Friday, July 1, 2016

The Best Years of Our Lives

Year 8, Day 183 - 7/1/6 - Movie #2,384

BEFORE: Myrna Loy carries over from "Song of the Thin Man" to this, the Best Picture Oscar winner for 1947.  I've avoided this one for quite some time, I think mostly because of the running time (nearly three hours), but screw it, it's a holiday weekend coming up, I think I can devote an extra hour to a movie.  

THE PLOT:  Three World War II veterans return home to small-town America to discover that they and their families have been irreparably changed.

AFTER: I get that this is an important film about a sensitive topic - and also significant for an all-too-real portrayal of veterans who were injured, either physically or psychologically, by the horrors of war, but I have to start off with a NITPICK POINT - what are the chances that three men would be leaving the armed forces on the same day, headed for the same small town in America on the same military plane that just HAPPENED to be taking them right where they wanted to go (for some reason, making a stop at a commercial airport rather than, say, a military base) - AND that these three men never knew each other from before the war, despite it being a very small town and all.  AND, what are the chances that these three men would represent three different classes of the U.S. social structure - lower, middle and upper-middle class?  

In other words, I smell a rat.  Or at least a whole ton of contrivances.  Which means this isn't a true-to-life story necessarily, it's someone's opinion about what smalltown America is like, and how it should act toward its veterans. But exactly whose political agenda is being furthered here?  The film won a bunch of Oscars, including Best Picture, so clearly it struck some chord with the audience - and a special honorary Oscar went to Harold Russell for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans - making him the only person to ever win two Oscars for the same performance.  So that means something, that this was perhaps a film that needed to be made, needed to be seen.  But was there really that much trouble that the veterans of World War II were facing on the homefront?  It's not like they were Vietnam veterans, after all - they won!  Weren't they heralded as heroes upon their return?  

Another odd thing is that there are some hints at propaganda regarding the atomic bomb and the devastation in Hiroshima + Nagasaki.  One character's teenage son (who, after this scene, oddly disappears from the rest of the film...) asks questions like "Gee, Dad, did you see any of the effects of radiation on the people of Hiroshima"?  It's very telling that this scene is included, someone seems to have had a vested interest in getting Americans to feel guilty for dropping the atomic bomb on Japan.  Probably there was no question in 1945 about this, the war needed to end right away to save the maximum number of lives (U.S. soldiers' lives, that is...) but at what cost?  Two years later, was the American public still gloating over the victory, or starting to show some remorse over bombing civilians to end the war? 

Late in the film, a guy is seen in the drugstore, spouting some very mysterious political messages.  Was he a Communist?  A World War II "Truther"?   Did they have those back then?  Someone who claimed to "really know" what was going on regarding the war - what the heck was this all about?  

Then there's a different sort of propaganda, regarding relationships in post-war America.  Obviously something changed while men were fighting overseas - women became more independent, some took jobs formerly held by men, and feminism got a boost.  But then what was supposed to happen when the soldiers came home?  Things couldn't go back to the way they were, with the men the de facto leader of every household.  You can see the effects here on the various relationships portrayed in this film - Fred's wife became a nightclub singer, moved out of her in-laws' house, got her own apartment.  Al's wife got used to him not being there, running the house and raising two children by herself.  

While separated, with the soldiers overseas, the women were expected to remain faithful - "Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me..." and so forth.  To do otherwise would be unpatriotic, disrepectful to their husbands who were fighting and dying in Europe and the Pacific.  But if those husbands were to stray while in France or the Philippines, well, don't they deserve that while fighting for their country?  What a double-standard...

I understand that this depicts a singular moment in time, a turning point in U.S. history, feminist history, cultural history - the tail end of the generation that believed that everyone's goal in life should be to get married, and then once married, to stay married at all costs, even if they were unhappy.  But the following generation would believe differently, that they didn't need to get married, and if they did, that divorce didn't carry the social stigma that it did before.  You can see this in the story of Fred Derry, who got married just before shipping out to the war, and returned home after years apart, to try and make it work.  Although his wife is happy to see him, the film falls JUST short of suggesting that she might have married him just for his soldier's pension, or death benefits if he should die in Europe.  After returning home and burning through his soldier's pay, she finds herself unhappy trying to live on the meager salary he earns after going back to work as a soda jerk at the drugstore.  

So it's quite daring for a film in 1947 to suggest that a man might be married to the wrong woman, or more correctly, married for the wrong reasons.  When he falls for the young Peggy, who can see the problems in his marriage very clearly, she at first pursues him, but backs off for fear of being labeled as a "homewrecker".  This was the 1940's equivalent of slut-shaming, it seems.  And her parents, when consoling her, acknowledge that their marriage had survived tough times and doubts - they even found it hard to count how many times they had nearly "called it quits".  But that's the older generation for you - stay married, no matter what.  

I ended up sort of scratching my head over this one - I can't help but wonder if this film really had the best interests of America's veterans in mind, or if this represented someone else's political leanings, in an attempt to influence the populace to act a certain way.  

Also starring Fredric March, Dana Andrews (last seen in "Airport 1975"), Harold Russell, Teresa Wright (last seen in "The Rainmaker"), Virginia Mayo (last seen in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"), Cathy O'Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael (last seen in "To Have and Have Not"), Gladys George (last seen in "The Maltese Falcon"), Roman Bohnen, Ray Collins (last seen in "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer"), Walter Baldwin, Minna Gombell (last seen in "The Thin Man"), Steve Cochran, Dorothy Adams (last seen in "Penny Serenade"), Don Beddoe, Ray Teal, Erskine Sanford, Michael Hall, with cameos from Sidney Clute (last seen in "Sam Whiskey"), Tennessee Ernie Ford, Blake Edwards. 

RATING: 6 out of 10 piano lessons 

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