This post was prompted by the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” Blogathon, a celebration of classic films for the benefit of those who haven’t yet found their entry point into the wonderful world of time-honoured cinema. The Blogathon is graciously hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently, whose recommendations for worthwhile films run deep and wide. If you would like to read all the entries, please click here.
On nights when I’m not in my living room watching a movie, I’m likely to be found about an hour away from home, parked behind the eyepiece of the 10-inch Dobsonian telescope my husband and I bought as a wedding present for ourselves. The hobby of sitting in the frigid Canadian dark is a new one for us, so every time we haul our “mirror to the past” out of storage, we discover something for ourselves for the very first time. I was twenty-seven the first time I realized that you could, with almost no skill and even mediocre vision, look up and find the Andromeda Galaxy with your naked eye. Discovering this fact put me at the outer edge of a thousand-year web of recorded human history; I was only one of a countless number who had looked up, seen the faint wisp of a glow in our night sky, and wondered. As astronomy beginners, we pull out our star maps and embark on a rewarding treasure hunt for Messier objects – the catalogue of 110 star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae that French astronomer Charles Messier recorded for the benefit of other astronomers in the late 18th century.
When I’m looking at M57 (the Ring Nebula) through my telescope, I can’t help but wonder what Messier was thinking as he observed this perfect smoke ring in the deep sky. I marvel that astronomers of the past were able to find these objects with only 4 inches (or less) of imperfect light-collecting glass, while I struggle to locate stars using a 10-inch, factory-made mirror. It fills me with a humbling respect to know that everything I locate, which captivates me with a fresh sense of excitement and awe, has been there to be discovered and re-discovered for as long as humans have looked up. Messier is granted a strange sort of immortality when a girl, living in a country that hadn’t even been colonized or named in his lifetime, remembers him when craning her neck to see the stars.
As anyone who has ever embarked upon a new hobby will experience, you quickly come to realize how little you know and how much you have to learn. Facing your own ignorance, you need to decide whether you back off, or instead dig in deep and commit. My husband and I drove out to a remote country warehouse to buy our telescope, and as we were about to leave, gear already loaded into the trunk, the man who sold us the scope said “Hey, do you want to look through my solar telescope?” We stood and watched solar filaments the size of Jupiter blaze around the edges of our star and, ready to leave again, he then offered to take us to his observatory. Housed in a nearby shed was a telescope with a mount bigger than my body, through which he takes photos of our celestial neighbours. His enthusiasm at showing us these things was not only to share his particular interests, but I think also to say to us, dig deep – this will pay off.
How do we communicate the great joys and loves of our lives to others? I think many of us spend hours agonizing over how to do this in what is sometimes a futile effort to be understood. There’s a reason many of us make friends and partners of those whose interests are similar to ours – it’s just easier. We tend to hole-up in our bubbles of artistic interest and insulate ourselves against the frustration of public accusations of bad taste or, almost worse, pretension. Unless a strong sense of determination strikes, we are unlikely to seek admission into a world of knowledge that doesn’t seem to belong to us. We shy away from things for which it seems another group has created the indecipherable rules, and so we stop seeking. Once we stop seeking, the defensiveness has a chance to settle in. As someone who grew up around, and always loved, classic film, I’ve seen this defensiveness travel both ways. Every classic film fan has had the experience of having a movie suggestion rejected for its black-and-white cinematography. But I bet, too, that each of us has given in to the weaker parts of our nature and used our love and enthusiasm as a weapon against those who don’t seem to understand us. The internet is practically fueled by this cycle of one group calling another group stupid.
I can’t claim to have the solution to this stagnation that keeps us all firmly in our camps. But what I want to say, before I start talking about the film I’m here to talk about, is this: nothing about this world is closed off to you. For every person who has made you feel like an idiot for not enjoying something they enjoy, there’s another person out there who just wants to share their love with you because of the overwhelming pleasure it’s given them. You are allowed to dislike black and white. You are allowed to find a specific style of acting disconcerting. You are even allowed to think that a particularly well-regarded movie is boring. But to the skeptics I also say: the effort you put into understanding things that confuse you will pay off in dividends that you can’t imagine. You can’t know what you don’t know, and unless you spend time in exploration, you will never see what was there all the time, waiting for you.
Director William Wyler has an incredible catalogue of creative achievements which would belong on any list of entry points into classic film. Dodsworth (1936), Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Heiress (1949), and Roman Holiday (1953) would all serve as prime introductions to the world of pre-1960 filmmaking. Wyler’s 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights is one of the earliest black and white films I can remember seeing, in my blog’s eponymous basement. Something about it affected my young mind, and ever since that day I’ve been running on the internal impulse that tells me I need to get more of whatever that was in my life. Some would call it an addiction, but, unlike an addiction it has given me much and taken little. My favourite of Wyler’s films is 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives. Returning from his own wartime experiences as a Major with the US Air Force, where he shot documentary films like The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress (1944) to help buoy public confidence in American military efforts, Wyler embarked on a project of populist cinema as a form of communal healing for a country reeling from the traumas of World War II.
Movie-as-medicine sounds like a recipe for a maudlin and patronizing film, but one of the reasons I think The Best Years of Our Lives works so well for modern audiences (even those not normally interested in older films) is the fact that Wyler, somehow, is able to perfectly walk a tightrope over a raging river of potential cliches. It’s an incredibly adult and clear-headed movie, cynical and touching in equal measure, which for the most part avoids the proselytism that can seem alluring to artists in times of great uncertainty. For classic film newcomers, the film boasts none of the glamorous costumes, musical sequences, or lightning-quick banter which can seem so foreign and off-putting to some. This is a movie about the real kinds of problems suffered by the real men and women who endured so much during a nightmarish period in our history. But The Best Years of Our Lives is about so much more than just suffering; it’s about understanding, and finding optimism and ambition even when wounds run deep. I don’t know anyone alive for whom that won’t be a real dilemma somewhere along the line.
The conceit of the film is, in some ways, simple – three servicemen return from war. How will they re-integrate into the society they left behind after experiencing so much? Will their families be able to understand them? Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March), the eldest of the three G.I.s, is returning to his upper-middle-class apartment, two children who have become adults in his absence, and a wife of twenty years who, perhaps for the first time, may not understand her husband. Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a pilot of the B-17 bombers that Wyler himself had spent his share of time in, is returning to no career prospects and a wife he barely knows. And Petty Officer Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) must return home a physically changed man to his loving family, and to a sweetheart that he feels should be free of the burden of his disability. Harold Russell, a non-actor whom Wyler had discovered through a US Army film highlighting disabled veterans, had lost both of his hands in a training accident in 1944. His onscreen vulnerability is particularly affecting.
Fred, Al and Homer meet on a flight returning them home to Boone City. Fred asks Al how long it’s been since he’s been home, each of them having been long separated from their families by battle. “Oh, a couple of centuries,” he replies. The Best Years of Our Lives is filled with good-humoured dialogue shadowed by darkness underneath. It doesn’t tread into the blood-and-guts territory of modern war films like Saving Private Ryan (1998), which tend to be bolstered by the benefits of hindsight and the safe distance of time. Neither does it insist that winning in war is nothing but spoils to the victors. “Oh, a couple of centuries.” It’s the kind of thing you’d say only to someone who knows exactly what you’ve been through. How can you explain the adventures and horrors of your metaphorical “couple of centuries” of time to those who knew and loved you before? “The thing that scares me most is that everybody’s gonna try and rehabilitate me,” says Al. The anxiety and sadness over this potential lifetime of rehabilitation is written on their faces.
For Homer, wartime scars can’t be kept hidden, even if he wishes them to be. Fear is etched in his voice as he takes a taxi home with Fred and Al and he tells them “This is my street.” There is a terror in returning home when you’re not sure who you are any more. This terror makes Homer feel like a stranger in his own family, and also causes him to reject the empathetic care of his childhood sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell). The film rides on scenes of discomfort – Homer reaching for a glass of lemonade with his hooks, only to spill it on his mother’s carpet. Or Al tensely taking the elevator ride to his apartment for the first time in years, and lingering at the doorway before going in. Or Fred returning to the impoverished home of his father and step-mother, where his father (Roman Bohnen, profoundly moving in his two scenes) whispers, barely audible, “Glad to see you, my boy.” Far from the folksy perfection of the Hardy family, Wyler’s households are places of uneasiness. It is a film that invites the viewer to respect and understand deep-seated secrets and shames. Without a character speaking the words in moralizing dialogue, The Best Years of Our Lives tells us that each person we encounter has a story they may tell only to a select few, or to no one.
There is trepidation, too, for the women to whom the three veterans are returning. Milly Stephenson (Myrna Loy) has seen two teenaged children into adulthood in the time Fred has been away. Her son Rob (Michael Hall) and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) are now people with independent ideas and ambitions. There is a wonderfully awkward scene in which Al gives his son Rob souvenirs from his travels – a Samurai sword, and a Japanese flag, signed by the enemy’s family and friends. “Yes I know, the Japanese attach a lot of importance to the family relationship,” says Rob to his befuddled father. Rob then asks Al if he witnessed any of the effects of radiation on the populous at Hiroshima. For Rob, the conflict that just ended is already a war that was created and fought by old men like his father. To the coming generations, post-war examination of the far-reaching consequences of violence will be the necessary burden. Rob takes his souvenirs, leaving Milly and Al alone for the first time in years. Milly looks on her husband with hesitance and nervousness, undoubtedly an infrequent circumstance in a twenty-year union.
Fred’s wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), who has survived the war on nightclub wages, black market goods, and parties, expects life to continue on, business-as-usual. The first time she sees her husband in civilian clothes, she wears a look of deep disappointment. She is not ready to face what these men look like without the glory and respect afforded to them by the ornaments of war. Marie and Fred’s marriage exhibits the kind of sour mismatching that must have become terrifyingly apparent for many couples who had wed when the threat of death was imminent. She happily insists to Fred that they’re “…right back where [they] started,” resisting the fact that this can never be so. Fred struggles to find good-paying work in a society for which piloting a B-17 is no longer a marketable skill, and Marie’s respect for him wanes. What will Fred’s identity be if he is only the bombs he dropped and the targets he hit?
The Best Years of Our Lives isn’t only interested in the uncomfortable spaces. It also seems to be telling its audience we can get through this, but we’re going to have to be honest about it. Ultimately, it seeks to fortify America’s recovery by way of hope. “Hope” is a word that can have cloying connotations, but in the case of this film, hope is something more real. Hope is having the difficult conversations. Hope is accepting the love and kindness of others, not as a victim, but as an individual deserving of compassion. Hope is the upward climb that takes nations out of war and into a more peaceful future. This grasping towards hope begins the evening of Al’s return home, when he decides that he’d like to spend a night of fun with his wife and daughter. If I’ve given you the impression that this is a strictly serious film, Fredric March’s scenes as a progressively tipsy Al should correct that for you in no time.
Al, Fred, and Homer all serendipitously meet again on this drunken night out, cementing their connection and friendship. Loosened by alcohol, Al is able to assure his wife that his love for her is still strong when he asks the owner of the bar (and Homer’s uncle) Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) to play their song, “Among My Souvenirs.” He doesn’t have to say anything for her to know that part of the man he was before the war remains intact. Fred Derry also meets Al’s daughter Peggy on this night, and so begins the tentative love affair that beats at the heart of The Best Years of Our Lives. Fred sleeps off a hangover at the Stephenson apartment, and Peggy is there to console him and dry his tears when she’s awoken by his nightmare-induced screams. Their mutual attraction and understanding of each other is a moral complication in light of Fred’s marriage to Marie, but this is a film of moral complications and grown-up problems. Do we continue to withstand the things that chip away at us and steal the best years of our lives? Or do we take the love that we can get and use that to move forward? This is the question that Al, Fred and Homer each have to answer for themselves.
Since the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” Blogathon is intended to encourage and welcome new fans of classic film, I am reluctant to give away the ending of The Best Years of Our Lives. So, I won’t. But I will say this – in the countless times I’ve seen the film, it has never once failed to make me weep. If you know me at all you might be saying “big deal” right now, but still! I think of its final lines of dialogue any time I need to face difficulty in my life, or I feel like the world owes me something. These are the unexpected dividends I spoke of earlier. When I was a young teenager pilfering VHS tapes of old movies from my grandmother’s shelf, I would consistently skip over The Best Years of Our Lives because its title seemed too broad (when you pop in The Adventures of Robin Hood, you know what you’re getting) and I thought the box cover had an ugly design. When I finally ran out of other things to watch and put in the tape, I realized how mistaken I was to make the assumptions I had, and I’ve been watching hideously packaged films ever since as a form of atonement.
If your hesitance to watch is about more than just the packaging, or you go ahead and watch a classic film that someone else raves about and you find it unremarkable, I can only encourage you to never stop seeking. Only you can decide when something resonates with your experience, and given enough time, it’s practically a guarantee that something will. Of all the wonderful films I could have chosen, and about which others in this Blogathon will write more eloquent words than myself, I chose The Best Years of Our Lives because there is so much to latch on to. If you’ve ever had a complicated marriage, or if you’ve ever felt out of place in your career, or if trauma has closed you off from the world, or even if you’ve ever just wanted to more fully understand a relative’s wartime experience, I think this movie has something for you in it. And that’s not to say that it casts its net broadly in hopes of finding an audience. What I mean is that its story is universal in the way that only a personal, well-told story can be.
The best part about falling in love with something, the way I’ve fallen in love with the night sky, is that if you want to go looking there’s usually more of it to be found. From every film that you love weaves a network of other things to learn and enjoy. For example, if you happen to fall in love with The Best Years of Our Lives, you may want to check out the legendary deep-focus camerawork of Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland. Or maybe Hugo Friedhofer’s incredible score lingered in your memory, and you’re curious about what he can do for a film like The Bishop’s Wife (1947). Maybe you just found Dana Andrews to be an appealing specimen and you want more of him – Laura (1944) or State Fair (1945) would be great choices, in that case. You could also get deep into the songwriting of composer-pianist Hoagy Carmichael, who plays Butch in this film. The potential offshoots of loving even just a single aspect of a single film are endless.
I realize that if you’re not already a convert that you probably haven’t made it this far, or even made it to this blog in the first place. But if by some strange miracle of the internet you’re new to all of this, curious, and hesitant to join in, I encourage you not to be. There will always be someone out there who knows more than you do (would you really want to live in a world where no one knew more than you at any given time?). I don’t stop looking for Messier objects just because he found them first, or because I could find a picture of anything I’ve seen in much higher definition on the NASA website. And just as I believe that every person should have a chance to look through a telescope, I think we all should be invited to this life-changing art form called the movies.