The Best Years of Our Lives
Great films IX
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is producer Samuel Goldwyn’s classic, significant American film about the difficult, traumatic adjustments (unemployment, adultery, alcoholism, and ostracism) that three returning veteran servicemen experienced in the aftermath of World War II. In more modern times, Coming Home (1978) portrayed the same plight of the returning serviceman. The major stars, who each gave the performance of their lives in this Best Picture winner, were:
- Fredric March as the eldest returning veteran, alcoholic Army Sergeant Al Stephenson, married to loyal Milly (Myrna Loy)
- Dana Andrews as handsome Air Force bombadier Fred Derry, involved in two romances – with party-girl wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), and in a new love relationship with Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright)
- Harold Russell (almost uncredited in the film) as sailor Homer Parrish (a WWII vet), the hometown’s former football hero, with fiancee/girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell)
The germinal idea for the literate, meticulously-constructed film came from a Time Magazine pictorial article (August 7, 1944) that was then re-fashioned into a novel titled Glory for Me by commissioned author MacKinlay Kantor. Kantor’s blank-verse novel was the basis for an adapted screenplay by distinguished Pulitzer Prize winning scriptwriter Robert E. Sherwood (his earlier works were The Petrified Forest and Idiot’s Delight).
The ironic title refers to the troubling fact that many servicemen had ‘the best years of their lives’ in wartime, not in their experiences afterwards in peacetime America when they were forced to adapt to the much-changed demands and became the victims of dislocating forces. However, it could be argued that the servicemen also gave up and sacrificed ‘the best years of their lives’ – their youthful innocence and health – by serving in the military and becoming disjointed from normal civilian life. [Photographs in the houses of each of the returning servicemen recall an earlier time that was irretrievably past.]
The poignant, moving film realistically transports its present-day audiences back to the setting of the late 1940s, where the film’s three typical protagonists return from their honored wartime roles to their past, altered middle-American lives and are immediately thrust into domestic tragedies, uncertainties, conflicts and awkward situations – handicapped (both physically and emotionally) by their new civilian roles. Wyler’s Best Picture-winning Mrs. Miniver (1942) can be considered as a companion piece to this film, from the British perspective.
The superb, eloquent, and realistically-intimate film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won seven Oscars: Best Picture (Samuel Goldwyn’s sole competitive Oscar win), Best Actor (Fredric March – his second Oscar – the first was for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Director (William Wyler – his second of three career Oscars), Best Screenplay (Robert E. Sherwood), Best Editing, Best Musical Score — its nomination for Best Sound was the only one that failed to win. Real-life double amputee (from a ship explosion) and one of the cast’s inexperienced actors – Harold Russell received an additional Special Honorary Oscar “for bringing hope and courage to fellow veterans” for his first performance. [Russell is the only actor ever to win two Oscars for the same role. He wouldn’t act again until Inside Moves (1980) and Dogtown (1997).] Under-rated actor Dana Andrews was denied a deserved Oscar nomination, as a returning ‘fly-boy.’
Oscar-winning epic director William Wyler’s cinematographer, Gregg Toland, known for his depth of focus camerawork in previous films (such as Citizen Kane (1941) and The Little Foxes (1941)) contributed his talent to the three-hour long black and white film masterpiece with richly-textured and crisp images, deep-focus shots, and framed scenes. Wyler had experienced wartime himself in the US Army Air Corps, during which he made three morale-boosting, war-related documentaries: The Fighting Lady (1944), The Memphis Belle (1944), and Thunderbolt (1945). The film was producer Samuel Goldwyn’s most successful and important work – he also was presented with the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award. The film was a major commercial success – the biggest box-office draw since Gone With The Wind (1939).
The film begins abruptly with a long interior shot of an airport terminal, where returning-from-overseas serviceman Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) lugs his belongings and crosses a map of America on the floor. The war hero inquires at a receptionist’s desk about flights to his hometown of Boone City [supposedly patterned after Cincinnati], and is told rather curtly: “Three scheduled daily flights sir, but there’s no space available right now…We could probably get you on flight 37 on the 19th.” A businessman next to him (with a black porter handling his luggage and heavy bag of golf clubs) requests his airlines ticket which was pre-ordered and arranged by his secretary. The passenger is promptly handed his ticket and told he has sixteen pounds of excess baggage. He reaches for his wallet: “Oh, that’s all right, how much is it?” Transportation shortages don’t seem to affect everyday civilians as much as returning soldiers.
It is suggested that Fred find a ride on the ATC (Air Transport Command) of the Army Air Forces. In the ramshackle interior of the Army terminal’s lounge, many other uniformed veterans have been waiting for the few available flights to their destinations. Fred and two other veterans, Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) and a graying Army Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March), are placed on a long B-17 bomber flight with many intermediary stops for a two-day journey to Boone City. Parrish, a young Naval seaman, reveals that he lost both hands in combat – prosthetic, articulated hooks are replacements – when he signs the passenger list. They are relieved to be returning home after “a couple of centuries.”
In the film’s first major opening sequence, the three share cramped space on board a soon-to-be retired Air Force bomber in its observation cone, as it flies at low-level across America. The three (of different ages, social backgrounds, classes, professions, and experiences), who are from the same hometown, get to know each other as they marvel at the landscape:
Homer: Boy, oh boy, hey, look at that. Look at those automobiles down there. You can see them so plain, you can even see the people in them.
Fred: Yeah, it looks like we’re flying by a roadmap.
Much-decorated for his war effort, Fred was an Air Force bombadier/captain during the war and spent most of his time in the nose of a bomber: “This used to be my office…I spent a lot of time on my knees up there.” The boyish-looking Homer has remarkable dexterity – he lifts an offered cigarette from Fred’s pack with the mechanical hooks, strikes a match on a matchbook, and lights all their cigarettes – he quips: “Boy, you ought to see me open a bottle of beer.” Homer’s memories of his experiences as a sailor and the torpedo explosion that caused him to lose both hands are shared in an upbeat tone – except for some mixed uncertainties and fears about returning home to his next-door girlfriend Wilma:
Homer: I didn’t see much of the war…I was stationed in a repair shop below decks. Oh, I was in plenty of battles, but I never saw a Jap or heard a shell coming at me. When we were sunk, all I know is there was a lot of fire and explosions. And I was on the topsides and overboard. And I was burned. When I came to, I was on a cruiser. My hands were off. After that, I had it easy…That’s what I said. They took care of me fine. They trained me to use these things. I can dial telephones, I can drive a car, I can even put nickels in the jukebox. I’m all right, but…well, you see, I’ve got a girl.
Fred: She knows what happened to ya, doesn’t she?
Homer: Sure, they all know. They don’t know what these things look like.
Al: What’s your girl’s name, Homer?
Homer: Wilma. She and I went to high school together.
Al: I’ll bet Wilma’s a swell girl.
Homer: She is.
Fred: Then it will be all right, sailor. You wait and see.
Homer: Yeah, wait and see. Wilma’s only a kid. She’s never seen anything like these hooks.
As they pass over the country beneath them with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, Fred and Al talk about their uncertain future, and their ‘rehabilitative’ transition and homecoming to the ‘real-world’ (and relationships) after many years of service for their country. Al is a middle-aged husband in a long-term marriage, but Fred was married to a war bride during basic training only a few weeks before becoming a bomber pilot:
Fred: Do you remember what it felt like when we went overseas?
Al: As well as I remember my own name.
Fred: I feel the same way now – only more so.
Al: I know what you mean.
Fred: Just nervous out of the service, I guess.
Al: The thing that scares me most is that everybody is gonna try to rehabilitate me.
Fred: All I want’s a good job, a mild future, a little house big enough for me and my wife. Give me that much and I’m rehabilitated (he clicks his fingers) like that.
Al: Well, I’d say that’s not too much to ask.
Fred: Are you married, Al?
Fred: How long?
Al: Twenty years.
Fred: Twenty years?! Holy smoke! We didn’t even have twenty days before I went over. I married a girl I met when I was in training in Texas.
Al: Well, now you and your wife will have a chance to get acquainted.
As they approach low for a landing in their old home-town and peer out through the nose of the plane, they reassure themselves that it “hasn’t changed very much.” They feel alienated, aloof and detached from the strange sights and memories of their former home. Homer had been a high school football hero. Now – had their wartime heroics made any difference to the apathetic folks at home? Gazing down on their hometown, they are literally in mid-air between the war front and their previous world:
Fred: There’s the golf course, people playing golf just as if nothing had ever happened.
Homer: Hey, there’s Jackson High football field. Boy, I sure would like to have a dollar for every forward pass I threw down there. Good ol’ Jackson High. Say, that must be the new airport.
Fred: We’re turning into her now.
Al: Holy smoke. [They view an airfield graveyard with many parked war bombers – as irrelevant as they fear they have become after their prolonged absence.]
Homer: I never knew there was so many planes.
Fred: And they’re junking them…Boy, oh boy, what we could have done with those in ’43!…Some of ’em look brand new, factory to the scrap heap. That’s all they’re good for now.
Bound together as friends after clustered together on the plane, they share the back seat in a taxi-cab ride to their separate hometown addresses. They glance at all the significant changes and how they have fallen behind the times as they drive by: the local baseball park, kids riding a hot-rod jalopy, a hot dog stand, a 5 and 10 Woolworth’s department store, a fire station, a used car lot, a diner, and Butch Engle’s place with a new neon sign (“the best joint in town”), a saloon run by Homer’s uncle. Signs of a return to normality and civilian life are everywhere. Their three faces are grouped together in a shot of the rear-view mirror. Homer is reluctant about being dropped off first: “I wonder if Wilma’s home?” Dreading facing Wilma and her reaction to his ‘hooks,’ he suggests they instead go to Butch’s for a couple of drinks. Resolute, Al reminds Homer that he’s actually home: “You’re home now, kid.”
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.
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.
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