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, 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 our twenty-first century perspective makes us wonder just how we are supposed to interpret things, since attitudes were different when this movie was made. 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. Since he had been unable to find a good-paying job, they ended up stuck in a small, one-bedroom apartment, not going anywhere. One night, rather than spend another dull evening at home, she said she still had some money saved, so they could 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, 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. However, one suspects that this is not how people were supposed to react to this scene in 1946. Rather, they probably 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, telling a veteran, especially one whose hands have been replaced by hooks, that his sacrifice was in vain is ill advised. Homer rips a flag pin off the man’s lapel and 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 who was tall and 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, 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 I can’t recall the name of, we see a man furtively using an inhaler, looking to one side and then the other. In all these instances, I always had the feeling there was supposed to be something wrong with 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 these 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. 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.
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 coming in to cash his disability check. This makes him realize that a lot of veterans need help, so he approves of the loan. But when Mr. Milton finds out about it, he admonishes Al, telling him never again to lend out money without collateral.
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. Again, we have a situation that is hard to interpret from all these years later. I see nothing wrong with her use of the word “sorry” in explaining why she has to break a dinner invitation. It’s just a manner of speaking. And so the question arises, were people watching this movie when it first came out supposed to think Milly spoke inappropriately, or that Al was just being paranoid, the result of the stress of all those years of combat?
The weakest parts of the movie are the drunk scenes, especially the one at Butch’s place. Butch Engle (Hoagy Carmichael) is Homer’s uncle. He sells liquor, but he never let Homer have any, lecturing him on the curse of drink. He lets Homer have beer only, not whiskey, which is what he wanted. However, Al and his family show up there one night, and so does Fred. The 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 in 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.
When the three men first manage to get on a flight heading home at the beginning of the movie, 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. 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.”
The romance between Fred and Peggy begins while he is still married. She visits him at the drugstore where he is selling perfume and lotion for women, and they agree to have lunch, which they do at a nearby restaurant. It is Lucia’s, an Italian place where 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 during and just after the war 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.
The movie is not unaware of the mental problems that returning soldiers might have, 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.” Later in the movie, when Fred and Marie are arguing because Fred hasn’t been able to find a job, Marie suddenly 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.
If this movie were made today about a veteran returning from some war in Middle East, I would think Fred was in denial, that Marie was right to be concerned about his mental health. But this movie seems to be suggesting that the soldiers are just fine mentally, and Fred’s only problem is that he cannot find a decent job. In fact, right after Al made that remark saying he hoped no one would try to rehabilitate him, Fred says, “All I want’s 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. So, while the movie takes seriously the need of men like Homer, with their physical injuries, to be rehabilitated, it is contemptuously dismissive of any so-called mental health issues, saying the only problems veterans have that are physically whole are mostly economic, and occasionally domestic, as in the case of an unfaithful wife.