Today’s focus on “Screening Classic Hollywood” is the exemplary film The Best Years of Our Lives, one of the finest films to emerge from the 1940s and a searing and emotionally rich exploration of the plight of veterans returning home from war as they attempt to reintegrate into an American society that seems to have no room for them (and no desire to make it). The film follows three friends: Al (Frederic March), Homer (Harold Russell), and Fred (Dana Andrews), as they attempt to reintegrate into American society following WW II.
It is rather remarkable how many postwar anxieties this film manages to address. The threat of atomic annihilation makes an appearance when Al’s son inquires about the possibility; the burgeoning of youth culture (and its terrifying and unruly physicality, particularly in the form of rock and roll) rears its head when Al and family go out for a night on the town; and of course the very real problem of the returning veteran and the stress of acclimating once again to the world. This problem is particularly acute for both Fred and Homer, the former because as a “man” he must resign himself to working in a new bureaucratized economy, and the latter because he has lost both of his hands to an accident during the war. Indeed, the film’s handling of Homer’s disability is remarkably sensitive, and he emerges from the film as one of the only characters to emerge from the film unambiguously happy and satisfied (the film ends with his marriage to his sweetheart). Nor does the film shy away from showing us the trials he goes through on a daily basis, and in that sense it is a remarkably forthright film about both the challenges and the successes of those with disabilities.
Given that this film emerged immediately after the war ended, it should come as no surprise that it remains rather conservative in its gender politics. The only woman who shows a true sense of agency and independence is Fred’s wife Marie (Virginia May0), who grows discontented with him and ultimately files for divorce. The film clearly views her as the antithesis of good-girl Peggy (Teresa Wright), who comes to stand for the sort of doe-eyed loyalty very much in keeping with the emerging gender ideology of the postwar period (and of Wright’s star text in general; see: The Little Foxes). Myrna Loy does present some measure of female independence as Al’s wife Milly, though even she doesn’t really attempt to break out of the role of housewife, and instead must keep a relentless eye on Al and his always-imminent slide into alcoholism (hardly surprising, given March’s penchant for playing caddish yet dashing alcoholics).
The problem for these veterans, as the film sees it, is twofold. On the one hand, there is the issue that these are men who are used to the stresses and strains of war, as well as the close bonds that develop between men. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the postwar world is a very different beast than the one that preceded it. This is a world of heartless bureaucracy and toadyism, of corporatization and emasculation, where everything is reduced to the value of the commodity: the customer is always right (as Dan is unfortunately reminded by his simpering, effete boss, who played a similar role as the sinister and cynical barkeep in High Noon), and even the planes that he once flew are being gradually recycled to make prefabricated homes. The scene in which he wanders the graveyard of airplanes is one of the most evocative in the film, a chilling reminder of the transience of the modern commodity and how quickly Americans wanted to put the realities of war behind them and return to a life of normalcy (and to a life of luxuriant commercial luxury in suburbia).
Overall, the film offers a nuanced and deeply empathetic view of the problems faced by returning veterans, and in that sense it remains strikingly relevant today. While American politicians remain as hawkish as ever, they also seem either reluctant to actually deal with the after-effects of war on the home front or unable to accept the fact that these wars have significant physical and emotional consequences on those who fight them (most likely it’s a mix of both). The Best Years of Our Lives, like so many of the social problem films of the immediate post-war period, remain startlingly relevant to the pressing concerns of the present day, a potent reminder that film was, and remains, an art form capable of addressing and helping us work through pressing social issues.