100 Days, 100 Movies: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Sorry we had a little hiatus. I just got a promotion at work (day job) and this was my first week in the new position so things were a big hectic. Anyway, on we merrily go with my mission to watch 100+ of the movies on the AFI Top 100 American films of all time (up to 2007).

Today I watched The Best Years of Our Lives. #37 on both the 1998 list and the 2007 one. Interesting that the film didn’t move any slots, eh?

I hadn’t heard of this film before I started my AFI project, and when I sat down to watch it all I knew was that the adorable Myrna Loy was in it and it featured real-life amputee Harold Russell in one of the lead roles.

Here’s the plot synopsis from imdb for anybody else like me who’s never heard of this wonderful movie:

“Three WWII veterans return home to small-town America to discover that they and their families have been irreparably changed.”

blog 1(This poster really sucks, and has absolutely squat to do with the actual movie)

The three vets in question are Sgt. Al Stephenson, who was in the infantry during the war and is a well-off banker back at home. Captain Fred Derry was an ace bomber with a pin-up for a wife during the war, but now at home he’s a broke soda jerk in an unhappy marriage . Lastly, we follow sailor, Homer Parrish, who was a star athlete at home but lost both his hands at the wrist to a fire during the war.

Al is trying to adjust to peacetime, to being back with his loving family, going to his boring deskjob, trying to fit back into a life he can barely remember. Fred is likewise having problems going from being “an officer and a gentleman” in the Air Force to just another out of work bum at home. And Homer…Homer just wants “to be treated like everyone else.” And yet he can’t quite bring himself to reach out to Wilma, the girl he left behind. He doesn’t believe she would want to be with him anymore.

This film is very moving. It made me miss my grandfather. He was a WWII vet, and he died when I was just a baby so I never got to know him at all. It’s an odd feeling to miss someone you’ve never met…I think that’s part of why this film is a classic–because it touches you so deeply. The story is very simple, maybe even bordering on melodramatic at times. But you feel for these people, the soldiers, their loved ones. You want them so desperately to be happy, to be all right. I wept like a baby at the ending. From relief. From happiness. The moment where Homer puts the ring on his bride’s hand and the whole congregation is holding their breath and you, the audience, are holding your breath. And then the ring is on, and he smiles, and they kiss. God, so incredible.

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I can’t remember the last time a movie got to me like this. The sense of hope in this is just marvelous. But you also get a sense of the cost the veterans have to pay, the difficulties they face. The beginning of the film focuses on this more than the ending (which is a little rushed), but by the end you are rooting for these guys so much it’s hard to want to see them suffer anymore. (Can I just say how amazing it is to watch Harold Russell? He’s so dexterous with his hooks, and when you think about the training, the patience it must have taken him to learn and be able to do all the things he does…It’s incredible.)

I would say the film does get the slightest bit didactic/preachy at times in a “These are our boys. They fought for us. Honor them” kind of way, but I don’t really fault it for that because it’s a worthy message, and those scenes are only a few moments in an otherwise affecting, effective and, yes, entertaining film. Besides, in 1946 I think America probably needed a movie like this, needed a character like Homer to show that the disabled vets were still people, that they could still live normal lives. That they were capable.

I did have a slight problem with how in the middle Homer became a bit of a story catalyst instead of a character. What I mean is, in the middle, his story didn’t really move forward, but he kept showing up and just by virtue of his presence and the very physical reminder of his service, the other two main characters were motivated to take action.  But, there again, the beginning and the ending gave Homer such juicy, meaningful scenes I’ll let that minor quibble slide.  Still: always give your characters agency. Having them doing things, not inspiring others to do things.blog 2

The love story in this is also really well structured. Al’s daughter Peggy falls for Fred, but Fred had one of those hasty war marriages and now he’s stuck with a very unsympathetic harpy for a wife. This is one of the parts that could have crossed over into melodrama land, except the characters are so reasonable throughout. They confide in people, they try to be straight with each other. I thought this subplot was handled very well, and the conflict of it appealed to me. If only Fred had waited to get home he would have found the perfect girl waiting for him. I might steal this subplot for one of my own stories if I can figure out how to work it in.

Overall, I really liked this movie. It’s over two and a half hours long, but it didn’t seem that long. It felt like a “small” movie actually, intimate, tightly plotted. I think everyone should see this film to get an idea of the sort of trials our troops go through and just how much thanks we owe them for their duty and service.

What did I learn from this movie? Probably the focus on characters. We get a long intro where we follow each soldier on his way home. They all end up on the same plane together and they share stories and cigarettes. Then, on the ground, one by one each man gets out of the taxi they’re sharing and goes in to see what his welcome will be like at home. By the end of that segment we are very firmly attached to these guys, rooting for them. So, again: take the time to set up your characters, invest the audience in them, and your film will have that much more of an emotional punch.

Can I see why this movie has become a classic? Yes. And again I say, in utter seriousness, I think this is a film that everyone should see. Maybe if you only watch one of these “classic” films on the list…watch this one.

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Favorite part(s)? All the Homer scenes. My God. Harold Russell got not one but two Oscars for his performance and he wasn’t a professional actor.  As Wikipedia tells the story, “the Academy Board of Governors considered him a long shot to win [Best Supporting Actor], they gave him an honorary award ‘for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance’. When Russell won Best Supporting Actor, there was an enthusiastic response. He is the only actor to have received two Academy Awards for the same performance.”

He deserved the Oscar. Both of them. I already mentioned the wedding scene, but the other really beautiful moment with Homer is when his childhood sweetheart Wilma comes over, trying to convince him one last time that she loves him and wants a life with him. He asks her to go upstairs with him so she can see what her life would be like with him, what she’ll have to deal with. He takes his bathrobe off and for the first time she (and we, the audience) see the braces on his arms, the socks he wears over his stumps. He expects her to reject him and instead she embraces him. He’s still Homer. She still loves him. Ah. It’s manipulative as hell to the audience because we know the girl’s not going to reject him. But still, it got me. But the really great moment is after she leaves and he’s lying in bed alone we see Homer silently crying in bed. He didn’t believe it could be true until that moment. And then we get the wedding and then the crying. Really powerful stuff, and so well done.

See this movie! Seriously!

Overall Rating: **** (I really liked the film. I loved the Homer storyline.)

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One thought on “100 Days, 100 Movies: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

  1. Pingback: 100 Days, 100 Movies: The Beginning | Beth Matthews

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