncle, Butch, and are happy that there is at least one place they know they'll be welcomed.

Three Veterans on their way home.
Homer is dropped off first, joyfully welcomed by his parents and fiancee, Wilma Cameron, though his mother can't help but sob as she sees his prosthetic hooks.  Al is dropped off next at his high-end apartment, where he is greeting in shock and joy by his wife Milly, played by Myrna Loy. His children have grown up in his absence, and while his son Rob is still in school, Peggy, played by Teresa Wright, has become a young woman.  Lastly Fred is dropped off at the shanty where his alcoholic father and step-mother live, only to find that his wife Marie, played by Virginia Mayo, whom he married while in training in Texas after a whirlwind courtship, has moved out.

Al has come home.
All three are unexpectedly jarred and uncomfortable by being home and end up heading individually to Butch's tavern.  Homer, knowing his family are uncomfortable with him, goes to visit his uncle, where he finds Fred brooding and unable to find his wife.  Al joins them after dragging Milly and Peggy around for a night on the town.  Homer makes it home unscathed, but when the bar closes, Peggy drives the heavily intoxicated Fred and Al back to their apartment, when it becomes clear that Fred still can't find his wife.  Fred has a nightmare about a battle gone wrong and wakes up Peggy, who comforts Fred as he falls back asleep, sobbing.  The next morning she drives the apologetic Fred to his wife's apartment, and he confesses that while he doesn't know what he will do, he knows he won't go back to being a soda jerk.

Peggy comforts Fred during his nightmare.
Al meanwhile wakes with a hangover, and finally embraces his loving wife.  Later, Al must contain his irritation at his former boss, Mr. Milton, who wants Al to start back up right away with a promotion to the head of the loans department at the bank.  Though Al knows he is lucky to have a job, he is having trouble adjusting, and saddened by all those who didn't come back.

Al and Mr. Milton
Meanwhile, Fred has found his wife, Marie, a gorgeous blonde who has been supporting herself by dancing at nightclubs, and seems far more interested in showing off her cute husband in his army clothes than actually getting to know him.  Fred visits his old boss, only to discover that the pharmacy has been bought out by a larger chain.  His old boss tries to introduce him to the new manager, but Fred rebuffs the low-paying and menial job offer.  Homer's fiancee, Wilma, keeps trying to connect with Homer, and loves him as much as she ever did.  But Homer's anger at seeing his little sister and her friends staring at him and his hooks cause her to run away sobbing and Homer to isolate himself even more.

Fred finds his wife, Marie.
A few weeks later, Fred and Marie argue about Fred's dwindling money.  Fred has made Marie quit her dancing job, but Marie can't understand why she still can't go out and have fun every night.  Fred finally concedes and accepts the job at the drugstore.  Peggy comes to visit him at the store, and he takes her for lunch.  Fred confesses how his dreams of getting a decent job and starting a family with a little home have quickly deteriorated against harsh reality.  Peggy is understanding, mature, and sympathetic.  As he walks her to her car, Fred kisses her.  That same afternoon Al grants a loan to a fellow veteran, who is looking to work hard and establish himself after the war.  Though he has no collateral except his skills, Al grants him the loan, only to get gently admonished by his boss for "gambling with the depositor's money."  That night, preparing to go to a banquet in Al's honor, Milly confesses that she thinks Peggy has feelings for Fred.  Peggy has invited Fred and Marie out on a double date that night, and confesses to her parents that she is in love with Fred, but is trying not to be.  She hopes that seeing Fred with his wife will snap her out of it.

Al at the banquet in his honor.
At the banquet, a drunken Al gives a rambling and somewhat caustic toast, but ends by saying that he will gamble to depositors' money on the future of his country.  Although his boss is annoyed, Milly is proud of her husband.  Meanwhile Peggy's double date has backfired, showing her just how wrong for Fred Marie is.  She comes home and tells her parents that she is determined to break up their marriage and fight for Fred.  Her parents try to caution her, but Peggy is too emotional to think rationally.

Peggy's double date.
The next day, Al meets Fred at Butch's and asks him if he is in love with Peggy.  When Fred confesses he is, Al suggests that he prove it by doing the right thing for Peggy.  Fred then calls Peggy and lies, saying that she is the kind of girl who takes things too seriously and he has only been flirting with her.  He staggers out of the bar past Homer, who has come in to show Al that Butch is teaching him to play the piano with his hooks.  Peggy tells her mother of the phone call and bitterly says that she sees things more clearly now.  Some time later Homer visits Fred at the drugstore and gets into an argument with a man at the county who says that the war was unnecessary and a waste.  He insults them both, and Fred asks him to leave.  Homer goes after the man, but Fred pushes him aside and slugs the man.  He is then fired from his job.  As the two walk home, Fred advises Homer to tell Wilma how much he loves her and marry her as fast as he can.

Butch teaches Homer to play the piano while Fred breaks Peggy's heart.
Later that night Wilma comes to see Homer and says that her parents want her to go away with family, as it is clear that Homer no longer loves or wants to marry her.  Homer tries to tell her that she doesn't understand the reality of living with someone like him, but she insists that he let her try.  So he lets her see that after her takes his prosthetics off for the night, he is completely vulnerable.  Wilma, instead of running away, says she will always love him and never leave him, as she tucks him into bed.

Homer is vulnerable to Wilma.
Later, Fred has a final quarrel with Marie, who he surprises at home, about to go out with an old boyfriend.  She tells Fred, who has been unable to find a job, that she wasted the best years of her life on him and wants a divorce so she can go back to being a woman who works for a living.  Fred visits his father one last time and tells him he is leaving Boone City.  He leaves his many military awards with his father, as he now feels they are worthless.  Waiting for his flight at the airport, Fred sees a field filled with now useless military planes being taken apart for scrap metal.  Fred climbs into one and remembers the atrocities he encountered during the war.  The man who owns the salvage yard, Karney, startles him and asks him to get out of the plane.  Pale and shaken, Fred gets out, and after mentioning that he used to fly one, tentatively asks for a job.  Karney explains that they are using the plane metal to create pre-fabricated houses, and after some deliberating, gruffly offers Fred a job.
Fred in the plane's cockpit.
A few weeks later, everyone is gathered at Homer's house for his wedding to Wilma.  Fred is the best man, and nervous about seeing Peggy again.  At first they are pleasant, but awkward with one another.  But the beauty of the ceremony and the obvious love of Homer and Wilma effect them both.  While the rest of guest rush to embrace the happy couple, Fred strides up to Peggy and kisses her.  He pulls away and says, "You know what it'll be, don't you, Peggy? It may take us years to get anywhere. We'll have no money, no decent place to live. We'll have to work, get kicked around--"  But Peggy just smiles, pulls him close, and kisses him.

Peggy and Fred
The History
The Hollywood moguls got down to Oscar campaigning in earnest in 1946, releasing all their big films in the fall, right before the selections.  They had some major competition from foreign films this year, from Roberto Rossellini's Open City to the French film Children of Paradise.  The Brits had three big contenders: melodrama The Seventh Veil, Noel Coward's Brief Encounter (James McAvoy's favorite film, FYI), and Laurence Olivier's reenactment of Shakespeare's Henry V.  Henry V ran for forty-six weeks straight in New York City.
Laurence Olivier in Henry V
Hollywood began to take notice of the growing trend for serious, realistic subject matter.  Samuel Goldwyn decided to produce The Best Years of Our Lives, inspired by a Time magazine article about the difficulties facing soliders after leaving the service. He hired famed war correspondent MacKinlay Kantor to write a story and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert Sherwood to adapt that story into a script.  He then assigned the film to his best director, William Wyler, and began assembling a cast of stars, all to counter statements that were being made about the state of the film industry.  Producer Walter Wanger, on a trip back from the continent, said that the industry was in trouble because of the  foreign market as audiences now wanted "true-to-life" and "mature" viewpoints in movies.  Goldwyn responded, "Times have changed but Hollywood hasn' maintain its place, Hollywood must set aside the old formulas.  It must find honest stories, stories with something important to say, stories that reflect these disturbing times in which we live."  What a coincidence that he should make this statement right before the release of his new film....

Filming of The Best Years of Our Lives
Wyler himself seemed unconcerned with political wrangling, and far more interested in making a good picture.  For a realistic feel, he hired recent World War II veterans as most of his crew (props, grips, mixers, etc) and bought all the costumes off the rack.  He also insisted on life-size sets, instead of the usual large scale ones.  This was Wyler's first post-war film, and he modeled several of the scenes and characters after his own life.  He was a major in the Air Force, and flew B-17s just like Fred.  He also modeled the reunion of Al and Milly on his own reunion with his wife.  The character of Homer was originally going to be a man suffering from combat trauma, but when Wyler saw Harold Russell in an army training film called, "Diary of a Sargent" about the rehabilitation of wounded servicemen, he changed the character and hired Russell.  Russell wasn't really an actor, but Wyler liked his natural, unstudied way.  When Russell came on set, he shook all the actors hands with his hooks in an attempt to put them at ease.

Hoagy Carmichael teaches Harold Russell to play the piano
Other studio heads soon got on the bandwagon, and each one tried to outdo the next.  But Goldwyn was determined that The Best Years of Our Lives would be this year's big film, and rode the wave of positive reviews.  Unfortunately, he couldn't control his star director.  Wyler claimed the producer had reneged on a promise to bill the film as "A William Wyler Production" and bilked him out of the profits.  Wyler left Goldwyn to form his own production company, Liberty Films, with Frank Capra.  After working together since 1936, Goldwyn and Wyler were no longer on speaking terms going into the Awards.  Eleven years later Wyler sued Goldwyn for $400,000.00, which would be settled out of court.  The two would never work together again.

William Wyler on set of The Best Years of Our Lives
The year continued as expected.  Each producer tried to outdo the next, while David O. Selznick continued his tireless crusade to top Gone with the Wind with yet another lavish epic (he wouldn't).  Still, Hollywood managed to deliver on the gauntlet thrown down by the Europeans with films like The Razor's Edge, The Yearling, The Best Years of Our Lives, and To Each His Own.  And of course, this year would also bring the return of Jimmy Stewart in my absolute favorite film, It's a Wonderful Life.  Despite its current reputation as one the best film of all time, it did not fit well into the current fad for realistic, grittier films.  It was a moderate success, and going into the Awards, it was considered to be an "Academy Awards dark horse."

Olivia de Havilland receives her Academy Award
The War was over and this year's Awards were a lavish affair filled with Greek columns, a five foot replica of the statuette,16 multicolored search lights, and a 66-piece orchestra.  Unfortunately, the show did not sell out and the left over seats were filled by servicemen hanging around outside.  The program opened with actor Ronald Reagan narrating a silent compilation of the Oscar-winning films of the past.  Unfortunately, due to a production glitch, the entire film was shown upside down and backwards, unbeknownst to the future president, who just continued to read.  Laurence Oliver was given a special Oscar for "his outstanding achievement" with Henry V.  Though Harold Russell was nominated for "Best Supporting Actor," he was considered a long shot at best, and was given a special Oscar for "bringing hope and courage" to the other veterans.  Olivia de Havilland received the award for "Best Actress," in To Each His Own, but created the big scandal of the night by publicly snubbing her sister, Joan Fontaine, and her attempts at congratulations.  The Best Years of Our Lives would go on to sweep the Awards, winning "Best Picture," "Best Director," "Best Actor," "Best Writing," "Best Film Editing," "Best Score," and yes..."Best Supporting Actor."  Harold Russell is the first and only actor to win two Oscars for the same role.  He was so overcome on stage that he was reduced to tears.
Frederic March in The Best Years of Our his pajamas...
The Best Years of Our Lives marked the beginning of a new trend in films.  The days of "Capricon" films were over.  Penny March, daughter of "Best Actor" winner Frederic March, was less concerned about a new breed of films and more concerned about "the embarrassing fact that her classmates saw her dad in his pajamas [on screen] and that he drank too much in the picture."  This film would go on to be one of the first films to be selected by the Library of Congress to go into their newly created National Film Registry in 1989. It was the winner of the very first BAFTA award and remains one of the top 100 highest grossing films in U.S. History, and the 6th most attended film of all time in the U.K.  Though not as popular as it once was, this is still an enjoyable and relevant film.

Harold Russell with his two Academy Awards
After the film was finished, William Wyler told Harold Russell to take his money and go back to school, as there were not many opportunities in Hollywood for a man with no hands.  Russell took the advice and got a business degree from Boston University, authored two autobiographies, acted in the occasional film, served three terms as National Commander of AMVETS, and from the 1960s to the 1980s served as the Chairman of the President's Commission on Employment of the Handicapped, an unpaid position.  In 1992 Russell made the controversial decision to sell one of his Oscars to pay for his wife's medical bills.  Since 1950, the Academy had made all recipients sign an agreement saying they won't sell their statue, and they were rather upset with his choice.  Russell didn't care about the condemnation, claiming his wife's health to be more important.  He died of a heart attack in 2002.

Harold Russel with his two Oscars.
The Verdict
This year is the year of my favorite film of all time, It's a Wonderful Life.  So I was always rather surprised that it had never won the Award, and even more surprised that it wasn't exactly popular.  What movie could possibly have bested it?  I was ready to do battle on behalf of Frank Capra.

Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life
But if there's one thing I'm learning, it's that the movie to win each award is more indicative of the current cultural trend than the actual quality of the film.  So while I may think It's a Wonderful Life is the better film, I understand why The Best Years of Our Lives won.  Not that this isn't a great film!  I've actually come to decide that this film is one of my favorites of the new films I've watched.  And very interesting.

Night out on the town at Butch's bar

I can agree with the people of 1946, there is something compelling in cinema that attempts to follow the lives of real people.  All film is a fantasy world, but the best film finds a way to connect with the lives of real people.  Now, it is still the 1940s, so of course there is the perfect ending we've been waiting for.  There are moments of melodrama that would not be allowed in a film today.  But I loved this movie all the more for it, because again--it is a movie.  What fun would it be if Fred just left Peggy, never to be seen again?  You have to have some hope!
Homer has hooks for hands.
Still, the best part of this film is that it is about what happens to the hero after his war is over.  What was life like for Odysseus once he finally returned to Penelope?  For real people--not so easy.  Al can't slide back into his comfy banking job, Fred doesn't have the perfect wife and job he thought he would, and Homer--well Homer doesn't have hands.  Which actually seems to bother him less than it does everyone else.  And while everyone's life does end happily, this film doesn't tie everything up in a neat bow the way pre-war movies would have.  Al finally stands up to his boss, but he does so while intoxicated and the boss doesn't seem too thrilled.  Fred finally gets Peggy, but both know that it will be awhile before his life is back on track.  And while Homer does end up with Wilma, well, he still doesn't have hands.  He won't have hands.  Not ever again.

Wilma and Homer marry as Fred watches Peggy
I believe the message of this film is to find your happiness where you can.  Life will never be the perfect ending you envision.  But if you can adapt, stay strong, and maybe be a little bit lucky, you can carve out a life for yourself.  It has hope even through the darkness of reality, much like the ending of The Lost Weekend. How does this fit into my idea of post-war realism?  This movie is not Going My Way.  The ending is murky, with definite dark elements scattered throughout the film.  And yet, it did phenomenally well at the box office.  And even though nothing happens to Mr. Potter, everything wraps up quite nicely at the end of It's a Wonderful Life.  Box office results?  Not so great.  What does that tell you?  We'll see what happens next as we roll towards the 1950s...
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1 comment:

  1. Great article with lots of information. I enjoyed to read it, thanks so much for posting.