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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

 

The second scene at Butch’s occurs later when Al asks Fred to stay away from Peggy. He likes Fred, but sees no future in it. Besides he’s married and Peggy is too young to know what she’s getting into. It is a father protecting his daughter.

It is a tense scene with the emotions just under the surface. The conversation here is direct and painful. At one point Fred is unable to look Al in the eye and stares vacantly at the tabletop. Already relying on shaky self-esteem, he understands that Al doesn’t think he’s good enough for Peggy. Facing a hard sobering truth, Fred can’t escape the fact that his own life is a mess. Al, a decent and fine man in his own right, feels like a heel, leaving the viewer sympathizing with both characters.  

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Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland use deep focus photography to close this scene with a remarkable shot of Fred in the far background, calling Peg from a corner phone booth to break it off. In the foreground, Al pretends to listen to Homer playing the piano with his hooks, but his attention is on Fred—just like the viewer’s. Because everyone has either made such a call or been on the receiving end of one, the scene is particularly personal, poignant, and effective. 

Another memorable scene has Fred planning to leave town to find other work after he has been fired from the drugstore. Without Peggy he has no reason to stay in Boone City. He walks dejectedly through an airfield as he waits for his transport. It is littered with abandoned bombers. Like their pilots, the machines are no longer needed and are ready for the scrap heap. Fred climbs into the nose bubble of a B-17 and momentarily goes into a trance, again reliving the horrors of war. Nine-time Oscar nominee Hugo Friedhofer wrote the film score, which here is appropriately dramatic.

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Teresa Wright as Peggy Stephenson.

The film ends with a marriage and the promise of another. Homer has accepted Wilma’s love, and the entire cast gathers for the ceremony. Again Director Wyler works wonders with misdirection and deep focus photography. As the wedding couple exchange vows and Homer deftly slips the ring on Wilma’s finger using his hooks, Fred and Peggy gaze at each other across the room, oblivious to what else is happening.

By now Fred has a new job and is divorced. The young couple move to embrace and kiss. Knowing that they’ll face a tough life ahead they profess their love to one another.   

The success and effectiveness of the film is more than the sum of its parts. It draws the viewer in completely, giving the sensation of watching real people instead of actors, struggling with everyday problems. The acting throughout is outstanding. March and Russell won Oscars but any of the leads could have. It is Andrews’ best performance. Number 37 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American Films, it belongs higher.

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