Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The women of "The Best Years of Our Lives"

There's a big snowstorm heading for the Catskills which will probably disrupt my Internet access all day today, so I've had to come up with a post early. With yet another airing of The Best Years of Our Lives on tonight at 8:00 PM as TCM honors all of the Best Supporting Actor nominees from 1946, I figured I'd look at the movie again from another angle, this being a movie that stands up to so many repeated viewings. When I blogged about the movie for it airing exactly six years ago, I did a piece contrasting Fredric March's character, Al Stephenson, and the struggles his character faces, with the much greater struggles faced by Dana Andrews' character, Fred Derry. This time I'll spend some time looking at the women in the movie.



Virginia Mayo as Marie Derry I think the easiest of the major female characters. Marie Derry, played by Virigina Mayo, is ultimately a good-time girl who married Fred because he was just so handsome in his uniform, a theme which shows up quite a bit in World War II era movies without really exploring the consequences of what's going to happen to these people after the war. (Judy Garland and Robert Walker in The Clock, I'm talking to you.) Marie Derry probably would have been living it up more or less on the combined payment from her work at the nightclub, and the allotment check she would have received from the military department. After all, it's made quite clear at the beginning of the film that she's earning more than enough to move from the wrong side of the tracks where Fred grew up and where his parents still live, to what looks like a reasonably nice apartment in the center of town. Her character wants to keep living the high life, and when Fred can't or won't provide it, she's perfectly willing to divorce him in favor of somebody who can. And to be fair, since theirs was a quick marriage, it's really for the best for both of them that the two divorce. No offense to Virginia Mayo, but her character is written a bit too one-dimensionally. We're supposed to have sympathy for all Fred went through, and one of the ways to engender that sympathy is to make the wife he comes home to seem like even more of a jerk.



Myrna Loy (second from left) at Milly Stephenson Milly Stephenson was married for years to banker husband Al before World War II came and he went off to fight -- married long enough that by the time he comes home, he's got an elder daughter who's at least in her early 20s even if her exact age isn't given. I stated when I blogged six years ago that I thought Fredric March had the easier character to play than Dana Andrews, something by which I'll still stand. Milly might be tougher to play than Marie Derry, but only because the character isn't as one-dimensional. If the screenplay of The Best Years of Our Lives had wanted to focus on Fred and Marie wanting to make their marriage work, the Marie character would probably be much more complex, on the level of Judy Holliday's character in The Marrying Kind. Still, Milly is a character that has two roles. First and foremost is as the wife to Al. They've been through most of it all, falling in love, having times where they would have thought the marriage was on the rocks, and coming out on the other side with a deep abiding friendship and love. Even though the war changed Al Stephenson, it looks as though he's going to have less of an adjustment than Fred Derry, and a long-term wife to make it all the easier. Milly, though, has a second role, as housewife (which we see at the beginning when she points out that it's been the maid's night out since 1943), and mother, especially to a daughter Peggy (more on her later) with her own problems. This gives Milly a lot more to do, and it's unsurprising that her character is more of a glue to the movie than Marie Derry.

Teresa Wright as Peggy Stephenson Peggy, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, is the adult daughter of the fairly well-to-do Al and Milly, and did her part for the war effort by becoming a nurse and ministering to sick soldiers. This again is something we see fairly early on. After the Stephensons have to take a drunken Fred Derry home with them, Fred has a nightmare obviously brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder, although back then they didn't know what it was called. Peggy, however, knows the basics of how to deal with it, as she's obviously seen it before, as she tells Fred the next morning. She begins to fall in love with Fred, even though this is a serious problem since he's already married. Peggy is a bit naïve, as she thinks she's just going to be able to go in and save Fred from Marie, a notion of which her parents disabuse her. This even though Peggy is quite right about the state of Fred's marriage, and we viewers can quite clearly see that it would be in Fred's best interests to be with Peggy and not Marie. I can't really imagine the emotional difficulty this must mean for Peggy. After she and Fred see each other again in the movie's finale, viewers are left with a hopeful note, which is helped by the fact that having helped soldiers in the past as a nurse, Peggy might be able to deal with the setbacks that are going to come when they get married.



Cathy O'Donnell as Wilma Cameron Cathy O'Donnell isn't given the biggest role in The Best Years of Our Lives, and the challenges her character Wilma is going to face are presented in the movie as possibly not as big as those faced by any of the men, or even Peggy Stephenson when Dad forces Fred Derry to break off all contact with her. Wilma Cameron is the quintessential girl next door, who grew up with boy next door Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), who is realistic because he was a real World War II veteran with no acting experience who lost both his hands in the war. Wilma's role is to serve as a rock for Homer; that is, somebody who will stand by him and constantly tell him that she loved him for something more than his hands, and so even though he no longer has any hands, she can still love him just as much. She doesn't get all that many scenes, although she gets one of the most important, when Homer invites her up to his bedroom at night to show her what his nightly routine is, how it leaves him completely dependent upon others, and asks whether she'd be willing to spend her whole life like this. Wilma of course says yes, and the movie implies that Wilma and Homer are going to live as a happy couple just like Al and Milly and even Fred and Peggy. But I can't help but think that in real life, Wilma would have had it the most difficult. Homer Parrish probably would have had some difficulty getting a truly good job. Fred's problems were mental, and you could see him advancing rapidly if he got into a field he liked. The disabled, however, have always had it tough, and being married to a man with no hands would have likely brought with it a whole range of practical problems. The movie shows to an extent what it's like for Homer; it doesn't really show what it's going to be like for the woman he marries.

One other woman who deserves mention is Gladys George, playing Fred Derry's mother Hortense. She's only in a couple of scenes, but one of them is a vitally important scene in which her husband Pat (Roman Bohnen) finds one of the letters of citation for all those ribbons Fred has on his chest. Hortense doesn't have much to say, but reacting is acting just as much as delivering lines.

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