Sunday, February 27, 2011

'The Best Years of Our Lives' Open Thread

What did you think?


  1. Like many older movies, I first became aware of it from catching bits and pieces on TV. When I finally decided that the ending was worth the beginning and sat down to watch it through I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed the stories and the manner in which they were woven together. It is a story about veterans returning from war, but it has broader themes that are timeless.

    I enjoy this story on a number of levels. The center piece is the story of Fred Derry, the army air corps captain returned home from fighting and winning the war, who now needs to find his way. With a new wife and a new chance at life, he is optimistic but lacking in confidence. The losses he has suffered through the war haunt him, and the glamor wife that fell in love with his uniform and air corps paycheck has no real care for the man. Struggling to make it, he took a lot of lumps and faced a lot of rejection. He ends up having to humble himself and take the job behind the soda counter, now working under Mr. Merkel, the 'Stinky' Merkel of his pre-war years. The hardest blow had to be the way his wife discarded him as so much junk, a feeling he had a sense of himself. But Fred was a lot more than what Marie could see. When Al called him on his attentions to Al's daughter, Peggy, he was straight and to the point. He looked Al in the eye and met him on even terms. In calling him on it Fred realized Al was right, and Fred did the right thing. He called Peggy up and called it off, passing off his feelings for her as the vapid type that Al had alluded to earlier, spoken without his really knowing Fred. But Fred called it off the way he did, making up a little story of frivolous affairs because he cared for Peggy and wanted her to not think of him anymore. Al actually had him wrong. Later when Homer was asked to swallow a load of baloney by some passerby with no stake in the hardships and losses that Homer had gone through, it was Fred who jumped the counter and stood up for his friend, even though it might cost him his job, as it did. The best though was after Fred left home and his Dad sat down to read the citations that Fred had been awarded during the war. They recorded a man who was tough, devoted and gutty, very much the kind of man you could count on, just as Al had pointed out in the young Sea bee at the bank earlier. Fred was in fact never a flash kind of guy. He was not the fly boy charmer that Al Stephenson initially took him for.

    He ends up looking to escape Boone City and takes a lift on the first flight out to anywhere, and while waiting he wanders the field of discarded airframes. All those aircraft seemed like symbols of Fred and his fellow veterans, useful for a time gone past and now to be discarded. When challenged by the foreman working on the aircraft frames he takes a little grief, and than gives back what for:

    "Listen chum, sometime I'll be happy to hear about your war time experience. Right now what I asked you for is a job."

    "Do you know anything about construction?" his fellow vet asks him.

    And this time instead of simply saying "No", he says

    "No, but I know that I can learn, just like I learned that job up there"

    Those airframes aren't junk, and neither is Fred. He finds a future, right there.

  2. One of my favorite scenes comes just after Fred gets fired. He and Homer are walking together down the street, Homer with his eyes on the ground, taking in the significance of what had just happened, and feeling very bad for it. And Fred asks him straight about Wilma. When Homer tells him that they had not moved forward yet, Fred asks him if it was Wilma's fault. And when Homer tells him no, than Fred tells him straight out:

    "Than it's your fault."

    I love the directness of it, the way men tend to be with friends they care about. It is very similar to Al calling Fred on the carpet. Sometimes a guy needs that, someone to tell it to you straight. Yes, I loved that scene.

    Then there are some other moments that come after that were pretty good too, but I will stop there for now.

  3. La-la-la I'm not listening!
    I dropped in to say I'm supposed to get my dvd today -- It is so hard not to read the comments already here!

  4. Hurry up, then come join us!

    I loved Fredric March in this movie. Each time I watch it I appreciate his contribution more. Even taking the scenes of intoxication out (which I kind of do), the serious, well spoken Al provides a great deal of comic relief through his cynical, matter of fact delivery and facial expressions. He helped to keep a certain lightness to a movie whose subject matter would otherwise necessarily weigh it down. Just watch his face as he mixes himself an alka-seltzer following the party Mr. Milton and the bank gave him. It was delightful. I also loved how Myrna Loy's character would understand Peggy and what she might be feeling, significantly better than Al:

    "I think she's crazy about him."

    "Who, Woody?"

    "No. Fred."

    "Do you have any proof to support such an accusation?"

    "No, just a hunch....

    ... but my hunches are pretty...good."

    Good stuff.

  5. This is such a lovely movie. I know "lovely" doesn't seem quite right, describing a film about the men returning from war, but it is. There's nothing paternalistic or patronizing in the way the central characters' stories are treated, but there is clearly an affection and admiration on the part of the filmmakers for these men and the people they love.

    The most heart-rending, of course, is Homer, determined to keep a positive view, demonstrating the progress he made learning to use his hooks for everyday tasks -- whenever the well-meaning, survivor-guilt-ridden acquaintance he's with will let him. And so convinced that the repugnant burden he has become is not fit for the sweet girl he loves. That scene in his room, when he shows Wilma how he can slip off the harness, toss his replacement arms to the side -- and then spend the rest of the night quite helpless -- was so moving. He's not angry, or bitter; he's just sadly, matter-of-factly, showing her what he knows will be too much. And Wilma is calm and gentle, and practical, almost as if she's still waiting to find out what it is that is troubling him so. And so they realize that together they can take life on.

    That was just one of the scenes that could so easily have become melodrama, but instead just felt human.

    I really liked the scenes with Frederic March and Myrna Loy. They were each great in the scenes with their (nearly) grown children; March in the scene with the son he doesn't know anymore, trying to connect with him by way of battle souvenirs and war stories; Loy with the daughter who is becoming more a friend than a child. But the scenes between husband and wife were really wonderful. Milly almost always composed, regardless of how shaken she (or how awkward the situation) might be, always open, always supportive. And Al, unable to even determine how lost he is, trying to navigate his way back into the family that has grown up in his absence. I really liked the discussion about Milly's hunch that Jim noted, but I think my favorite scene between the two of them is the breakfast-tray scene, both of them oddly shy, Milly particularly uncertain how to get over the distance that years apart had created, but both of them realizing they still have real passion for each other. (And then that timeless question, "Where are the kids?" Followed by that happiest of answers, "Out.")


  6. (Continued)

    Teresa Wright was wonderful as a young woman who is, in some ways, almost too poised, too sensible, too grown-up -- until both her heart and her righteousness are stirred by Fred's situation, and she collapses in her parent's room a confused, broken-hearted, girl. THen, later, the scene at Wilma and Homer's wedding, where she greets Fred cooly, but hears everything he's not saying, and decides, a a woman, that her instincts, and her heart, are not wrong after all. (And I think she is most beautiful in that shot of her looking up into Fred's face, understanding that they can be happy.)

    And what a happy ending for Fred. Marrying so quickly before "shipping out" a woman he barely knew, believing for all those years at war that he would return to a loving wife ready to head off into the unknown with him. Instead, he finds he has been deceived (for his own good) by everyone he loves, and his bride has been living a very different life than he was led to believe. Happy as she is to see him at first, it is not long before we, and Fred, learn that there is -- there was from the first -- no real love there, but only a desire to capture the heart, and paycheck, of a glamorous airman. Only through the luckiest of flukes is his true nature displayed to Peggy, in his terrors during the night, and, in the morning, his calm, almost courtly, appreciation of her kindness and tact. Peggy has seen him in his greatest distress -- and his greatest distress is for the safety of a friend. It gives her a filter for everything else she learns about Fred, and helps her see the truth about him, in spite of her father's misgivings, and his own uncertainties.

    Virginia Mayo was great -- not an overt villainess, but a weak and foolish woman who does not know what to value in life, angry about the disappointing choices she made; as childish in her bitterness over the end of dinners out on the town, as she was in her delight over her presents from Paris. And I enjoyed Hoagy Carmichael, both for the bits of music, which were great, and for his "Uncle Butch's" quiet interventions and encouragements. (The best moment has to be the duet with Butch and Homer. How incredibly powerful.)

    And I so loved the scene when Fred's dad is going through the "paperwork" that Fred has dismissed, both he and Fred's stepmother almost overwhelmed by the sudden understanding of what "Captain Derry" had endured, valiantly, while at war.

    Such a beautiful story all around, both of the men returning to their families, and of the new friendships between those men which will link them throughout their lives.

    I am so glad we did this.

  7. "Peggy has seen him in his greatest distress -- and his greatest distress is for the safety of a friend. It gives her a filter for everything else she learns about Fred, and helps her see the truth about him"

    Yes, and very well said.

    Peggy's Dad was right too, though. I loved the scene where Peggy is so upset after the dinner out, and in the end she is left sitting on her bed sobbing into her mother's shoulder. And Milly looks up, and with a slight nod of her head dismisses her husband, who is left to stand alone in the hall and ponder the situation. It was so perfect.

    I loved that long shot of Al standing in the hall, smoking a cigarette, deep in thought and concern over his daughter. The next scene he is meeting Fred at Butch's for a very frank conversation. I thought the silhouette shot of the two men speaking across the table perfectly conveyed their confrontation.

    Fred mildly flirting with Peggy was fine in my book, but asking her to lunch, kissing her goodbye? He was out of line. Fred's a married man. Unhappily married, but married none the less. I don't fault Fred for finding Peggy attractive. Thinking about it and acting on it I do. Not unforgivable missteps, but missteps that risk Peggy's happiness and future. What's telling though is that when called on it he makes the right choice and sticks to his decision. He wasn't playing Peggy. He wasn't the kind of man that would. From then on Al didn't have to do anything further to keep Fred away from Peggy. Not till Homer's wedding anyway.

    : )

  8. Not unforgivable missteps, but missteps that risk Peggy's happiness and future.

    Oh, that is perfect.

  9. I have to say, I absolutely loved the ending.

    Just before the wedding Fred looks for Peggy, and sees her across the room. She comes over to him, and they have this small conversation:

    "Well, what have you been doing with yourself lately?"


    "Yes, uh, Dad told me he heard you were in some kind of building work."

    "Well, that's a hopeful way of putting it. I'm really in the junk business - an occupation for which many people feel I'm well-qualified by temperament and training. It's fascinating work."

    You offered ".. she greets Fred cooly, but hears everything he's not saying, and decides, as a woman, that her instincts, and her heart, are not wrong after all." Was she looking to decide something, or was she wondering something else? And what did you make of Fred's curious answer?

    The wedding scene itself was perfect, with the small home setting, family and loved ones gathered about. It felt almost as though we were there. The vows were offered with a great deal of warmth and solemnness. I had the distinct impression that the kind hearted gentleman performing the ceremony had performed this service before. Then the nervousness of Wilma, Homer so happy, and Fred glad to be there standing up for him.

    Those words spoken for Homer and Wilma meant a great deal to Peggy. Clearly, her mind kept falling back upon Fred, who couldn't help but think of her. After, he walks over to her, takes her in his arms and tells her straightout:

    "You know what it'll be, don't you, Peggy? It may take us years to get anywhere. We'll have no money, no decent place to live. We'll have to work, get kicked around."

    To Peggy's searching, smiling eyes... till she stops Fred from speaking further and answers him by reaching up and kissing him back.


    Well young lady, that was good fun. See if you have an answer for me, and then tell me one thing more. What might be your pleasure for our next outing?

  10. Was she looking to decide something, or was she wondering something else? And what did you make of Fred's curious answer?

    I think that Peggy had accepted her parents' interpretations of Fred's interest in her, and concluded that he was something of a snake (per Dad) who had hit a rough patch at home (per Mom), particularly after Fred told her Good-bye in a way that reinforced the image of him as a practiced flirt.

    When they see each other across the room at the wedding, Fred stops dead, staring at her, his arms hanging at his side, a look of such loss on his face. Peggy looks at him for some moments, her own breathing disrupted, then excuses herself from the group she's been talking with and walks over to greet him. She could have ignored him, remained chatting where she was, without even having to overtly snub him. But that would have been running away, and she needs to face him.

    She tries to be poised, and casual, beginning the small talk, but she falters a bit at his almost formal responses. It is that comment about the "junk business":

    "... an occupation for which many people feel I'm well-qualified by temperament and training."

    that catches her, but Fred is pulled away before she can respond. I think Peggy understands that to mean that, like many of the potential employers who had no use for him, Fred's wife had discarded him as no longer being of any value.

    He is free, and it takes only the looks they exchange during the ceremony for Peggy to know that Fred truly loves her.

  11. Ah yes.

    But that still leaves us with no destination for our next outing!

  12. Well, i was trying to remember how long it has been since I picked some pure fluff -- fine vintage fluff, of course -- but I can't remember what I picked last time...

    So, let's watch Roman Holiday. We can pretend it isn't entirely fluff because it has the same director as The Best Years of Our Lives, and thus becomes part of a (short) survey course on William Wyler.


  13. Roman Holiday!!

    Okay, a couple of days!

  14. Sorry, didn't get around to catching this one, but I have coincidentally just been reading Hoagy Carmichael's autobiography Sometimes I Wonder, and he mentions the film as being among his best.
    He says that he personally designed an attachment for the guy with the metal hands so that he could use a golf club.
    Also that Sam Goldwyn called him Hugo Carmichael at the Oscar show that year!

    If you like Hoagy I recommend the book.
    He claims he got into a fistfight with Humphrey Bogart after the latter "shouted a tirade of abuse at my Republican stand one night at a big party." Bogart was "a bit confused politically in my opinion," he writes, and its unusual and refreshing to see him observe that "the left-wing boys were pretty much in power" in Hollywood throughout those years.
    As for Bogie and the big fight: "he was not a tough man off screen at all in my opinion."

  15. Matt, I'll see if I can find Sometimes I Wonder. I really enjoyed Hoagy Carmichael, and would love to listen to some of his jazz playing. His story sounds like a good read.

    Thanks for stopping by. Try out The Best Years of Our Lives if you get a chance. Up next of course is Roman Holiday. See if you can join us. We are sure to have a lot of fun with it!!