The Story (continued)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
When Fred returns home wearing his unromantic, civilian clothes for the first time, Marie reacts with a crestfallen, disdainful, dismayed look. She begs him to wear his dashing, glamorous flying uniform during their visit that evening to the Blue Devil nightclub, her place of employment: "Oh, honey, you'll look so handsome, and I'd be so proud to be out with you. Won't you, please?" He brags to a delighted Marie that they're not penniless: "I've got money, cash money, nearly a thousand bucks right from the good ol' US Treasury." But after his discouraging day at the drugstore and his many years in the service in a uniform, he rejects being "right back where we started. We can never be back there again. We never want to be back there."
Homer's adjustment remains difficult - he lacks self-confidence and remains isolated from his parents and Wilma. He amuses himself with shooting practice in his garage - "he just keeps to himself all the time." He and Wilma finally talk about the uncertainties of their relationship. She vows devoted, steadfast love for Homer and that nothing has changed her love for him, but he repudiates her:
Homer: What about us? We're all right, aren't we?
Wilma: No, listen to me, Homer.
Homer: I'm listening.
Wilma: You wrote me that when you got home, you and I were going to be married. If you wrote that once, you wrote it a hundred times. Isn't that true?
Homer: Yes, but things are different now.
Wilma: Have you changed your mind?
Homer: Have I said anything about changing my mind?
Wilma: No. That's just it. You haven't said anything about anything...I don't know what to think, Homer. All I know is, I was in love with you when you left and I'm in love with you now. Other things may have changed but that hasn't.
Neighborhood playmates of Luella's peek through the garage window on their conversation with innocent thoughts of their engagement and curiosity about his hooks. Exasperated that he may be the humiliating object of insensitive childhood attention, Homer vainly tries to open the doorknob with his hook to get outside and yell at them: "You want to see how the hooks work? Do you want to see the freak? All right, I'll show ya!" He smashes his two hook-fists through the glass window that they were spying him through next to the door - a bold, unflinching gesture that a person with real flesh-and-blood hands would never dare - and he shouts furiously: "Take a good look." But then he realizes he has scared and frightened his sister and he apologizes to her and to Wilma. He agonizes over inflicting himself on Wilma:
Homer: I'm sorry, Luella. It isn't your fault. Just go on and play with your friends. (To Wilma) I know Wilma, I was wrong. I shouldn't have acted like that. It wasn't her that burned my hands off. I'll be all right. I just got to work it out myself.
Wilma: I could help you, Homer, if you'd let me.
Homer: I've got to work it out myself. All I want is for people to treat me like anybody else instead of pitying me. It guess it's, it's hard for them to do that. I've just got to learn to get used to it and pay no attention.
Wilma: Couldn't I...?
Homer: No, I've got to do it myself.
That evening, as Homer retires for the night, his father's duty is to assist Homer in removing his robe, and then the halter to which the mechanical hooks are attached.
Soon, Fred finds himself "broke" and cannot afford to take Marie out to fancy restaurants anymore: "We spent it, babe. That's what happened. I'm sorry it's so sudden. I didn't tell you the money was almost gone because every day I kept hoping I was going to land a good job. But at last, I've got it through my thick skull that I'm not going to get one so we'll just have to forget about Jackie's Hotspot and the Blue Devil and all the rest." Without skills and a job, he has become desperate and disillusioned, and his night-time inner demons and ramblings have intensified:
Marie: Can't you get those things out of your system?
Fred: Oh sure.
Marie: Maybe that's what's holding you back. You know, the war's over. You won't get anyplace 'til you stop thinking about it. Come on, snap out of it.
When his independent-minded wife refuses to eat his cooking at home, their relationship becomes more strained between them. He grabs his selfish, embittered wife and admits that his war-time skills are not transferable to state-side jobs. She drops down in a chair in their living room and removes her false eyelashes - she is disgusted by his inability to advance himself:
Fred: When we were married, babe, the Justice of the Peace said something about 'For richer, for poorer, for better, for worse.' Remember? Well, this is the 'worse.'
Marie: Well, when do we get going on the 'better?'
Fred: Whenever I get wise to myself, I guess. Whenever I wake up and realize I'm not an officer and a gentleman anymore. I'm just another soda jerk out of a job.
Having given up on finding a decent job, a discouraged Fred returns to the Midway Drugstore and accepts his pre-war work - now behind the perfume counter to sell to the female clientele: "You must familiarize yourself with the correct pronounciation of all the perfumes and toiletries."
During the course of his work at the bank, Al is asked to approve a GI loan to an able-bodied, ex-sharecropper, Pacific Theatre (Seabee) veteran, Mr. Novak (Dean White), who wishes to buy a 40 acre farm without collateral ("security for your loan") - stocks and bonds, real estate, or valuables of any kind. Al knows there is "an element of risk involved," but he finds it difficult to deny old loyalties. So he defies bank procedures and commercial realities and assures Novak: "You'll get your loan...You look like a good risk to me. And when those tomato plants start producing, I'll come out for some free samples." Each month, Homer receives a disability pension from the bank: "Two hundred leafs of cabbage - that's what I get every month from ol' Mr. Whiskers from now on. Pretty soft, eh?"
One day, Peggy appears as one of Fred's customers, to his embarrassed chagrin, and because "it's against the rules here to chat with customers unless it's a sale," Fred speaks to her about complexion cremes and lotions - and slips in an invitation to go out for lunch:
Peggy: I didn't really come in to buy anything. Dad told me you were working here and I just dropped in to say hello.
Fred: (as he shows her a perfume) Oh just a minute. I have - I have an hour off at one o'clock. Are you doing anything for lunch?
Peggy: Why no.
Fred: Thank you madam. (softly) I'll meet you outside in twenty minutes.
During their lunch visit in Lucia's, an Italian restaurant, he tells her his dreams when he was overseas: "One, that I knew I'd never go back to that drugstore...I dreamed I was going to have my own home. Just a nice little house with my wife out in the country, in the suburbs anyway."
Fred: That's the cock-eyed kind of dream you have when you're overseas.
Peggy: You don't have to be overseas to have dreams like that.
Fred: Yeah. You can get crazy ideas right here at home.
They both realize they are in love and kiss in the parking lot. Fred admits he overstepped his bounds: "That shouldn't have happened, but I guess it had to."
To the bank president in his office that same day, Al must defend his idealistic, non-collateral loan to fellow veteran Mr. Novak on the basis of his own judgment: "Novak looked to me like a good bet...You see Mr. Milton, in the Army, I've had to be with men when they were stripped of everything in the way of property except what they carried around with them and inside them. I saw them being tested. Now some of them stood up to it and some didn't. But you got so you could tell which ones you could count on. I tell you this man Novak is okay. His collateral is in his hands, in his heart and his guts. It's in his right as a citizen." The senior bankers grumble but then politely reprimand him and subtly warn him about further gambling with the bank depositors' money: "However, in the future Al..."
Late that afternoon, Fred at first resists a double-date invitation from 'Miss Peggy Stephenson' [with her date, Woody Merrill] to join them as guests for dinner and dancing at the Embassy Club, presumably because he can't accept charity. The fun-loving, shallow-hearted Marie is suspicious that he has feelings for another woman:
Marie: Say, who is this Peggy Stephenson?
Fred: She's a girl.
Marie: I didn't think she was a kangaroo. Where did you meet her?
Fred: I told you. The night I got back when you weren't here. Al Stephenson and his wife took me home with them. She's their daughter. I'd never seen her before.
Marie: Or since?
Fred: Listen, babe, if you think you're gonna make anything out of this, you're due for a big disappointment. I just don't like to be accepting handouts when we're broke.
Marie: Well, if that's it, you'd better get used to it, because I don't see how we're gonna get much fun on your thirty two fifty a week.
As he dresses for the evening's bank banquet where he'll probably have to make a speech, Al gets "well plastered" to meet the situation. Milly tells Al her intuitive hunch that their daughter is "crazy about" Fred Derry, not her egotistical, well-heeled date of the evening Woody Merrill (Victor Cutler). Al is worried that his daughter is emotionally involved with a married man. To her parents, Peggy divulges her silly "love" for Fred:
Peggy: I know what you both think.
Al: What are we thinking?
Peggy: You're afraid I may be in love with Fred.
Al: Why I never had any such idea?
Milly: Shut up, Al. Are you in love with him?
Peggy: Yes. But I don't want to be. That's why I asked him and his wife to go out with us this evening. I think it ought to have a very healthy effect on me. Once I get to know her, well, I'm sure I'll stop being silly about the whole thing.
At the elegant welcome-home banquet attended by stuffy bankers and their wives, Al is honored by Mr. Milton as "one who has valiantly fought for that freedom" to have a "land of unlimited opportunity for all." Milly has been keeping track of her husband's drink count by making hash marks in the tablecloth with the tines of her fork. Already soused, Al delivers a two-faced, wartime parable to rectify himself in front of his astonished, skeptical audience about how battles and wars are not won by first demanding collateral from Uncle Sam. He asks his associates to show more tolerance and acceptance toward the less privileged veterans returning from the war:
I'm sure you'll all agree with me if I said that now is the time for all of us to stop all this nonsense, face facts, get down to brass tacks, forget about the war and go fishing. But I'm not gonna say it. I'm just going to sum the whole thing up in one word. [Milly coughs loudly to caution him - worrying that he will tell off the boss.] My wife doesn't think I'd better sum it up in that one word. I want to tell you all that the reason for my success as a Sergeant is due primarily to my previous training in the Cornbelt Loan and Trust Company. The knowledge I acquired in the good ol' bank I applied to my problems in the infantry. For instance, one day in Okinawa, a Major comes up to me and he says, 'Stephenson, you see that hill?' 'Yes sir, I see it.' 'All right,' he said. 'You and your platoon will attack said hill and take it.' So I said to the Major, 'but that operation involves considerable risk. We haven't sufficient collateral.' 'I'm aware of that,' said the Major, 'but the fact remains that there's the hill and you are the guys that are going to take it.' So I said to him, 'I'm sorry Major, no collateral, no hill.' So we didn't take the hill and we lost the war.' I think that little story has considerable significance, but I've forgotten what it is. And now in conclusion, I'd like to tell you a humorous anecdote. I know several humorous anecdotes, but I can't think of any way to clean them up, so I'll only say this much. I love the Cornbelt Loan and Trust Company. There are some who say that the old bank is suffering from hardening of the arteries and of the heart. I refuse to listen to such radical talk. I say that our bank is alive, it's generous, it's human, and we're going to have such a line of customers seeking and getting small loans that people will think we're gambling with the depositors' money. And we will be. We will be gambling on the future of this country. I thank you.
During their double date the same evening, Peggy describes for Fred her deliberate intention to bring all of them together:
Peggy: I did it deliberately...to prove to myself that what happened this afternoon didn't really happen.
Fred: But it did happen. It had to happen. And if we go on seeing each other, Peggy, it will happen again.
The inescapable fact is that they're in love - and Fred doesn't love his wife. In the ladies room in front of a mirror in a carefully-composed shot, the tawdry Marie powders her face and applies lipstick - with a venal tone, she reveals her incompatibilities and lack of love for her husband, her resentment, and her flirtatious interest in Peggy's good-looking date Woody (Peggy admits feeling 'no romance' for him):
(To Peggy) Never mind the romantic part of it. That takes care of itself. And I'm speaking from experience. They'll tell you money isn't everything. Well, maybe it isn't, but boy how it helps! Do you know that while Fred was away, I was drawing over five hundred dollars a month, I mean, from his Army pay and the job I had. Now the two of us got to live on what Fred gets from being a drugstore cowboy - thirty two fifty a week. Poor Fred. I guess you think he's an awful sourpuss. He didn't used to be that way, though. The Army's had an awful effect on him - knocked all the life out of him...You can't have happy marriages on that kind of dough.
Following her "disagreeable experience" of the night, Peggy returns home - her entrance into her parent's bedroom is another example of deep-focus photography. The intelligent, articulate, headstrong daughter vows to her stunned parents that she is determined to win Fred away from his wife: "I've made up my mind...I'm going to break that marriage up. I can't stand it seeing Fred tied to a woman he doesn't love and who doesn't love him. Oh it's horrible for him. It's humiliating and it's killing his spirit. Somebody's got to help him...He doesn't love her, he hates her. I know it. I know it." Peggy plans to interfere with and break up Fred's marriage, because he is in love with her. Her father is shocked, incensed and annoyed by her foolish, blind, adolescent love:
Al: Who are you, God? How did you get this power to interfere in other people's lives?
Milly: Is Fred in love with you?
Milly: You've been seeing him.
Peggy: Only once, today. Oh, it was all perfectly respectable. But when we were saying goodbye, he took me in his arms and kissed me and I knew.
Al: And you think a kiss from a smooth operator like Fred - you think that means anything?
Peggy: You don't know him. You don't know anything about what's inside him. And neither does she, his wife. That's probably what she thought when she married him. A smooth operator with money in his pockets. But now he isn't smooth any longer and she's lost interest in him.
Al: Whereas you're possessed of all the wisdom of the ages. You can see into the secret recesses of his innermost soul.
Peggy: I can see because I love him.
Al: So you're gonna break this marriage up. Have you decided yet how you're gonna do it? Are you gonna do it with an axe?
Peggy: It's none of your business how I'm gonna do it. You've forgotten what it's like to be in love.
Al: You hear that, Milly? I'm so old and decrepit I've forgotten how it feels to want somebody desperately.
Milly: Peggy didn't mean that, did you darling?
Peggy: Oh, no. I don't know what I do mean. It's just that, everything has always been so perfect for you. You loved each other and you got married in a big church, and you had a honeymoon in the south of France. And you never had any trouble of any kind. So how can you possibly understand how it is with Fred and me?
Milly: We never had any trouble. (To Al) How many times have I told you I hated you, and believed it in my heart. How many times have you said you were sick and tired of me, that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?
Peggy sobs on the bed, where she is held and comforted by her mother. The young girl apologizes for her short-sightedness and naivete. In the smoky shadows of their apartment's hallway, Al ponders how he will rid his daughter of her obsession with Fred for her own best interest.