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Posted on Feb 13, 2008 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

The Best Years of Our Lives – Overview

By Wyatt Kingseed

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That exchange is typical of Robert Sherwood’s perfectly paced and understated screenplay. It contains no hint of melodrama, just everyday speech and emotion that puts a lump in your throat. Another lump appears when Al arrives home to surprise his family. He motions for his children to keep quiet. His wife Milly, played with grace by Myrna Loy, is in the kitchen with her back to the room, talking over her shoulder. She suddenly and instinctively knows that her husband is home. She turns abruptly, they lock eyes, and no words are necessary. The viewer knows these two are deeply in love.

One of the hallmarks of the film is its open and honest treatment of disabilities. In one particularly moving moment Homer removes his prosthetics to show Wilma how helpless he is without them. He can manage to wriggle into his pajama top, but he can’t button it.

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Al is the most financially secure of the three friends. He returns to his pre-war job as a bank executive. It is a good life but everything has changed. His children have grown and he quickly finds that the nation is tired of war and wants to move on. The bank cares little that a loan applicant served his country. What matters is what kind of collateral he brings to the table.

Perhaps the character that most of the 1946 audience related to best is Fred. He is from the wrong side of the tracks and comes home to a dead-end job as a soda jerk, the same one he held before the war. With no better prospects in sight he also must deal with a philandering wife who’s not satisfied with his $32.50 weekly salary. He is a miserable. Complicating matters is his growing affection for Al’s pretty daughter Peggy, played by Teresa Wright.

In World War II servicemen hung pinups of Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth in their quarters, but it was women like Wright’s Peggy that they wanted to come home to and marry and have children. She is young, beautiful, innocent, and vulnerable. Wright burst onto the Hollywood scene five years earlier with an astounding record of early success, garnering nominations for best supporting actress in each of her first three films (she won for Mrs. Miniver). Best Years was her sixth film and she is stunning. 

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The friends gather for drinks at Butch’s (Hoagy Carmichael, top left).

Two critical scenes take place at Butch’s, a local watering hole, where on their first night in town the men find themselves, drawn for different reasons. Homer is trying to escape the unspoken grief he feels at home, Fred is looking for his missing wife, and Al is hoping that a few drinks will help numb his discomfort. Peggy and Milly serve as designated drivers as the men get soused. Again we see the loving relationship Milly shares with Al. March plays a fine drunk and his dance with Loy is quite funny. Later, when Fred passes out, Milly lets him sleep it off at their apartment. If Homer’s scars are mainly physical, Fred’s are emotional. He has a nightmare about a co-pilot burning in his crashing plane. His screams wake Peggy to comfort him. They joke about it at breakfast—Fred is embarrassed—and they begin to fall in love.

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