“On April 20, the telephone rang at the Wyler home in Los Angeles. When Talli picked it up, she heard her husband on the other end of the line, but if she had not known he was calling, she might not have recognized his voice. Wyler had cabled her that he was on his way home, but he hadn’t told her the extent of the damage to his ears—something he didn’t yet know himself. For more than a week, he had been on a ship, alone, waiting to see if he could discern any improvement. A few days into the crossing, a tiny bit of hearing had returned in his left ear, but by the time he disembarked in Boston, it was clear to him that he was not getting better, and he plunged into depression. ‘Instead of a happy voice, I heard an absolutely dead voice, toneless, without emotions, totally depressed,’ Talli said. ‘I was stunned and shocked and couldn’t imagine what had gone wrong. He sounded totally unlike himself, terribly disturbed. He talked as if his life was over, not only his career.”’
“… Wyler couldn’t bear the idea of a visit from Talli or his young daughters, and the few old friends he allowed to come to Mitchell Field to see him found a shattered man. ‘I’d never seen anybody in such a real state of horror,’ said Lillian Hellman. ‘He was sure his career was over, he would never direct again.’ They were, said Wyler, the ‘worst weeks of my life.’”
– Mark Harris, “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War”
How does home feel? And how do the women back home feel? We wonder as we watch three returning servicemen, recently acquainted and crammed together in the back seat of a taxi cab coming home from World War II. They are taking in their surroundings. They are nervous. The men are glad to be back, in a way, looking at the recognizable sites of their Midwestern town Boone City, but mostly apprehensive – worried about readjusting to civilian life, wondering what their families will think of them and wondering what they’ll think of their families. Questioning if their minds and even their souls will align with anything in “regular” life. As the older one said earlier, “The thing that scares me most is that everybody is gonna try to rehabilitate me.” To what? We’re not sure and perhaps he’s not either. These are three different men sitting in that cab with three pensive faces that all understand each other’s uneasiness – what now? And all three have women in their lives – that’s a big part of it. What is going to happen with all that? Those women they love or loved or maybe shouldn’t love? The same? Different? The youngest, the sailor, Homer, with his hands blasted off, is returning home physically changed – he knows it won’t be the same and he fears seeing his young fiancée, Wilma. He’s got hooks for hands and as dexterous and as good-natured as he is with the guys about it, he’s scared of letting her down. Or being too much for her. “Wilma’s only a kid,” he says earlier, “She’s never seen anything like these hooks.”
And so the other two men watch Homer (Harold Russell) being dropped off at his sweet middle-class home and his sweet family greeting him. Army sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March), the oldest of the three, the most well-off and the longest married, and Air Force bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), younger than Al, not well-off, married for mere weeks before he went away – they know Homer can’t hide his apprehension, or at least, what’s happened to him. It’s all right there in front of the world to see. The family excitedly embrace their returning soldier and then Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) sees him. She seems a little shy at first, how to approach, but her face is so full of love and tenderness towards Homer, she throws her arms around him, crying. She loves him and you know it. Her vulnerability and warmth is so immediate, and O’Donnell’s face so pure and giving, that you know she’ll understand Homer – you see it all in Wilma’s body language. And maybe that’s part of why Homer is scared – because Wilma is so lovely and compassionate. He’s big-hearted and lovable and brave, but at times he feels freakish, haunted. And he’s concerned that he’ll be placing her within his struggle. Her light shadowed by his darkness. You see that on his face too. Homer receives her embrace without a smile, standing stiff, arms down. It’s a remarkable, beautifully acted scene.
This is the first homecoming we witness in William Wyler’s masterpiece, The Best Years of Our Lives, homecomings that were powerfully personal to the director himself. As detailed in the excellent, essential “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War” by Mark Harris, while Wyler worked with Robert Sherwood (adapting the script from the blank verse novel “Glory for Me” by MacKinlay Kantor) the director, a World War II vet, identified. As Harris wrote:
“As they collaborated, ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ gradually evolved into Wyler’s own story. He openly identified with Al, the family man who gives up the comfort of success to go into the military and then comes back only to realize that, as Wyler put it, ‘no man can walk right into the house after two or three years and pick up his life as before.’ But Sherwood infused all three of his main characters with aspects of Wyler’s own experiences: The anger that had almost gotten him court-martialed after he threw a punch at an anti-Semite was given life in the pugnacious, hard-bitten Fred, and Homer became a repository for all of the director’s anguish about living with a disability. ‘I explained all my own fears and problems to Bob Sherwood,” he said, “and he worked them in just the way I wanted them.’”
Al’s dropped home second. Fred admires his nice digs, a swanky apartment building, and jokingly asks if he’s a bootlegger. Al reassures him it’s nothing as glamourous as all that – he’s a banker. Al walks to the door, and upon entering, shushes his excited, now grown-up kids – son, Rob (Michael Hall) and daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright) – so to not ruin the surprise for his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy). The subtle beauty and poignancy of this scene – we are not prepared for – Wyler directs with such a wonderful combination of raw emotion and gentleness that we’re almost taken aback by how much it overwhelms us. And Myrna Loy is brilliant. Her reaction to what she thinks might just be someone (she knows her husband is coming, but hadn’t expected him back quite yet), is superb silent acting: the turn of her head, the near dropping of a plate, a look of almost fear and then rapture – could it be? She walks into the hallway and they see each other from across the way — they rush to each other and embrace. Married for twenty years, these are people who have loved each other and, as they reveal to their young daughter later in the film, they have hated each other too. A real couple. In that later scene, the distraught daughter who rather childishly thinks her parents have had it perfect (she’s later in love with Fred and loathes his wife), is given a dose of real life via Milly. She underscores her point while looking at her husband: “’We never had any trouble.’ How many times have I told you I hated you and believed it in my heart? How many times have you said you were sick and tired of me; that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?” It’s a scene that’s as moving as the hallway reunion – no one has a perfect marriage and no one is coming home to a perfect wife because … that is impossible.
As Al’s with his family – a bit antsy, not sure how to relate to his son and definitely needing a drink – Fred can’t find his wife. He returns to his parent’s house, a shack by the train tracks, and they inform him his wife got an apartment and a job. When he finds her apartment he can’t get in – it’s too late. The viewer feels suspicious of her already – where’s Fred’s loving embrace from a woman? But that’s not fair to her. It’s not surprising a woman would need to work (in her case, a night club, and late, she sleeps in for reasons other than what we may think). And Fred’s being understanding too – and so he winds up at the bar Homer told him about, Butch’s, run by his uncle (played by Hoagy Carmichael), unexpectedly meeting up with both Homer and Al – Al who has charmingly taken his wife and daughter out on the town. Preoccupied Al was almost pacing around the house, unsettled, like a guy just out of jail. He’s not bored, he just needed some kind of excitement – perhaps something to blot out what he’s thinking about. He certainly needs to be lubricated. Who can blame him?
Milly sure doesn’t, even if we begin to suspect Al has a drinking problem, and she’s aware of it. I love the touch of Al out on the town with wife and daughter as he gets completely sloshed – this is his family, but these two very interesting female human beings are his friends too. It’s one of the movie’s many moments that remain so timeless – Al’s relationship with the two women in his life and that he wants them to come out. And I love how elegant, down-to-earth Loy relays so many emotions here: she’s patient when she could be exasperated, she’s amused, she’s touched, she’s loving, she’s a little worried. She’s also having fun watching her husband and his new friends get plowed (though Homer drinks only beer – Butch’s orders). She’s just so thrilled he’s home, he’s OK, he’s alive. And this continues on in the film – Loy’s calm and wit and reassurance towards her haunted but frequently amusing husband, beautifully played by March – it fills the heart with hope, but never in a cloying, easy way. Nothing is really easy in this movie.
Part of this unease is watching the times you think a drunken Al is going to step in it – especially when he gives an important speech – and he doesn’t. And Loy rushes to him – for his strength and for his vulnerability. You see that marriage isn’t just built on a strong perfect loving bond, but on all of those mistakes and regrets and fuck-ups one has forgiven. Milly understands that Al has changed since the war – or whoever he was before has awakened – but it’s with a quiet reassurance that’s never showy in neither the film’s writing nor Loy’s acting. The actors are so comfortable with one another that they feel married – which makes the moment when mother and daughter helping to haul Al and his new friend Fred, blind drunk, to bed, all the more touching and intimate. The daughter now becomes the wife Fred really came home to – soothing him in the middle of the night from a PTSD nightmare (another timeless moment of many in the picture). He may not remember it all in the morning, but they remember each other and they’ve bonded in an important moment – and that will become both an issue and a beautiful thing.
Which leads to Fred’s wife. It takes a while to catch up with her after Peggy drops him outside the apartment, sitting in the car and waiting for him to safely get inside like a fella making sure the door is closed behind you. She’s also half hoping he doesn’t get in as she’s already falling for him – a married man. Later, this “good girl” who’s not as simple as that at all, will vow to break up that marriage. It’s a fantastically layered scene — heartfelt and angry and even funny and then, in the end so utterly poignant. Peggy has made herself double date with Fred’s wife so she can wash the infatuation out of her system. But listening to Fred’s woman talk about makeup and money and whatever else, and witnessing the lack of love between them, she returns home with a mission. So much so that the “good girl” become the “femme fatale” – almost – she tells her parents: “I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to break that marriage up!” Al says, “So you’re gonna break this marriage up. Have you decided how? Are you gonna do it with an axe?”
But for now, Peggy is waiting outside, not quite yet the potential “home-wrecker,” and then Fred realizes the door is open anyway. It’s funny to him, all that buzzing and waiting outside this door that is actually open, but it’s obviously a portent of how he doesn’t really want to be there – this isn’t his place, and who is his wife? Who is she really? Fred wakes up Marie (Virginia Mayo) his hotsy-totsy blonde prize who greets him excitedly (“Oh, you’re marvelous. All those ribbons! You gotta tell me what they all mean!”) – but that thrill will be gone soon. Fred, who was a soda jerk before he left, is having a hard time finding a better job and returns to the drugstore – he’ll be an assistant to the floor manager and work part time at the soda fountain. Doesn’t matter how much he made in the Air Force and how decorated he is – how much he sacrificed for the country – the outside world doesn’t seem to care – something veterans continually feel to this day. But Marie sure likes his uniform. He’s so handsome and impressive in it. She wants her friends to see. He’d just as soon never look at it again. Marie just doesn’t get it – how can a man so handsome and impressive want to hang his uniform in the closet? And how can he make so little? Marie quits her job but misses the money and the excitement – she doesn’t want to sit at home while Fred cooks here up a can of soup. We could demonize Marie as the floozy, the awful wife, and given what Fred is going through mentally and indeed, in the real world, it’s hard to sympathize with her. But, clearly, these two should never have been married. Her sexy picture was likely more meaningful to him during the war than the woman in the flesh. And it’s not just that we suspect her of being untrue that makes us dislike her, it’s more that she bought into this dumb, glamorous notion that her hunky, decorated veteran husband would be a show piece. It’s all looks to her and, hopefully, dough. It’s this American Dream – it’s not going to work out for her in the end.
And then, soon enough a snake-in-the-grass named Cliff shows up (Steve Cochran – perfectly cast, he was also Mayo’s lover in White Heat) and Marie barely makes an effort to hide what’s going on. It’s interesting in this moment that, when Fred sees that Cliff is a fellow serviceman – it really doesn’t mean anything – maybe for a brief second, but not all of these guys want to talk or have anything to do with one another. Yes, he’s probably sleeping with his wife, but you get the sense Fred wouldn’t like this man anyway:
Fred: Another ex-serviceman, huh?
Fred: Have you had any trouble getting readjusted?
Cliff: Not in particular. It’s easy if you just take everything in your stride.
Fred: That’s what I’ve heard.
Cliff: Be seeing you.
Fred: I doubt it.
Marie, all puffed up and pissed, then says she’s getting a divorce. It’s an aggressive move, and she spits out some mean words to him, but it’s the right move. She even states the title, in a moment that seems like the world is hollering at Fred. Fred is searching. He’s trying. He’s not simply winning (to use a terrible word of the now). Marie, and the harsh, shitty, hollering world don’t like that. “I’ve given you every chance to make something of yourself!” she snaps, “I gave up my job. I gave up the best years of my life! And what have you done? You’ve flopped.” How many times has anyone depressed heard that one? And especially returning vets who are supposed to fulfill some stereotype of masculinity? “Can’t you get those things out of your system?” Marie asks. Oh, sure. That’s so easy.
He’s depressed, but he’s now able to find himself without her butting in, and that’s something. And yet, this mean recrimination from this shallow woman (you get the sense Marie might understand things better when she herself goes back into the tough side of life and Mayo offers glimpse of that under her brassy performance) is one thing that will free Fred from giving a shit about her or about the absolute importance of making it big, whatever the hell that means, or if he even cared in the first place. Why should he? This is what he should feel patriotic about? This? What he came home to? Not just this woman but everything she represents and that he should just, as she said: “snap out of it.” As played by Andrews, Fred is a little mysterious in just what he wants, and even with the challenges so obviously in front of him, making his dilemmas all the more provocative. As we’ve seen him suffer wartime nightmares, endure the indignities of the soda fountain, loss of income to the indifference of his civilian employers and co-workers, and, in a stunning culmination of all this, his tour de force flashback inside the cockpit sitting in a graveyard of bombardier planes, Fred is still a bit enigmatic. Andrews is tight lipped and manly but warm and vulnerable. Peggy saw this right away and understood. And cared. Marie did not.
The women in The Best Years of Our Lives may have been waiting and longing for their men to return, but they’re also assertive, real people. Peggy is going to break up that damn marriage (for a spell – Marie will break it up for her), Milly faces off to her daughter, very honestly, with the admission that she and Al have almost called it quits before, and even sweet Wilma is pushing, pushing to Homer. She’s dying to be with him so much, that, in the film’s most intimate, romantic scene – when he shows her how he removes his hooks before going to bed –she buttons up his pajama top, no hesitation. In her own quiet way, Wilma has been screaming at Homer that she’s not just a kid, that she can handle it, that she loves him, that she’ll never leave him.
We hope she never leaves him. The movie ends with Homer and Wilma’s wedding and a gorgeously composed shot (cinematographer Gregg Toland – brilliant throughout) of their vows, while Peggy and Fred gaze at each other. They’ll end up together too. Is it a happy ending? Yes. But the future? We’re not so sure. Nothing will be easy, and the idea of home, even as solid as the more loving couples appear, is still a sort of dream. And they will likely continue to search for that dream. It may continue just as Al asked: “You know, I had a dream. I dreamt I was home. I’ve had that dream hundreds of times before. This time, I wanted to find out if it’s really true. Am I really home?”