The Story (continued)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
The climactic scene of Homer's homecoming with his family is justly celebrated. The troubled, ill-at-ease sailor who feels grotesque about himself among family members steps out of the taxi and stands alone with his white duffel bag on the lawn in front of his family's bungalow. Behind him, his pals in the taxi (who have no illusions or misgivings about his hooks) pause to watch his reunion. His younger sister Luella (Marlene Aames) loudly announces his arrival, and leaps over to the house next door to alert his sweetheart Wilma. While Homer hugs his excited sister, his startled, pitying parents jump out of the house and joyously add their embraces. Wilma Cameron (Cathy O'Donnell) appears and hugs her high-school sweetheart/fiancee - Homer stands unresponsive with his hands at his side. [Al observes later: "They (the Navy) couldn't train him to put his arms around his girl to stroke her hair."] Homer waves goodbye with one hooked hand to his service pals as they pull away in the taxi. Homer's mother (Minna Gombell) silently notices the hook which replaces one of his hands. She uncontrollably muffles a gasp and sobs involuntarily - but then not wanting to draw attention to his permanent handicap, she blurts out: "It's nothing."
Al's homecoming at his upper, 4th floor, 'swanky,' expensive apartment building is likewise feared and described as a military maneuver: "It feels as if I were going in to hit a beach." Both Al and Fred hang onto their military proprieties as they say goodbye:
Fred: Some barracks you got here. Hey what are you, a retired bootlegger?
Al: Nothing as dignified as that. I'm a banker. (to the cab driver) How much do I owe ya?
Fred: Take your hand out of your pocket, Sergeant. You're outranked.
Al: (saluting) Yessir, Captain, sir.
Fred watches his military pal, framed by the rear window of the cab, as they pull away. Inside, Al is sharply questioned by the suspicious front desk clerk about his identity - obviously, his service uniform means nothing. Upstairs, he emerges from the elevator with his duffel bags into a long corridor and after a significant pause, he uneasily rings his apartment's doorbell. The touching, wordless homecoming scene commences when he cups his hand over the mouths of his two grown children, son Rob (Michael Hall) and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) to silence them. They stand in amazement - overjoyed to see him. From the distant kitchen, his wife's voice asks about the unexpected visitor: "Who's that at the door, Peggy? Peggy? Rob? Who is...?" Al's apron-clad wife Milly (Myrna Loy) suddenly stops places dishes on the table and intuitively guesses her husband has finally come home. In a long-held shot with Al's back to the camera, she spatially appears at the end of the hallway corridor with arms half-outstretched. Both stand frozen to the ground - and then silently, slowly, move into each other's arms across the vast void. His children watch from afar as their parents share a long embrace. Quite naturally, his loving wife self-consciously admits: "I look terrible...It isn't fair of you to bust in on us like this." Al hardly recognizes his two children. "Just a few years of normal growth. Don't you approve?" asks his daughter. Fred finds himself in front of his parent's home - a run-down, dreary-looking shack next to noisy railroad tracks. His blowsy, slovenly-dressed stepmother Hortense (Gladys George) and gin-drinking drunkard of a father Pat (Roman Bohnen) admire their "hero-son, with all those beautiful ribbons on his chest." He is anxious to learn the whereabouts of his short-term bride, and is told that Marie (Virginia Mayo) has moved out. He sets out to find her without staying to eat dinner:
Hortense: Well, she's not living with us anymore, Freddy. She took an apartment downtown.
Fred: Why didn't anybody write me about it?
Hortense: Well, we were afraid it might worry you, you being so far away and everything. And it was kinda inconvenient for Marie living in this place after she took that job.
Pat: But we forwarded all your letters and the allotment checks.
Fred: She took a job? Where?
Pat: (hesitantly) Uh, some nightclub, I don't know just which one.
Hortense: Oh the poor girl works 'til all hours.
Fred: Where does she live?
Pat: Uhm, Grandview Arms, on Pine Street.
Hortense: But there's nothing to worry about, Freddy. Marie's fine. We saw her last, last Christmas. She brought us some beautiful presents.
Pat: Marie's a good-hearted girl.
Fred: Do you know what time she goes out to work?
Pat: Uhm, 'long about supper time, I imagine.
That evening after dinner, insurmountable obstacles begin to surface. Al gives Rob some war souvenirs - an authentic Samurai sword and "a flag I found on a dead Jap soldier," but his son is mostly uninterested in his wartime stories and heroics. As he becomes reacquainted with his adolescent, know-it-all son, they discuss - in highly enlightened terms for 1946 - the effects of nuclear warfare:
Son: Say, you were at Hiroshima, weren't you Dad?..Well, did you happen to notice any of the effects of radioactivity on the people who survived the blast?
Father: No, I didn't. Should I have?
Son: We've been having lectures in atomic energy at school, and Mr. McLaughlin, he's our physics teacher, he says that we've reached a point where the whole human race has either got to find a way to live together, or else uhm...
Father: Or else...?
Son: That's right. Or else. Because when you combine atomic energy with jet propulsion and radar and guided missiles, just think of the...
Al realizes he's missed so much change and growth during the war years, especially the maturing of his children: "I've seen nothing. I should have stayed home and found out what was really going on." He feels uncomfortable that his 'tough' homefront daughter has replaced their home's maid/cook after taking a course in Domestic Science and buying a cookbook. They've grown up and grown away from him - he remembers them as children. "What's happened to this family? All this atomic energy and scientific efficiency." Peggy reassures her father's awkward discomfort:
Peggy: Nice to have you around, dad. You'll get us back to normal.
Father: Or maybe go nuts myself.
As they sit in two wing-backed arm chairs in their living room, Milly looks comfortable, but Al fidgets with his cigarettes. There is a long, pregnant pause broken by Milly's question:
Milly: What do you think of the children?
Al: Children? I don't recognize 'em. They've grown so old.
Milly: I tried to stop them, to keep them just as they were when you left, but they got away from me.
Confused and un-relaxed, Al asks for a drink, but Milly finds their alcohol supply low and worries about her unpreparedness and her husband's reaction: "I wish he'd given us some warning he was going to get here today...I mean so we could have gotten him some supplies of things." Anxious in his new surroundings, Al suggests that Milly and Peggy go out on the town with him and "celebrate the old man's homecoming...I want to do something, see something. I've been in jungles and around savages so long, I gotta find out I'm back in civilization again." They bar-hop from one noisy danceclub to another: from Cafe Deauville to Louie and Ernie's bar to the Pelican Club and finally to Midnite Gardens. In an uncomfortable scene at the Parrish home, the invited in-laws, the Camerons (Don Beddoe and Dorothy Adams), are curious about Homer's war experiences and pushy about his limited abilities as a job-seeker. As the center of attention, the veteran (with his sailor uniform) endures their over-polite company: "Did you meet General MacArthur?" Homer's father-in-law lights his own cigar - refusing Homer's able assistance, and then bluntly asks:
Mr. Cameron: Have you thought anything about getting a job, Homer?
Wilma: (interrupting to defend Homer) Father, it's much too soon for Homer to be thinking about a job. He's just out of the hospital.
Mr. Cameron: Yes, I know but a few months from now, the same opportunities won't exist that exist today. You might think about my business Homer, insurance. We've taken on a number of veterans. They make very good salesmen, you know. Men who have suffered from some kind of disability.
Already feeling self-conscious about his handicap, Homer spills his glass of cold lemonade. His mother excuses his behavior and makes matters worse: "Wilma will hold it for you." Even Wilma is unable to know how to react as Homer leaves and makes his way to his uncle's bar - Butch's Place. By the end of their evening on the town, Al is sloppy drunk, and insists on "one last little drink" at Butch's Place where proprietor/piano player Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) is entertaining, and Fred Derry has already positioned himself at the bar. Now calm and not feeling like the object of curiosity, Homer picks up his beer glass flawlessly. Al brings his wife and daughter into the bar for a back-slapping reunion. [The three veterans rendezvous unexpectedly within the masculine sanctuary of the bar - their lives already intertwined.] Al promises Fred that before the night is over, they'll "deploy our forces and comb the town" and help find his wife. Homer believes that his family (and Wilma) are fond of him only because they take pity on him. He resolutely wants to discourage everyone's efforts to love him, despite his disability. In a sardonic tone, Butch wisely convinces Homer to return to his family - and to Wilma:
Homer: Wilma? What does she want?
Homer: Oh, why can't they leave a guy alone?
Butch: Because they're fond of ya, that's why. What made you leave the house and get them all worried?
Homer: Oh, they, they got me nervous...well, they keep staring at these hooks, or else they keep staring away from them.
Butch: Do you mean, whatever they do is wrong?
Homer: Why don't they understand that all I want is to be treated like everybody else?
Butch: Give 'em time, kid. They'll catch on. You know, your folks will get used to you, and you'll get used to them. Then everything will settle down nicely, unless we have another war. Then none of us have to worry because we'll all be blown to bits the first day. So cheer up, huh?
Fred strikes up an acquaintance with Peggy while her parents dance in the lounge:
Fred: You don't seem like Al's daughter.
Peggy: Actually, I'm not. He's my son by a previous marriage.
Fred: (after laughing) What did you say your name was?
As the bar is closed, Butch drives Homer home to bed, and Milly and Peggy take the 'stinking' drunk pair of Al and Fred home. On the way, they make a brief stop to drop Fred off at the Glenview Arms apartment house where Marie is supposedly located, but Fred is unable to gain entrance. So he is brought back to the Stephenson's apartment and helped to bed in Peggy's bedroom - she sleeps on the couch. During the night, Fred experiences fitful, sweaty nightmares of a disastrous bombing run over Germany. With her training experience in a hospital, Peggy hears his distress as he awakes in a strange bedroom, and comforts and soothes him: "There's nothing to be afraid of. All you have to do is go to sleep and rest. Go to sleep. Go to sleep, Fred. Go to sleep and rest." She tenderly wipes his brow and face and quiets his fears. The next morning over breakfast that Peggy has prepared, Fred is slightly hung-over and forgetful about the evening's celebration. He shows his fondness for her, but admits that he's married. With subdued affection for him, she explains why she is single: "I guess the best of 'em are already married." Peggy volunteers to drive Fred to Marie's apartment on her way to work in the hospital. Enroute, she learns he was a former soda-jerk in a lowly profession, and that he is becoming smitten by her. He doesn't want to return to his old job after his years of wartime heroics, experience and service:
Peggy: What d'ya do before the war, Fred?
Fred: I was a fountain attendant...soda jerk...Surprised?
Peggy: Yes, a little. I betcha you mixed up a fine ice cream soda.
Fred: You're darn right. I was an expert behind that fountain. I used to toss a scoop of ice cream in the air, adjust for wind drift, velocity, altitude. Then wham, in the cone every time. I figured that's where I really learned to drop bombs.
Peggy: What do you think you'll do now?
Fred: I'm not going back to that drugstore. Somehow or other, I can't figure myself getting excited about a root beer float. I don't know just what I will do. I'm gonna take plenty of time looking around.
Peggy: I guess after all the places you've been, Boone City looks pretty dreary to you.
Fred: Not from where I'm sitting right now. That's not just a line. I really meant it.
Later as he says goodbye to her, he compliments her sweet personality and helpfulness: "I think they ought to put you in mass production." The trauma of gradually adjusting back to civilian life and his domestic ties makes Al distrust that he's actually home with his loving wife on the morning after:
Al: You know, I had a dream. I dreamt I was home. I've had that dream hundreds of times before. This time, I wanted to find out if it's really true. Am I really home?
Milly: It looks like it, and you're going to be royally treated. You're having breakfast in bed.
Marie, Fred's blonde floozy wife, is awakened from sleep by the doorbell. She drags herself from bed and is delighted to see him at her apartment door -- she is mostly attracted by his handsome frame and his decorative, snappy uniform: "Oh, you're marveous. All those ribbons. You gotta tell me what they all mean." Milly realizes subtle changes in her husband's attitude when he treats her like a military subordinate: "All right Sergeant. Gosh, you got tough." Al is phoned by bank president Mr. Milton and urged to resume his peacetime duties. Al scornfully mocks the year's new compulsion and his antipathy toward his former boss:
Milly: You ought to rest a while. Take a vacation.
Al: Got to make money. Last year it was kill Japs. And this year it's 'make money.'
Milly: We're all right for the time being.
Al: Then why do they have to bother me about problems like that the first day I get home. Why can't they give a fella time to get used to his own family?
Fred revisits the drugstore where he was a fountain soda jerk - it looks unfamiliar to him because it was "sold out" to the Midway chain during his absence. He passes dozens of women shopping for perfume and other novelty counter items (rampant, crass advertisements and sale signs hang in the store) as he makes his way to the prescriptions section at the rear of the store. While Mr. Bullard (Erskine Sanford), the former owner and his former employer, explains the sell-out to the big chain, two other drugstore employees make contrasting comments about the typical serviceman's employment prospects in the post-war economy and marketplace:
Man: I'll bet he's back looking for a job.
Woman: And he'll get it too with all those ribbons on his chest.
Man: Well, nobody's job is safe with all these servicemen crowding in.
Mr. Thorpe (Howland Chamberlin), the new store manager whose office is perched above, explains how the chain is under "no legal obligation" to give him his old position back. Without qualifying job skills or experience (other than two years behind a soda fountain and three years targeting bombsites), Fred is not experienced in "procurement - purchasing of supplies, materials" or "personnel work." Quite plainly, Fred replies: "I didn't do any of that. I just dropped bombs...I was only responsible for getting the bombs on the target. I didn't command anybody." It is tragically and bluntly implied that his best years were in the Air Force:
Mr. Thorpe: Unfortunately, we've no opportunities for that with Midway Drugs. However, we might be able to provide an opening for you as an assistant to Mr. Merkle, the floor manager...Incidentally, your work would require part-time duties at the soda fountain.
Fred: At what salary?
Mr. Thorpe: Thirty-two fifty per week.
Fred: Thirty-two fifty. I used to make over four hundred dollars a month in the Air Force.
Mr. Thorpe: The war is over, Derry.
Al's prospects at his former place of employment are much more promising. At the Cornbelt Trust Company, Al is told that there is "considerable uncertainty in the business picture. Strikes, taxes still ruin us...Oh, things will readjust themselves in time. We want you back here in the saddle." Mr. Milton offers him advancement as Vice President in charge of a new department (small loans to veterans) at a salary of $12,000 a year:
You're the man for it...Your war experience will prove invaluable to us here. See, we have many new problems. This GI Bill of Rights, for instance. It involves us in consideration of all kinds of loans to ex-servicemen. We need a man who understands the soldier's problems. And at the same time, who's well grounded in the fundamental principles of sound banking. In other words, you.