The Best Years of Our Lives is a movie about three veterans that return to Boone City, a fictional, small midwestern town, after the end of World War II: Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a captain in the Army Air Force; Al Stephenson (Frederic March), a sergeant in the Army; and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a sailor in the Navy.
They all face challenges adapting to civilian life after more than three years of war, but none more so than Homer, whose hands were burnt off during a fire on the ship that he was on, and who now has hooks to replace them. I believe we are supposed to sympathize with the problems of all three men equally, but we are so overwhelmed trying to imagine how we would cope if we were in Homer’s situation that the problems of Fred and Al seem trivial by comparison. Before the war, Homer planned on marrying Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), but now he is reluctant. She insists she loves him, however, and they eventually do get married at the end of the movie.
Because we know the title of a movie before we watch it, we wonder about this one as the movie begins. Usually, it is an expression of resentment, what a woman might say when her husband divorces her: “I gave him the best years of my life.” The irony of the remark is that the years in which one is a young adult, from the late teens through the twenties, are the best years in the sense of their potential; but they may be the worst years in the sense of what actually happens, as when the years are spent in a miserable marriage.
Or fighting a war. So, in one sense, the title refers to what these men had to go through at a time when they should have been enjoying the benefits of youth. But in another sense, it may represent the attitudes of the civilians that cared more about their own hardships, what with sugar rationing and Meatless Tuesdays, than that of the soldiers that were off fooling around somewhere overseas. During an argument Fred has with his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), after catching her alone in their apartment with Cliff (Steve Cochran), Fred says he can guess what she has been doing with other men while he was away. She replies, “Go ahead and guess your head off! I could do some guessing myself. What were you up to in London and Paris and all those places?”
She continues, being the one person in this movie that gives voice to a phrase similar to the one in the title:
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’ve flopped. Couldn’t even hold a job at the drugstore. So I’m going back to work for myself. And I’m going to live for myself, too. And in case you don’t understand English, I’m gonna get a divorce.
This Cliff character, by the way, seems to have plenty of money, which is why Marie has a date with him. When Fred tells him to leave, Cliff puts on the coat of his expensive-looking, dark suit with the kind of pinstripe often worn by movie gangsters. Fred notices he is wearing the pin of an ex-serviceman. Cliff says he hasn’t had trouble adjusting because he takes everything in stride. We figure he makes his money in the black markets, probably starting while he was still in the army.
The marital difficulties of Fred and Marie are just one example in which we are not sure how we are supposed to interpret what is happening, since attitudes were different when this movie was made than they are today. We get the impression we are supposed to be on Fred’s side, but we are not unsympathetic to Marie’s situation, looking at things from the vantage point of the present.
Another is the movie’s attitude toward any mental problems that returning soldiers might have. The movie acknowledges such problems, but at the same time, there is resistance to the idea. Early in the movie, as the plane the three men are on is heading to Boone City, Al says, “The thing that scares me most is that everybody’s gonna try to rehabilitate me.” Fred says, “All I want is a good job, a mild future, and a house big enough for me and my wife. Give me that much and I’m rehabilitated like that,” as he snaps his fingers.
Prior to the scene with Cliff, we learned that Marie had a job she liked, working in a nightclub, making good money. But Fred wanted her to quit that job because it was “inconvenient,” what with her working nights. At first, it was all right because he had some money saved up, but they blew through that. One night, they start arguing about the fact that they are stuck in a small, one-bedroom apartment, not going anywhere, because Fred hasn’t been able to find a good-paying job. Suddenly, Marie has a look of concern:
Marie: Are you really all right?
Fred: Of course I’m all right. Why?
Marie: I mean, in your mind. Is anything…?
Fred: My mind?! You mean you think I’m going goofy?
Marie: I’ve been wondering.
She’s been wondering on account of a nightmare he’s been having about a pilot that got killed who was a friend of his. “The war’s over,” she says. “You won’t get anyplace till you stop thinking about it.”
Rather than spend another dull evening at home, she tells him she still has some money saved, so they can go out, saying, “Dinner’s on me tonight.” But he tells her that they are eating at home. She says she is going out by herself in that case. As she starts to leave, he grabs her and jerks her around, forcibly holding her by both arms, saying, “You’re not going. You’ll eat what I cook.”
Now, we could interpret this scene as one showing how a soldier returning home from war was likely to lose his temper as a result of PTSD, so that even though he is in the wrong to insist on having his way about everything, and physically abusing her when she won’t obey, we should be understanding and sympathetic. Perhaps Fred is in denial about what he needs in the way of rehabilitation. On the other hand, one suspects that this may not be how people were supposed to react to this scene in 1946. Rather, they might have thought that Fred was in the right and perfectly justified in physically forcing her to stay home and do what he says. At this distance, though, it’s hard to tell.
We have the same trouble interpreting another scene that occurred earlier. While Fred is working as a soda jerk one night, with Homer sitting at the counter, another customer starts popping off about how we were duped into fighting the war, saying we fought the wrong people. Needless to say, it is tactless and insensitive to tell a veteran, especially one whose hands have been replaced by hooks, that his sacrifice was in vain. Homer becomes angry and rips a flag pin off the man’s lapel and starts pushing him, at which point they start struggling. Fred jumps over the counter, and we think he is just going to break it up, as he should. Instead, he punches the man so hard that he crashes through a glass counter. Granted, Fred and Homer were provoked, but verbal provocation does not justify the use of physical force. If this happened today, Fred would have been arrested and charged with assault. More importantly, though, we would probably want to make allowances for his violent reaction, thinking it was an expression of PTSD. But punching people in the movies in the old days was usually accepted as justified and praiseworthy, provided it was done by someone good-looking like Dana Andrews. In other words, whereas we today we would regard Fred’s behavior as the result of his psychological problems, back when this movie was made, audiences probably thought what he did was healthy and clean. In any event, the only thing that happens to Fred is that Mr. Thorpe, the store manager, fires him.
Speaking of Mr. Thorpe, in order to get a job working in that drugstore, which in many ways is more like a department store, Fred was interviewed by him. During the interview, we see Thorpe repeatedly using a nasal inhaler. I have seen this in other movies, such as Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), where Gary Merrill plays a gangster that is always using an inhaler. In another movie, one I can’t recall the name of, we see a man furtively using an inhaler, suspiciously looking to one side and then the other. In all these instances, I always had the feeling there was supposed to be something sleazy about what they were doing, but I never knew why. I thought to myself, “The guy has an allergy. So what?” Years later, I found out that inhalers used to have Benzedrine in them, so these characters are giving themselves a little amphetamine kick with each sniff. Therefore, if you see someone using a nasal inhaler in a movie made in the 1940s or 1950s, you are supposed to have a low opinion of him. When the interview with Thorpe is over, Fred tells him to “take care of that cold,” obviously being sarcastic.
I don’t know much about the military, but it seems strange that Fred, who grew up in the poor part of town, and who was a soda jerk before the war, became an officer; while Al, a bank executive, whose family lives in a swanky apartment, and who presumably had a college education, ended up as an enlisted man. I suppose such things happened. But the purpose of writing the story this way was to emphasize the egalitarian nature of the war, where one’s social status as a civilian could be upended in the armed forces, and then upended again after the war. It was also important that there be at least one officer among the three men, and at least one enlisted man. Had all three men been officers, the movie might have seemed elitist; had all three of them been enlisted men, the movie might have come across as populist. Moreover, while officers and enlisted men are not allowed to fraternize while in the service, the fact that these three men can be friends as civilians is a further way to emphasize American egalitarianism.
Anyway, all Thorpe is willing to offer Fred is a low-paying job as a sales clerk, who will be expected to work the soda fountain some of the time. “The war is over,” he tells Fred, a common refrain in those days by civilians who were tired of veterans acting as if they were entitled to special consideration.
Al is much luckier. Mr. Milton (Ray Collins), the president of the bank where he used to work, wants him back. After offering Al a cigar, Milton talks about how hard it’s been getting good cigars during the war, and how business conditions are uncertain, owing to strikes and ruinous taxes. But he offers Al a promotion to vice president in charge of small loans, explaining that he will be valuable to the bank, owing to his ability to understand the needs of the veterans returning home from the war.
That sounds good, but the first person to come to the bank asking for a loan is a veteran that wants to buy a farm, but who has no collateral. The fact that he wants to buy a farm tells us that he should get the loan, owing to the myth surrounding the yeoman farmer and his basic goodness, the backbone of America. At first, Al’s prewar habits of sound banking make him reluctant. But then he sees Homer in the bank cashing his disability check. This reminds him that a lot of veterans need help, so he approves of the loan. But when it is reported to Mr. Milton, he reprimands Al:
We do have a desire to extend a helping hand to returning veterans when possible. But we must all remember that this is not our money we’re doling out. It belongs to our depositors, and we can’t gamble with it.
Al promises not to do it again.
As for his family life, Al has been married for twenty years to Milly (Myrna Loy), with whom he has an adult daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) and a son in high school. He arrives home, somewhat unexpectedly, and so after the usual hugs and kisses, Milly calls her friend to explain why they won’t be coming over for dinner that night, saying, “Alice, this is Milly. I’m terribly sorry, but we can’t be over.” We see Al look at her with an irritated expression on his face. But then Milly reverses herself, saying, “I mean, I’m terribly happy,” explaining that Al has just come home. I see nothing wrong with her use of the word “sorry” in explaining why she has to break a dinner engagement. It’s just a manner of speaking. Again, we have a situation that is hard to interpret all these years later. Should we regard Al’s anger sympathetically on account of the trauma he suffered during the war, that he too is in denial about his need for rehabilitation? Or is that just too twenty-first century? One suspects that the 1946 audience thought Milly was wrong to use the word “sorry,” and that Al’s anger was justified.
The weakest parts of the movie are the drunk scenes, especially the one at a bar that is owned by Butch Engle (Hoagy Carmichael), who is Homer’s uncle. He sells liquor, but he never lets Homer have any, lecturing him on the curse of drink. He lets Homer have beer only, not the whiskey that Homer wants. However, Al and his family show up there on his first night since he got back, and so does Fred. These two men get drunk. I think this is supposed to illustrate the way a lot of veterans tried to cope with their war experiences by turning to drink, but if so, they should have made it clear that this was a bad thing, just as Butch claimed. Instead, as was the case with so many movies made in those days, their drunk behavior is supposed to be cute, and the scene is played for laughs. It goes on way too long, and then it is followed by the obligatory hangover scene, which is played for laughs too.
At the beginning of the movie, when the three men first manage to get on a flight heading home, they pass over a graveyard of bombers, brand new, fresh from the factory, but no longer needed now that the war is over. They are symbolic of the country’s attitude toward veterans, no longer needed. Toward the end of the movie, Fred decides to leave town by catching a flight at the airport where all the junk bombers are. While waiting for his flight, he climbs into a bomber like the one he used to fly, possibly reminiscing about a time when he felt useful and needed. A foreman tells him to get out of the plane. Fred finds out from him that they are going to use the material from the planes for building prefabricated houses (houses for veterans, no doubt). He asks for a job and gets it.
This is much better than the humiliating job he had at the drugstore because it is manual labor, which has the cachet of being good, honest work. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be regarded in the movies. He tells Peggy, with whom he has fallen in love and will eventually marry, that he is now in the junk business, “An occupation for which many people feel I’m well qualified, by temperament and training.”
It is to be noted, by the way, that Fred is content with his situation, that he apparently has been “rehabilitated,” now that he has a good job and the prospect of marrying Peggy. There is no scene, in other words, in which Fred seeks counseling for the mental problems that Marie was worried about. It would seem that while the movie does acknowledge the stress that war can have on a man, even after the war is over, it is not something we need to worry about. As long as a veteran is in good shape physically, his only real problems are economic, getting a job or a loan, and domestic, having to do with marriage and family.
The romance between Fred and Peggy began while he was still married, before Marie said she was going to get a divorce. Peggy visits him at the drugstore where he is selling perfume and lotion for women, definitely a degrading job for a man by 1946 standards. They agree to have lunch, which they do at a nearby restaurant. It is Lucia’s, an Italian place where friendly people speak broken English with Italian accents. It is easy to dismiss this as incidental, as it would be in real life. But this is a movie, and it would not have been filmed except with deliberation. It really is interesting how many movies that were produced back then, both during and after the war, that went out of their way to show that Italians were basically good people: those living in Italy were just misled by Mussolini, and Italian-Americans were always patriotic. No need to have concentration camps for them as we did with Japanese-Americans. And, of course, it would have been out of the question to see Fred and Peggy eating sausage and sauerkraut at a German restaurant.