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Monday, February 20, 2023

Canon Fire #3

Among the One-Hundred: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) --- Part One

Pictures great enough can stand a frisk because no way does that make them less great. The Best Years of Our Lives might aptly have been called The Best Picture of Our Time, as that was how most regarded it. For our time of course, Best can at most be a Better among historic artifacts and maybe entertain in the bargain, so long as we are aware there was an event called World War Two and men who had issues returning from same. Who’s left to say how authentic Best Years was, yet for most years of mine, there were plenty, if fewer as I went, who lived drama of postwar for themselves, links to maintain Best Years relevancy. Now we’re upon 2023 and Best Years is better company to The Big Parade or even Gone With the Wind for experiences few if anyone living can first-run recall, at least recall in terms of having served their country as characters in the film do. We’re losing even those youngest when Best Years bowed, to be thirteen if you saw it new making you ninety this year. The Best Years of Our Lives must stand then on merit as drama of a period remote to virtually all, us late-born to elect how “real” it portrays turbulent time of gone lives. Being thought true was success Years achieved, gross second only to GWTW, and playing “free” streaming platforms everywhere it seems, lately at You Tube, also among Amazon souvenirs, them in receipt of the Goldwyn library midst swag of MGM buy-out by the media/discount/peep-into-lives by “Alexa,” monolith. Friend was awakened at 2 am by soft voice of “Echo Dot” (some being overheard now call her “Ziggy”) which said simply, “Someone is at your side door.” Him w/ Glock accompany found nothing amiss, but full awake and alert, slept no more that night (cause of issue: a spider had nested in his sensor device).

But let’s speak of The Best Years of Our Lives, compelling from start where “Fred Derry” (Dana Andrews) seeks a plane ticket to “Boone City,” fictitious berg if ever there was one. Plenty of Boones, one up foothills from me in fact, but no record of a Boone City I can Google-locate. Was there discussion of Best Years set in Cincinnati or maybe Detroit? That would have obliged location cost, at least for a second unit, plus loss of “Anywhere, USA” the object of drama. Fred wants a ticket to mythic spot, but no flight goes there, not noteworthy by itself, but then comes “George H. Gibbons,” played by known menacer of comedians and cowboys Ralph Sanford, forty-seven in ‘46 so having served or not is no issue. Mr. Gibbons has luggage sixteen pounds over limit, plus his golf clubs. “That’s alright,” he says to the clerk, “How much is it?” There is apprehension via Sanford/Gibbons that director plus writer (Wm. Wyler and Robert E. Sherwood) are setting up for class-war, but thankfully it’s a false alarm, as Mr. Gibbons is benign, and we won’t see him again. Were Wyler/Sherwood riffing on social issue seekers? Fred making way to a military cargo ride must walk under a plane as passengers board, his kind of hero deserving first to be accommodated, but won’t be here. Returning vets lost in a crowd is early among points Best Years strongly makes.

The Best Years of Our Lives
was both brave and caught a public’s readiness for wartime disability spoke on blunt terms. Everyone knew someone affected, few coming back entirely whole from oversea service. Fred Derry has his PTSD, an issue but not a consuming one, while Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) uses hooks rather than hands, real-life condition for Russell. This, or rather these, made Years a must-see, for no such conditions had been emphasized by movies before, curiosity drawing millions that might pass otherwise. No one had to feel guilty as with content to exploit misfortune, for Homer is one-of-us in all ways other, Russell the actor to be admired much as a fictional character he plays. His may be to modern taste the best performance among all too obvious actors beside him, this manifest in “reaction” contrived at seeing Homer use his hooks, awkward for respective takes differing, but thuds still, any response to some degree overdone. Tableau of Homer’s family plus sweetheart Cathy O’Donnell standing awkward as he waves goodbye to Fred and Al Stephenson (Fredric March) is mosaic of actor choices, none quite right, a group not used to play-pretend opposite a colleague equipped more potent than any prop or costume they might rely upon. We flinch when Homer drops a glass of lemonade on den carpet and a whole roomful does respective looks of despair. Russell as Homer not intentionally confers his disability upon body, whole bodies, of castmates, exception Fredric March who from start plays low-key opposite the hooks.

Nice moment aloft, the trio looking through picture window nose upon deep-focus landscape taking them home. Fred notes setting as former “office” during combat, time spent on his knees targeting sites below. Al asks if kneed position meant praying, to which Fred laughs “Yeah,” this leaving me to speculate on how many servicemen got (and kept) so-called “foxhole religion” during a long war where life was constantly under threat. Did a generation come home Christian-renewed, and did this strengthen US religious observance for at least a few decades to come? It’s a small moment to speak paragraphs if not pages, and sure it awoke feelings among 1946-47 viewership. We look at The Best Years of Our Lives as artifact … they decidedly did not. Here was where “More Than Just a Movie” applied, critics sensitive as a paying public to overarching mood. To rap Best Years would have seemed not just unpatriotic, but inhumane. Hesitation at re-entering homes is well-captured, the three as happy to visit “Butch’s Place,” local saloon where off-duty revels of recent memory can be recaptured. Here was comfort zone for returning vets, Butch’s a spot where comradery is renewed with men who understand convulsive ordeal four years at war was. Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) is Homer’s uncle, protective to a point of not letting his nephew have liquor, drawing beer for him instead. Did Butch forget Homer was anything but the boy who left home and high school to enter hell experienced since?

Al has brought souvenirs home to give his son, but “Rob,” having been taught at school about Japanese culture, takes differing view of war his father fought. There is something distasteful for Rob in how Dad came by his gifts. The high schooler hardly wants a sword or flag decorated by family signatures his father “found on a dead Jap soldier.” He’ll school Pop instead on “importance of family relationships” among the Japanese, to which Al almost throwaway replies, “Yeah, entirely different from us,” in its understated way a most devastating line in the film. Rob is shaming Al, if mildly, with his casual attitude toward the relics. He’d rather know if his father observed “effect of radioactivity of people who survived the blast,” leaving Dad again on a limb, “I saw nothing” the latter’s limp reply. Did this understated exchange sum up gap to evolve between fathers who fought and sons they’d come home to, issues engaged more explicitly by the sixties? Rob stayed home and so absorbed nuance re the enemy, but who taught him along these lines? 4-F teachers, slackers maybe, radicals like “Mr. Mollett” (Ray Teal) that Fred Derry will later encounter at the drug store soda fountain? Al and Rob’s reunion amounts to troubled portent, an only extended scene they’ll share, but pregnant with differences to air as postwar life settles into routine. “Rehabilitation” Fred refers to on the plane will not be so simple as he and other vets hope, for civilians, including family, expect soldier attitudes to conform with stateside notion as to why we fought and reward we may enjoy, or guilt we must bear, for doing so.

Al in drunken revelry and dancing with wife Milly lets cats out of his bag by jocular remark that “in a way, you remind me of my wife … the little wife back in the states.” Were Milly like millions of wives with returned husbands watching The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946-47, she might raise holy hell over remarks like these, drunk Al or not, kidding or not, for might this be truth slipped out because he’s drunk, thus tipping her off to what went on in Europe? As Myrna Loy was everyone’s concept of the perfect wife, Al can coast aboard party atmosphere at Butch’s, but what might Milly ponder when it’s 3:30 in the morning, her beside a sleeping-it-off husband? Women with mates long overseas had to face fact of most having strayed, 1946 early for movies to turn that card face up, but they’d get round to it, Homecoming in 1948 with Clark Gable relieving battle fatigue with Lana Turner as spouse Anne Baxter waits by the hearth, or Gregory Peck siring a child with an Italian mistress unbeknownst to Jennifer Jones back home (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, 1956). Men in stateside stress might give way the farm even in dreams. What if Fred asleep with wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) blurted assignation during leaves rather than planes burning and whether “Kudowski” bails out? We learn later how hep Marie is to likelihood Fred frisked while abroad, but by that time, what does she care? When Fred wakes up in Peggy’s bed (Teresa Wright), having been lent same by the Stephensons, he checks to see if money is still in his pocket, as servicemen knew danger of being rolled by short-term playmates. Fred like Al likely as not got around during their war, but how would wives get wise, short of thoughtless or unconscious confession on a spouse’s part?

Romance of PTSD is captured on intoxicating terms by Fred helpless with delirium and Peggy at his bedside giving tender assist. This all is intensely intimate, more so than anything movies had let happen between an unmarried couple in night apparel and close together on Code terms. Peggy soothes Fred, strokes his hair, mops his face and brow as he comes down from burning aircraft of troubled sleep. This is the moment where she falls in love with him. We’re told of pin-ups or ideals back home, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth summing those up to fantasy's point, but none had what Teresa Wright did as dream come truest for servicemen now that they were back and facing reality of loved ones glad for the reunion but never to interact on prewar terms again. Peggy understands and is sympathetic. Hers would have been a high standard for wives and sweethearts, anyone of families, to meet. It is here too that we realize Fred’s marriage is doomed, not just for Peggy being introduced, but because we’ve learned enough of Marie to suspect a lack of character and empathy. Why does she work and live alone? And why isn’t she at her apartment so very late at night? Knowing Virginia Mayo for glam so far her screen ID, we gird for a wife no good, or barely so. Marie is seen first rolling out of bed as Fred rings her buzzer, unaware it’s him (or Steve Cochran’s “Cliff” back early?). Mayo’s laziest-girl-in town exit from rumpled sheets is gesture she’ll duplicate for White Heat three years later, minus Warners dub-in snore to make coarse image complete. Marie is not a girl Fred will be happy with past a first couple weeks wearing out the mattress.

Part Two of The Best Years of Our Lives is HERE.


Blogger MikeD said...

Just asking cause I don't know the answer, but would the Army ship scrapped B-52s to Cincinnati or Detroit? That scrap yard (and maybe the 6th Avenue bridge behind Fred's dad's
shack) always put the location in LA area for me due to the logistics of getting all those planes in one spot.

8:39 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Simply getting home was indeed an issue. In "Back Home", newly civilian cartoonist Bill Mauldin had a drawing of a couple in a train's dining car seeing a GI riding atop a freight car on the parallel track. In the text Mauldin growled about railroads eagerly putting paying civilians ahead of the flood of returning soldiers; many of the latter resorted to hopping freights hobo style.

Many of Mauldin's early postwar cartoons centered on Willie and Joe adjusting in big ways and small. Willie out with wife and child; wife pouts "I was hoping you'd wear your soldier suit so I could be proud of you." Mrs. Willie holds a shirt at arm's length while he protests "I've only worn it a week." Willie walks out of a war movie in a cold sweat, demanding a refund (I think I sent you that one). The tone ranges from light gags to outrage.

One that's in the Fantagraphics collection but I don't remember in the original book: Willie and his wife scowling at each other in bed. Willie says, "Don't git so huffy -- You talked in your sleep, too ..."

2:57 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Your Canon fascinates me. You started off with CITIZEN KANE which just seemed so weirdly obvious. But then it became (in my eyes, anyway) a trap you had set for us, because HOT SATURDAY was next. A nice movie but so utterly unlikely and unexpected. Now #3 is back at the mountaintop with BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and I'm trying to figure what you might have planned for us at #4. KING KONG VS. GODZILLA? Can't wait to find out.

10:45 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey Rick, I could almost go with KK Vs. G were I driven more by sentiment, though rest assured there are titles coming up in the Canon very much driven by personal bias if not inherent quality of the films.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Tommy G. said...

My late father and I watched THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES annually, for decades. Dad was a navy veteran (11 battles in the south pacific) and the only times I saw him cry was when we watched this film (and when mom passed away.) Mom told me years ago that he didn't sleep well for seven or so years after the war, fighting battles at night while he slept. She often added, the next to the last day of the three years he spent aboard The Heavy Cruiser, USS Portland, had affected him terribly. His best pal aboard ship was machine gunned off CA-33 by a Kamikaze. I think his therapy for coping was our annual ritual, and the night he passed, it became mine ritual to cope with his passing by viewing it again. I found a pamphlet the Navy gave him when he left the service. Ten pages regarding "how to adjust to civilian life." Spartan words and his human will kept him in good spirits until his last days. He returned to the engine room and screamed orders to invisible co-horts. He died one month shy of 92. I will watch TBYOOL again this Memorial Day. Thank you for this blog entry, and Non sebe sed patriae!

11:38 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Hugo Friedhofer's score is one of the most beautiful of the 1940s. Marlon Brando loved it enough to hire him to compose the score for "One Eyed Jacks."

6:47 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Best Years may be a great film but it's a movie in which a character disappears without any explanation. I'm referring to Rob Stephenson, son of Al and Milly.

I can't recall exactly when he vanishes but he's nowhere to be seen in the film's final quarter. That even applies to the wedding at the end in which almost the entire cast of characters shows up. That is with the exception of Rob.

"Hey, Al," someone might ask Stephenson as he reaches for his sixth drink, "Where's Rob?"

"Who?" Al might slur back as daughter Peggy makes continued eye contact with Fred Derry.

Perhaps the final victory, though, was that of little remembered Michael Hall, who played Rob. He was, to the best of my knowledge, the last surving cast member of BYOOL, passing away at 92 three years ago. A shame his film character just disappears, though, without anyone even noticing he was missing.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I've seen this film; I'll only add that Frederic March has been good in everything I've seen him in (so far).

10:44 AM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

My dad (an Army Air Corps vet from WWII), always commented on the irony that March was a Sergeant and went back to being a bank VP, while Andrews was a Captain and could only get a job as a soda jerk.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Mr. Ferry's father pointed something out in the comparison of the two characters that I had never noticed before - but thinking about it now, I'm certain that many if not all of the first-time viewers of this film during its cinema run, due to their own personal experiences of those times, would have also noticed that aspect in the comparison of the two characters.
It goes to show how difficult it can be to appreciate films in the same way they were appreciated by their first viewers, as people must unavoidably bring their own personal experiences to the cinema; and the nature of those common personal experiences familiar to all or most people inevitably change over time.
Old films in this sense can become stranger with every passing day.

7:41 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

Michael Hall explained that his contract with producer Sam Goldwyn expired before production on BEST YEARS was completed, and Goldwyn was unwilling to spend the money to keep Hall on to finish the picture.

3:24 PM  

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