Fredric March: The Best in … The Best Years of Our Lives
by Michael Nazarewycz
One of the great treats for us, as fans of movies from any era, is when a great ensemble cast is brought together. We would pay good money for a great movie with two or three big names in it, but when the number of stars cruises past the half-dozen mark, it’s like were getting our entertainment wholesale.
But I have to imagine that, for all the pleasure we get from watching an ensemble picture, it must be daunting for the actors, not just having to share scenes with one or two costars, but having to share screen time and billing and publicity with five or six other actors who are celebrities in their own right. It’s because of this that I’ve always considered an actor’s ability to shine brighter than all of the other shiny bright things around him the mark of a true master of his craft.
Fredric March is that master, in director William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. In a film crowded with big names, big talent, younger faces, and juicier characters, March owns every scene he’s in … to the point that he winds up owning the entire film.
Arguably Wyler’s greatest film, The Best Years of Our Lives is not your typical World War II picture. Rather than show the glory or tragedy of battle (as many war films do), and rather than tell some other dramatic or romantic tale with the war as a backdrop (as many other war films do), The Best Years of Our Lives instead focuses on what happens when the fighting is over and the fighters go home.
The film follows the lives of three servicemen who return home from World War II: Al Stephenson (March), an Army Sergeant in the Infantry; Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a Captain on an Air Force bomber; and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a Navy Seaman aboard a carrier. The three men hail from Boone City, a midsize town somewhere in the nondescript Midwest. They meet on a military transport, each of them hitching a ride home, and they quickly bond as they wonder with anxiety what it will be like to be home again; “nervous out of the service” as one of them puts it. What follows is a story of not just how each man is received by his loved ones, but how each man adjusts to the normalcy of stateside life after having fought in the war.
Not only are the characters from different branches of the military, they are from different generations and different walks of life. Al is in his early forties, with a wife (Myrna Loy), a college-age daughter (Teresa Wright), and a son in high school. He and his family live in a luxurious high-rise apartment, and prior to serving in the war, Al was an executive at the local bank. Fred is in his early thirties, with a wife (Virginia Mayo) who lives with his parents. The home is more shack than house, in a depressed part of town, and before serving in the war, Fred was a soda jerk at the local drugstore. At no more than 19, Homer is a middle-class man living in a Rockwellian home with his parents and his kid sister. Living next door to him is his fiancée, Wilma Cameron (Cathy O’Donnell). No mention is made of his pre-war career, so it’s a safe assumption that he enlisted soon after graduating high school.
This dichotomy of character makes for a nice, high-level representation of the men who fought in WWII – young and old, rich and poor, married and single, parent and child, successful and struggling. But that’s where the generalization ends the realization truly begins.
When Fred returns home, he wants a life better than the one he had before the war, but no sooner is he back in Boone City, he is faced with conflict. His wife, Marie, has left his parents’ house and all but disowned them, moved into her own apartment, and taken a job in a nightclub. When he finally tracks down where she lives, she isn’t home. That isn’t much of a homecoming for a man who left town a newlywed.
Also faced with conflict is Homer, whose plight appears to be the toughest. You see, marring that seemingly perfect, Rockwellian existence is the fact that Homer has no hands; he lost them in the war. He now makes use of hooks. Although he has been trained to use his new appendages quite adeptly, the prosthetics are simply too glaring to not notice, and Homer is afraid that everyone – particularly Wilma – won’t stop staring at them. From his first moment home, there is an uncomfortable atmosphere between Homer and Wilma, and between Homer and his parents, making his homecoming bittersweet.
And then there’s Al, who comes home to what appears to be the perfect situation to come home to. He lives in a beautiful apartment, not some ramshackle house. His wife is home tending to things, not out gallivanting. He is physically unscathed, not dependent upon mechanical prosthetics to strike matches and light cigarettes to prove to the world that he can still function normally.
When reunited with his family, Al learns how much his children have changed. His daughter, Peggy, has become Daddy’s Little Girl all-grown-up. Her maturity belies her age, and her independence and self-sufficiency are tough for Al to swallow. His son, Rob (Michael Hall), has become an intellectual, outsmarting the old man with questions about the necessity of war, and disappointing the old man by being unimpressed with the impressive souvenirs brought home as spoils of war. But the most telling change brought by Al’s absence is between Al and his wife, Milly. Sure, there are little things that occur like Al forgetting that Milly doesn’t smoke, or Milly needing to remind a friend on the phone that Al is her husband.
But there is a greater sense of overall trepidation between the two. They have the familiarity and sense of obligation that a couple married for twenty-plus years ought to have, but because of Al’s extended absence, they are constantly looking for a comfort level the way couples do early in the dating process. You almost get the sense that had they not already shared a life together, they wouldn’t make it past the first date.
With respect to Dana Andrews, Fred’s woes are easy to understand, and therefor easy for Andrews to project as an actor. When he finally reunites with Marie, Fred finds a different woman than the one he left after their quickie marriage. She is superficial and greedy; when they go out for the first time, she insists that Fred wear his dress uniform because he’ll be more impressive to her friends. And when his bonus money dries up and he’s only making one-quarter of what he made in the military (he has no marketable skills, and there is very little need for bombers in the private sector), Marie reconsiders their relationship. While woeful, they are “easy” woes in the sense that they are obvious and the audience can easily connect, leaving less for Andrews to do as an actor.
With respect to Harold Russell, who lost his hands in WWII in real life, Homer’s woes are even easier to understand than Fred’s, and therefor easier for Russell to project as an actor (even an amateur actor, which he was). Homer’s permanent physical disability, while worthy of the greatest respect, and while a constant reminder of the sacrifices our young men made in service to their country, and while the most real thing in this movie, is surely the most obvious challenge that any of the three men face, because no matter how adept Homer is with his hooks, he will still face the stigma of being stared at by the ignorant, and he will forever be dependent on others – others like WIlma – when he takes off the hooks to go to bed each night. In terms of work, Homer will be paid by the government for the disability he suffered – to the tune of making more than Fred.
As for Al, his return to work only complicates matters. He is fortunate that he has a good job to go back to, and he even receives a promotion and a raise, but the good fortune comes with an emotional price. Times are tough and jobs are hard to come by, and Al’s ease of reentering the workforce, regardless of how well-deserved that reentry might be, perhaps occurs too quickly, not allowing sufficient time for Al to readjust to civilian life. Al is quickly sympathetic to the plight of the returning serviceman, which clouds his once-sharp business judgment, and gains critical notice by his superiors. With all of this upheaval occurring over such a short period, Al turns to alcohol for relief.
It’s at this point when you realize why March won the Best Actor Oscar.
Al has a nice home, a loving family, and a good job (making about $150k in today’s money). On the surface, it seems the biggest challenge he’s had to face is returning to a home where the maid had been let go. Poor him. Yes, Al’s problems do indeed seem to be the least troublesome of the three, and therefore you might think that March would have the easiest time acting as such; but it’s quite the opposite.
March makes Al’s problems the most difficult not because of the problems themselves, but because of how the problems affect his character. Rather than playing the part as a bitter man whose once-comfortable life is now only comfortable on the surface, March plays the part as a man who is uncomfortable in very comfortable surroundings. He is a survivor of war and a survivor of life, but a victim of survivor’s guilt. However, rather than let it consume him, he instead delivers a rousing speech at a company banquet in his honor, and although it starts out shaky (thanks to the booze), he recovers beautifully to promise that he will use his military experience, in conjuncture with his banking expertise, to help veterans obtain loans, all the while improving the bank’s image and bottom-line.
That is no easy feat by March as an actor, particularly in a film where so many other compelling things are happening that his screen time is less than what it would be in a film with a smaller cast and a simpler story; in a film with younger and prettier stars like Andrews and Mayo; in a film where a genuine war hero bears his soul and shares his pain; in a film where legendary songwriter Hoagy Carmichael has a small role as Homer’s piano-playing Uncle Butch. With all of that going on – enough to win the film six OTHER Oscars (plus an Honorary statue) in the process – March gives a masterclass in maximizing screen time.
The Best Years of Our Lives is a film epic in length, intimate in scope, and bright with shining stars … led by Fredric March, the brightest of them all.
Michael Nazarewycz is a film buff and writer who spent his childhood watching old black-and-whites and cheesy horrors on UHF. He’s been hooked ever since, and readily admits that he’ll watch anything anyone would consider a motion picture, from a nickelodeon silent to a digital epic. Michael is a Writer for UK-based Filmoria, a contributor to LikeTotally80s, and writes for his own blog, ScribeHard on Film, where he shares more personal thoughts on movies and offers in-depth analysis of the classics. Michael invites you to follow him on Twitter @ScribeHard, where he Tweets mostly about … what else? … movies.
Jill Blake is the owner/managing editor of the classic film website Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. She is also a co-founder and editor of the film site The Moviola and film editor at CC2K. In 2012, she was interviewed on-air by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. In 2013, she was a featured guest on the TCM podcast. In her spare time Jill is a stay-at-home mom, wife, fried okra connoisseur, and the neighborhood’s own L.B. Jeffries.