I picked up The Best Years of Our Lives off the shelf at the library a dozen or more years ago because I saw it had Myrna Loy in it, and I really like her. I love movies involving WWII, soldiers, and the 1940s, so I figured I’d give it a try.
At that time, I mostly knew Loy from the Thin Man movies she made with William Powell, which are hilarious and snarky and fun. So I think I kind of expected that this movie would also be a lighthearted way to pass an evening on my night off from work that week. I didn’t expect it to surprise and awe me. I didn’t expect it to be a serious and soul-searching. I didn’t expect it to wow me.
But boy, am I glad it wasn’t what I expected.
The Best Years of Our Lives follows three American servicemen as they return to their hometown after World War Two. Made in 1946, when some GIs were still returning from “over there,” it is an unflinching look at the frustrations, hardships, joys, and fears involved in reuniting fighters with families.
Ex-Army sergeant Al Stephenson (Frederic March) comes home to his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and kids Peggy (Theresa Wright) and Rob (Michael Hall). They welcome him eagerly, if a little awkwardly. It will take some time for them all to readjust to each other, they know. Al gets his old job at a bank back, but he doesn’t feel like he fits in either there or at home anymore. Everyone wants life to go back to being just as it was before, but he’s changed too much to feel that’s possible. He seeks solace in alcohol. Milly sees this and is worried, but stalwartly supports him however she can, helping him to work through his worries and doubts subtly and kindly.
Ex-Air Force captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) comes home to his parents who live on the poor side of town and idolize him, and to Marie (Virginia Mayo), the wife he acquired during a quickie wartime marriage. She wants him to be the same heroic, charming, fun guy she married two years earlier, but he’s changed. They don’t call it this, but Fred suffers from PTSD. He has horrible nightmares and withdraws from his wife and others around him. Unable to get his old job back, he becomes a lowly salesman at a drug store. Marie constantly berates and demeans him for getting such a lame job, for being boring, for not throwing money and attention at her constantly.
Ex-Navy sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) has it the hardest. He returns home to a loving family and his devoted fiancée Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), the literal girl-next-door… but he returns home without his hands. Fiercely independent, and yet physically dependent on others for so many things, Homer chafes at the love, the pity, the kindness, and the stares that meet him everywhere. He doesn’t want Wilma to marry him because he thinks she deserves better. He even considers taking his own life so he won’t be a bother to those around him anymore.
Played by real-life double amputee Harold Russell, who lost his hands in an accidental explosion during WWII, Homer Parrish is nothing short of inspiring. He has two artificial limbs with hooks on them that enable him to eat, drink, write, smoke, play the piano… but not stroke Wilma’s hair. Not button buttons. Not tie shoes. Not do a hundred everyday things that Homer thinks are important.
As their lives and the lives of their loved ones weave together in a myriad tiny ways, Al, Fred, and Homer come to rely on each other for support, understanding, and encouragement. All three of them understand what it was like in the war, what it’s like to come home, what it’s like to want to fit in and fail. Together, they work to raise each other above their problems and see that maybe the years they spent apart from their families weren’t the best years, but that maybe the years to come will be the best years, if they can only allow themselves to live them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels “Cloaked” and “Dancing & Doughnuts” are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com