The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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*. Was it likely that anyone in 1946 was going to say something bad about this movie? Wouldn’t being negative be un-American?
*. Audiences duly trooped to see it. The Academy Awards fell over themselves trying to honour it (Harold Russell, a non-actor, holds a special distinction for being the only actor to win two Oscars for the same role). And yet to say, as Pauline Kael did, that this is “not a great picture” is an understatement.
*. Fleshing her thoughts out a bit, Kael notes in carefully balanced judgment that “episodes and details stand out and help to compensate for the soggy plot strands, and there’s something absorbing about the banality of its large-scale good intentions; it’s compulsively watchable.” I’m hesitant to agree even with this. It’s a movie that’s far less compulsively watchable today, in my opinion, than a lot of others from the same period.
*. To put the worst first: It’s very long and very simply and predictably plotted, which means it’s dull; the entire cast is guilty of over-acting; there are scenes that are now so dated they are inappropriately and unintentionally hilarious; and it takes all of the problematic issues it deals with and resolves them with a wave of the Hollywood whimsy-wand.
*. On the plus side: The staging makes really effective use of deep focus photography (by Gregg Toland), and there are moments (some of the best in the film) when the trio’s cool reception home is illustrated very subtly. With regard to the latter point, I like the way a scene’s attention sometimes drifts away from our heroes; for example, to the man who wants to take extra luggage on the flight, or the desk clerk at Fred’s apartment who wants to deal with someone else.
*. Is this pre-Vietnam War syndrome? The return from WW2 is usually remembered as “hail the conquering heroes!” on a grand scale, but aside from their immediate family the three main characters here meet a discouraging welcome. They are resented and looked down upon, and there’s even a political figure who tells them they were fighting the wrong war before Fred and Homer go all Rambo on his un-American ass (an act of patriotic dignity that gets Fred fired).

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*. But perhaps the syndrome goes back even further. The trio of vets from the trenches of WW1 don’t do so well in The Roaring Twenties either. But at least they could become gangsters. There were opportunities in the 1920s.
*. In this cruel world, where can a wounded man find comfort? Only at home, with the love of a good woman who is essentially a mother figure. Of course Wilma is prepared to become Homer’s nurse, even helping him dress for bed (after he’s had a glass of milk), and tucking him in. But he is disabled, and admits he is as dependent as a baby. Peggy is a trained nurse too, and has been taking home economic courses and is also ready to put Fred to bed, calm him when he has nightmares, and cook him a delicious breakfast when he gets up. Mother Milly, for her part, will watch over poor Al’s drinking with a concerned eye (Roger Ebert calls it “superhuman understanding”), and also do the breakfast-in-bed routine (instead of a lecture he gets “royally treated”). Surely, we are told, the way to integrate these men back into society is to place them in kindly domestic cocoons.

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*. It seems a bold move to have plucky Peggy declare — to her parents, no less! — that she’s in love with the married Fred and that she’s “going to break that marriage up!” Making this scene even worse is her parents’ declaration of how often they’ve hated each other but have always managed to work things out, which makes Peggy cry. This is one of those unintentionally funny parts I mentioned.
*. If only Wyler could have left well enough alone. But he keeps overplaying his hand. I like the first kiss between Fred and Peggy, jammed together between parked cars. But it’s ruined right away by a cut to her long, wilting look after he pulls away. There are a lot of bad and unnecessary reaction shots like this sprinkled throughout, as though Wyler doesn’t trust the script or the actors to do their thing without some extra help.

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*. And finally there’s the resolution, with that wave of the wand of Hollywood whimsy. Al is an irresponsible drunk, but I guess will be allowed to keep going on in his comfortable job at the bank. Perhaps Mr. Milton will put someone over him just to keep an eye on him and veto any of his bad loans. Homer can fire his rifle in his garage and do his novelty piano act at Butch’s bar while Wilma nurses him. And Fred has traded up, getting rid of the slutty and spendthrift Marie (Virginia Mayo) for the younger, virginal, more affluent Peggy. He even has a more manly job than selling ladies’ cosmetics now too.
*. Does this sound like a happily-ever-after ending? I am full of misgivings, and I imagine contemporary audiences were as well. Can we not imagine Homer going postal, Al bottoming out, and Fred slapping Peggy around in a few years? But as David Thomson notes, “it would have taken uncommon genius and daring at that time to sneak a view of an untidy or unresolved America past Goldwyn or the public.” And did Wyler even have such a darker view?
*. So the music soars, there’s a big kiss and a wedding, and everybody went to see it because I guess it made them feel good. It wasn’t real, but it was what people, then and now, wanted to be real. The best years of their lives are just ahead. Tomorrow is another day.

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