The Story (continued)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
The next day in Butch's Place, Al breaks up Fred's romance with his daughter, brutally implying that Fred isn't a "decent guy" even though he was bonded to him as a returning veteran:
Al: I happen to be quite fond of Peggy, and I, uh...
Fred: ...don't want her to get mixed up with a heel like me.
Al: I haven't called you a heel, yet. I just don't want to see her get into this mess...I don't like the idea of you sneaking around corners to see Peggy, taking her love on a bootleg basis. I give you fair warning. I'm going to do everything I can to keep her away from you, to help her forget about you, and get her married to some decent guy who can make her happy.
Fred: Then, I guess that's it, Al. I don't see her anymore. I'll put that in the form of a guarantee. I won't see her anymore. I'll call her up and tell her so. Does that satisfy you?
In one of the film's best examples of deep-focus composition, Fred enters a glass-enclosed telephone booth at the far end of the saloon, to call Peggy to tell her that he won't be seeing her anymore. Al's back is to the camera in a booth in the foreground. When Homer arrives, Al and Butch join him at a piano in the foreground (with Fred still in the background), where the hook-handed, beginning pianist improvises and plays "Chopsticks" with Butch. Al glances back at Fred in the phone booth as he breaks the difficult news to Peggy. There are no close-ups of Fred during the painful phone call. In the contrasting foreground, Homer finds that he can accomplish things, such as piano-playing, that he never thought possible. Back in the Stephenson apartment with her mother, Peggy is initially stunned and heartbroken by Fred's phone call, and she mindlessly shucks pea pods in her hands. But then, with ambivalence, she describes her newly-hardened heart:
He said he's sorry for what happened but it was just one of those things. He said it wouldn't be fair to his wife for us to see each other anymore because I'm obviously the kind of girl that takes these things too seriously. Then he said goodbye very politely and hung up. Well, I guess you and Dad don't have to worry about me anymore. That's the end of my career as a homewrecker. Mom, I know you feel sorry for me. You think my poor little heart is broken, but you can save your sympathy. I can see things clearer now. I made a fool of myself. I'm getting some sense hammered into me now. I'm glad I'm out of that mess. I'm glad I'll never see him again.
At the soda fountain in the drugstore, where Fred has returned to work from Butch's Place, Homer joins him at the counter. A disgruntled, radical-leaning customer (Ray Teal) asks the good-natured, jovial Homer a "personal question" about his hooks, and then loudly and scornfully criticizes the integrity of the country's leaders who led servicemen into a senseless, worthless war:
Homer: I know what it is. How did I get these hooks and how do they work? That's what everybody says when they start off with 'Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?' Well, I'll tell ya. I got sick and tired of that old pair of hands I had. You know, an awful lot of trouble washing them and manicuring my nails. So I traded them in for a pair of these latest models. They work by radar. Look. (He takes a scoop of his ice cream sundae with a spoon.) Pretty cute, hey?
Customer: You got plenty of guts. It's terrible when you see a guy like you that had to sacrifice himself - and for what?
Homer: And for what? I don't getcha Mister?
Customer: ...We let ourselves get sold down the river. We were pushed into war.
Homer: Sure, by the Japs and the Nazis so we had...
Customer: No, the Germans and the Japs had nothing against us. They just wanted to fight the Limies and the Reds. And they would have whipped 'em too if we didn't get deceived into it by a bunch of radicals in Washington.
Homer: What are you talkin' about?
Customer: We fought the wrong people, that's all. (Pointing at his newspaper, with headlines: "SENATOR WARNS OF NEW WAR") Just read the facts, my friend. Find out for yourself why you had to lose your hands. And then go out and do something about it.
Overhearing their discussion, Fred intervenes and firmly asks the haranguing customer, who espouses "plain, old-fashioned Americanism," to pay and leave. When Homer and the man continue their disagreement and begin scuffling at the cash register, Fred punches the customer in the mouth - sending him crashing into a glass case. Because "the customer's always right," Fred is subsequently fired by Mr. Thorpe. As they leave the drugstore, Fred wearily offers "advice to the lovelorn" and suggests that Homer should find Wilma and, before it's too late, marry her immediately:
Take her in your arms, and kiss her. Ask her to marry you. Then marry her. Tomorrow if you can get a license that fast. If you want anybody to stand up for you at your wedding...
As Homer prepares to go to bed that evening, Wilma appears - first as a shadow outside his kitchen door - to talk to him about her parents' request that she go away the next day to Silver Lake (to her Aunt Vera's place). Their intention is to have her forget about Homer. She gives her childhood sweetheart an ultimatum about their unresolved feelings:
Wilma: They figure you don't want me around. You don't want to see me, and if I go away for awhile, maybe I'll get all of this out of my mind...Do you want to get rid of me? Tell me the truth, Homer. Do you want me to forget about you?
Homer: I want you to be free, Wilma, to live your own life. I don't want you tied down forever just because you've got a kind heart.
Wilma: Oh, Homer! Why can't you ever understand the way things really are, the way I really feel? I keep trying to tell you.
Homer: But, but you don't know what it would be like to live with me. Have to face this every day, every night.
Wilma: I can only find out by trying. And if it turns out I haven't courage enough, we'll soon know it.
Homer: Wilma, you and I have been close to each other for a long time, haven't we? Ever since we were kids.
Wilma: Yes, Homer.
Homer: I'm going upstairs to bed. I wantcha, I want ya to come up and see for yourself what happens.
Wilma: All right, Homer.
Homer intends to shock her into rejecting him by showing her how she will have to endure his nightly routine with his 'hooks' every night. In another of the film's most memorable, touching and moving sequences - an unconventional love scene - she follows him upstairs to his bedroom where he shares an utmost private intimacy with her. He asks her to help perform the nightly duties normally assumed by his father. He removes his robe, and then demonstrates how he can take his harness off without assistance. He stands helplessly in front of her with what is left of his arms. His hooks and halter apparatus lie on the bed. He "wiggles" into his pajama top, as she stands attentively and calmly. She gently reassures him of her deep love, paving the way for Homer's acceptance that their love can overcome any misfortune or disability:
Homer: I'm lucky I have my elbows. Some of the boys don't, but I can't button them up.
Wilma: I'll do that, Homer. (She quietly buttons his pajama top, as she affectionately looks up at him.)
Homer: This is when I know I'm helpless. My hands are down there on the bed. I can't put them on again without calling to somebody for help. I can't smoke a cigarette or read a book. If that door should blow shut, I can't open it and get out of this room. I'm as dependent as a baby that doesn't know how to get anything except to cry for it. Well, now you know, Wilma. Now you have an idea of what it is. I guess you don't know what to say. It's all right. Go on home. Go away like your family said.
Wilma: (She kneels in front of him.) I know what to say, Homer. I love you and I'm never going to leave you, never. (She wraps her arms around his neck and kisses him.)
Homer: (astonished) You mean you, you didn't mind?
Wilma: Of course not. I told you I loved you.
Homer: I love you, Wilma. I always have and I always will. (She hugs him and caresses his hair - this time, he reciprocates with one arm behind her back. She tucks him into bed and covers him up.)
Wilma: Good night, darling. Sleep well. (She kisses him goodnight, turns out the light, and thoughtfully leaves the door slightly ajar as she leaves. Homer lies in bed, staring upward at the ceiling, with tears welling up and streaming down.)
Fred stands in a long, unemployment office line to find work. When he returns home, he walks into his apartment and finds his wife has a slimy male visitor, Cliff Scully (Steve Cochran), an ex-Marine and "old friend" of Marie's who has "just dropped in for a friendly drink." After throwing Cliff out, Fred realizes that she probably knew him while he was away, and has been an unfaithful, cheating tart to him all along. Marie is angry and fed up and demands a rapid divorce from their disintegrating marriage. Her parting line is intended to humiliate her husband:
Marie: What do you think I was doing all those years?
Fred: I don't know, babe, but I can guess.
Marie: Go ahead. Guess your head off. I could do some guessing myself. What were you up to in London and Paris and all those places? I've given you every chance to make something of yourself. I gave up my own job when you asked me. I gave up the best years of my life, and what have you done? You flopped! Couldn't even hold that job at the drugstore. So I'm going back to work for myself and that means I'm gonna live for myself too. And in case you don't understand English, I'm gonna get a divorce. What have you got to say to that?
Fred: Don't keep Cliff waiting.
Marie: What are you gonna do?
Fred: I'm going away.
Fred: As far away from Boone City as I can get.
Marie: That's a good idea. You'll get a good job someplace else. There are drugstores everywhere.
Jobless and discouraged by his marital problems, Fred prepares to leave town for "a fresh start in some other place" by packing his belongings in his parent's apartment - a shack by the railroad tracks. He leaves behind his now-meaningless military citations with his father: "They're just a lot of fancy words that don't mean anything. You can throw them away...Those things came in the packages of K-rations." His father regards them as more valuable than that: "Well, we'll treasure them, my boy," and then vainly encourages his son to stay around, rather than attempting to find better luck in another town:
Father: How do you know it will be different anyplace else? There's a need here for fellas like yourself that fought and won the war. I know you haven't had the best of breaks since you got back, but well, it seems like you ought to stick here and slug it out a while longer on your own home ground.
Fred: You're all right, Pop. But I know when it's time to bail out.
At the Air Forces terminal, Fred is told that he must wait until 8 pm that evening to catch the first flight out - eastbound: "You don't seem to care where you're going." In a bittersweet scene, Fred's father reads to his wife his son's distinguished medal citations, a Distinguished Flying Cross, for valor and heroism in the skies over Germany. His voice breaks and cracks, almost imperceptibly, as he swells with pride over the knowledge that his son is a true hero:
Headquarters, Eighth Air Force. Award of the Distinguished Flying Cross...Despite intense pain, shock, and loss of blood, with complete disregard of his personal safety, Captain Derry crawled back to his bombsight, guided his formation on a perfect run over the objective, and released his bombs with great accuracy. The heroism, devotion to duty, professional skill, and coolness under fire displayed by Captain Derry under the most difficult conditions reflect highest credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the United States of America. By command of Lieutenant General Doolittle.
As Fred waits for his plane's departure, he wanders through a massive, desolate graveyard of junked WW II airplanes, thinking of his own self-pity, unhappiness, and failure. He too must be as useless, wrecked, forlorn, and stripped as these old planes he once flew. They are being disrespectfully dismantled and scrapped. He jumps up into the belly of one of the dead fighter planes, and makes his way through the dusty relic to the nose of the B-17 - the bombadier's position. As he sits transfixed at the front of the bomber (with gutted engines), he relives the anguished experience of many wartime bombing missions - sweat pours from his face as he exorcises his war-time ghosts. The camera tracks forward on a boom toward the plane, simulating flying movement. In his memory, he hears the plane take-off - his head lowers, and the camera sneaks up behind him. He is jolted back to reality when a workman (Pat Flaherty) suddenly orders him down, and then considers him a job:
Foreman: Hey you, what are you doing in that airplane?
Fred: I used to work in one of those.
Foreman: Reviving old memories, huh?
Fred: Yeah, or maybe getting some of 'em out of my system.
Foreman: Well, you can take your last look at these crates. We're breakin' them up.
Fred: Yeah, I know. You're the junkman. You get everything sooner or later.
Foreman: This is no junk. We're using this material for building pre-fabricated houses.
Fred: You don't need any help, do ya?
Foreman: Out of a job?
Fred: That's it.
Foreman: I see. One of the fallen angels of the Air Force. Well, pardon me if I show no sympathy. While you glamour boys were up in the wild blue yonder, I was down in a tank.
Fred: Listen, chum. Sometime I'd be glad to hear the story of your war experiences. What I asked you for is a job? You got one?
Foreman: Do you know anything about building?
Fred: No, but there's one thing I do know. I know how to learn, same as I learned that job up there.
The Cameron household is in the midst of a festive wedding ceremony for Homer and Wilma's wedding - the film's final scene. Although Homer feared that Fred was leaving town, he is there to serve as the best man. He has moved back in with his folks:
Homer: I was afraid you wouldn't be able to stand up for me.
Fred: I'd stand up for you, kid, 'til I drop.
The guests also include Al, Milly, and Peggy. All the film's major protagonists are reunited. In the crowded front hall before the ceremony, Fred stands and watches Peggy until she turns and notices him. It is the first time they have seen and talked to each other since the break-up.
Peggy: Well, what have you been doing with yourself lately?
Peggy: Yes, uh, Dad told me he heard you were in some kind of building work.
Fred: Well, that's a hopeful way of putting it. I'm really in the junk business - an occupation for which many people feel I'm well-qualified by temperament and training. It's fascinating work.
Wilma is a lovely bride as she descends from the second-floor, and is led forward by her father to her bridegroom Homer and Fred, the best man. Wilma clasps Homer's right hook during their marital vows. Nervous, Homer stumbles over a few words during the recitation. [Three couples are suggestively framed in the camera's view - for each, there are different meanings attached to the vows.] During the phrase 'for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer,' Fred and Peggy (with wet eyes) glance at each other from across the room. Homer steadies Wilma's trembling hand - she's the nervous one - and skillfully slides the ring onto the fourth finger of her left hand. After they are pronounced man and wife, they kiss before the congregation, amd well-wishers crowd around them. Fred moves toward Peggy in the distant background and kisses her in his arms - they are still in love, but she must wait for him until his divorce is final:
You know what it'll be, don't you, Peggy? It may take us years to get anywhere. We'll have no money, no decent place to live. We'll have to work - get kicked around.
Peggy beams at him - her luminous smile and a close-up of their kiss fills the screen. Her hat falls from her hair. The film fades to black.Also Worth Considering:
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)