"They Ought to Put You in Mass Production": The Feminist Streak of The Best Years of Our Lives
After years of fighting and millions of lives lost, three men return home from the onslaught of World War II. Flying high above the countryside, they see the town they call home, but it looks much smaller now. There have been a lot of changes since they’ve been gone, but the biggest comes from the women they left behind. These women have become stronger and more independent than they could have ever imagined. They will soon discover that they cannot realize their best lives without them.
The end of the Second World War was, on the surface, a prosperous time in America. The country had just defeated an enemy of immeasurable strength and worked itself out of the biggest economic downturn in the country’s history. It was also a time of transition as its citizens formed a new sense of national identity. Veterans who were first hailed as heroes soon struggled with readjusting to civilian life in a country that had changed rapidly during the time they were gone. No film exemplifies this national readjustment better than 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives.
The Best Years of Our Lives focuses on three veterans all returning to the same small town of Boone City: Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Al Stephenson (Fredric March), and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell). They are eager to return to their home and their loved ones, but the transition into normal life is rockier than anticipated. From the employment troubles for returning veterans, to alcoholism, and PTSD (then referred to as “battle fatigue”), the film takes a hard look at the difficulties soldiers took to adapt to civilian life. Thankfully, each man’s rehabilitation is contingent on their interactions with the women in their lives.
The women in The Best Years of Our Lives are the glue that hold the entire picture together. Watching the film today, one is struck by its depiction of traditional gender roles being completely upended. Here we see the men grapple with their own trauma in gripping and heartbreaking ways. These men try to bury it deep down in order to fulfill the role of traditional (read “toxic”) masculinity, but their vulnerability is clear as day. However, the women in this film do not sit idly by nor play victim to these men by enabling their behavior. Milly and Peggy Stephenson, Marie Derry, and Wilma Cameron are strong, determined, and intelligent women who are presented on a different level than the men. Not a lower one, but one that should be attained.
Milly Stephenson: The Power of the American Wife
Myrna Loy used her clout to bargain for top billing and she got it. To have a women headlining a movie that mainly focuses on three men is another indication that even in a world run by men, women should get their due.
At first glance, Milly Stephenson (Myrna Loy) looks like the typical postwar housewife: cooking, cleaning, and doting upon her husband and her children. The Stephensons are the film’s representative of the upper class, but the war caused the entire family to make sacrifices. Milly was stuck making all these readjustments while raising her and Al’s two children. As a result Milly is not one to suffer fools, least of all her husband. She never lies to Al when asked for her opinion, regardless of whether she thinks he’ll like the answer or not. In fact, if she doesn’t agree with him, she speaks up. She even tells Al to “Shut up,” when he’s being obstinate in front of their children. She shows deep concern for her family, but is pragmatic and tactful in how she handles them.
The image of the complacent suburban housewife is a powerful image in the eyes of people when they hear the words “postwar American women.” Many think of the deep hollowness hidden behind the smile of a mother as she cleans the house while making a pie at the same time. That in between loads of laundry they sat and read magazines that suggested they be dutiful to their husbands and stay at home. Leave all the work and politics and activism to the men. It’s not a wife’s duty.
However, popular literature and magazines of the time marketed to women featured stories that highlighted women doing the exact opposite. As Jane Meyerowitz outlines at length in “Beyond the Feminine Mystique,” the literature at the time “did not simply glorify domesticity,” but rather “domestic ideals coexisted in ongoing tension with an ethos of individual achievement that celebrated nondomestic activity, individual striving, public service, and public success.” These stories celebrated real life examples of women who sought for something outside the home and got it. Instead of being reviled or look on as some sort of oddity, they were celebrated. As a result women in postwar America sought for equality in the household.
Milly Stephenson is critical to Al’s rehabilitation in The Best Years of Our Lives, but she is not perfect. She is unable to stop Al’s drinking and does not stand in the way of Al interfering with Peggy’s romance with Fred. However, she remains a loyal, but outspoken spouse to her husband and inspiration to her children. Al puts it best when he realizes how lucky he has it: “I can’t help but think of the other guys — the ones who don’t have you.”
Wilma Cameron: Strength in the Girl Next Door
The most compelling relationship in The Best Years of Our Lives is the one between Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) and Homer. The literal girl next door to his hometown hero, Wilma and Homer were engaged before he went overseas. However, the loss of his hands forces Homer to dread their reunion and he shies away from her when it finally happens. He’s paralyzed with fear of what she will think when she sees that he can no longer wrap his hands around her. But Wilma has no such qualms about Homer’s disability. She’s just happy that the man she loves made it back home safe and she hugs him like there’s no tomorrow. Homer fails to recognize that love throughout the film. Many of their scenes involve Homer looking away from Wilma, too afraid to confront what he believes is the hard truth.
Meanwhile Wilma almost always has eyes only for Homer. The moments when she appears frightened stem more out of concern for Homer’s wellbeing than the hooks that have replaced his hands. She shows a vested interest in Homer, but he closes himself off, too focused on his own misguided sense of his own masculinity. To him, he is less of a man, incapable of defending himself, let alone the woman he loves. It’s an image of masculinity that he was bred to believe, even if it is highly reductive.
The men in The Best Years of Our Lives return home scarred physically and mentally. They are terrified to face the world and people they left behind for fear of what these changes will bring. They worry the world won’t treat them the same way and that the people they love won’t do so either. As a result they shy away from the people they care most about. They do this as a sense of protection, but it tends to only hurt the ones they love further. This fear of change in the face of adversity was experienced firsthand by the film’s director.
The director of The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler, spent most of the war filming in bomber planes, but doing so cost him his hearing. He became permanently deaf in his right ear and partially deaf in his left. He was terrified that his career was over, and most importantly, his marriage. “I wasn’t sure whether what would work before might work again,” he admitted. Thankfully, Wyler’s spirits rose due to the support of his wife Talli. Her strength in the face of his disability renewed Wyler’s resolve to go back to work. Wyler’s recovery was instrumental to his development to The Best Years of Our Lives. His experience returning to Talli and facing the adversity of his injury no doubt contributed to the presentation to women as the true healers to these men.
The women of The Best Years of Our Lives do not shy away from the damage the men they love have faced. These women see those scars better than anyone else and face them head on in order to get closer to the truth. The men in this picture don’t do that at first. They hide, they sequester themselves like monsters, retreating into seclusion or a bottle or repeating the same old patterns. It is only until the women step in that these patterns are shattered. Their strength encourages the men to find the strength within themselves. They learn from example, not from just getting blind love.
Late in the film, Homer reveals his true self to Wilma through his nightly routine, stripping himself literally and metaphorically and begging her to run off, to finally say no to him. To Homer’s surprise, she doesn’t. Wilma has wanted to see this side of Homer all along. She pushes for it and her persistence is finally granted. When all is revealed, she does not shy away, but tells him that she loves him and will be there to take care of him. Homer looks at Wilma to “search her for the revulsion and revulsion he felt sure she would reveal,” but instead “sees nothing but love and courage.” It is only then that Homer can swallow his pride and let her help him. Otherwise, they will not be able to grow.
Wilma does not get as much screen time as the other women, but her presence makes an indelible impact. Homer constantly fears that thanks to disability, his existence would be nothing but a burden to Wilma. However, Wilma dispels this anxiety time and time again. She is critical to showing how the role of women as caretakers is already being inverted. Instead of doting on her man, she is using her own strength to inspire Homer to be strong too. It is a relationship based on vulnerability and trust. Not disability and entrapment.
Marie Derry: The Misunderstood War Wife
One of the most complicated relationships in The Best Years of Our Lives is between Fred Derry and his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo). In many of the books that discuss The Best Years of Our Lives, Marie is often shamed as being shallow, mean, and all-around awful wife to Fred. While she is the most materialistic and superficial of the four main women portrayed in the film, she’s not an outright villain. It doesn’t help that she is the romantic rival of Peggy Stephenson (Teresa Wright). Anyone going in a likeability contest with America’s sweetheart is going to get a swift, yet polite kick in the teeth.
Fred and Marie’s marriage was doomed from the start. 1946 was a record year for marriages, but it was also a record year for divorces. Marie fell in love with a man in uniform and Fred fell in love with a gorgeous girl. But it was a slapdash nuptial and quick as a flash Fred was off to war. They didn’t have the time to really get to know one another. Marie liked the appearance of her decorated soldier husband, but does not wish to deal with the repercussions of the trauma he experienced doing that. Fred meanwhile wrote a fantasy about his dutiful wife in his head that he tries so desperately tries to cling onto when he returns.
She, as Wyler notes “stands in for the kind of fellow Fred Derry was” before he went off to war, “concerned only with their own problems,” instead of the world at large. She could easily be a stand-in for women dubbed “Victory Girls,” (or my personal favorite “Khaki Whackies”) women who sought out servicemen for “a good time.” Marie is all about having a good time and is annoyed and embarrassed when Fred no longer wants the same. Her infidelity is not malicious, but rather a sign of her immaturity towards wanting something deeper. She likes her creature comforts and will do whatever it takes to keep them.
When Fred and Marie finally split, Marie makes a good case for herself. She rails about how he “couldn’t even hold a job in a drugstore,” and that she gave up her own job and independence because he asked her to. She was making good money and her husband comes in and ruins it out of a sense of wounded pride. When Fred catches Marie with another serviceman named Cliff, he is upset. But Marie surmises that Fred might have been unfaithful when he was overseas. “I suppose you’re gonna tell me you acted like a saint with wings,” she says. Fred confirms this to be true and Marie simply states “So we’re even.” She recognizes Fred’s hypocrisy and it is the final nail in the coffin of their marriage. It is then that she decides that “I’m going to live for myself too,” and take control of her own destiny.
Marie is not a monster. She knows exactly what she wants and goes for it. She’s no slouch and she follows the money. Does that make her shallow? Perhaps, but she also is among the most realistic of the bunch. She sees a relationship that is not working and she jumps ship. She is not mature enough to understand what Fred is going through because he is not mature enough to deal with it either. It is not only until they divorce that the path becomes clearer for Fred. They both stop living a delusion and are better for it.
Peggy Stephenson: The Future is Female
Peggy Stephenson could easily have been just a wide-eyed all American girl enamored with Fred, but she is so much more than that. Played by the inimitable Teresa Wright, Peggy‘s complexities and charm make her the backbone of the film. Her relationship with Fred is endlessly compelling and heartbreaking all at once. There’s a reason the movie ends with their embrace. She is the movie’s secret weapon and its most fascinating character. The audience’s introduction to Peggy is not through Fred, but through her father Al. She is the only woman of the main four the audience meets outside the context of a romantic partnership between the three male leads. She instantly identifies herself as independent and capable to her father with lines like “We can handle the problems. We’re tough,” in order to show how much she has grown since her father has been away. Milly tells Al that Peggy “knows more than you and I will ever know.” She is no longer Daddy’s little girl as Al assumed, but her own person with her own strengths and desires, which come to a head when she meets one Fred Derry.
Fred and Peggy have a clear rapport when they first meet, but it is not love at first sight. In the script, Fred is described as being “frankly absorbed in Peggy, as he would any exceptionally attractive girl he met in a Red Cross canteen, or the Savoy in London, or the St. Regis in New York.” Peggy’s thoughts on on Fred are of “easy amusement, but general indifference,” and that she sees him as “just another good looking Air Force boy with a confident manner…and if he got up and left right now, she’d probably never give him another thought.” These initial impressions they have towards each other implies that they have both been around the block before. However as their relationship grows, they will learn more about each other and themselves.
Peggy volunteered at a hospital during the war and thus is one of the most referenced examples of women in wartime throughout all of The Best Years of Our Lives. It instantly shows that she is both caring and brave. It makes her the perfect candidate to be the one to look after Fred. When she witnesses Fred’s nightmare, she does not shy away or ridicule him for having them. She instantly understands what he went through and has the good sense to comfort him in his time of need. The next morning she does not bring it up, which Fred notes and respects. It is through this moment of extreme vulnerability that launches their romance.
The seeds of love are embedded in them both and it is Peggy, not Fred, who takes the initiative. Peggy’s relationship with Fred is not one she contemplates lightly. She knows her boundaries, but still cannot help herself but dabble near the line. She invites Fred and Marie on a double date in order to assess whether or not Fred is truly happy with Marie and is shocked at how little Marie understands Fred . In postwar America, “women daring to desire was a bold act.” Peggy showcases her own courage by announcing her wants and needs and doing whatever it takes to get them because of what she thinks is best. She may be naive and impetuous at times, but she is also caring and idealistic.
Cinematographer Gregg Toland even frames the conversation in a way that when Marie is talking, it is just her and Peggy reflected in the mirror, whereas when Peggy speaks, we see other people in the room to show that “Peggy’s worldview apparently takes in others.”
Peggy’s strength creates a ripple effect on the other characters throughout the picture. Peggy inspires Fred to become a better man, to grow up and out of his old ways in order to be the man who deserves her. When Fred is coerced into breaking up with Peggy by Al, he goes into a spiral that gets him fired while defending Homer. Afterwards Homer confides in Fred about Wilma. Fred, fresh off blowing what he thinks was his last shot at true love and happiness, implores Homer to go to Wilma. Though he does not directly make that comparison, Fred is begging Homer not to make the same mistake he just did. That couldn’t have happened without Peggy coming into his life and almost leaving it. It shows growth. And he couldn’t have had that without Peggy.
The meaning of the title The Best Years of Our Lives is one of much speculation. It is never spoken verbatim in the film and the closest time someone does is Marie. In her final scene with Fred, she laments that “I’ve given you the best years of my life,” and implies a more cynical point of view on how victory overseas would make things better at home was all an illusion. That the “best years” are an impossibility to notice until it is all in retrospect. However in an early draft of the script, the title is spoken, not by Marie, but by Peggy. In a cut scene, Fred laments how even though he has separated from Marie, he will not be able to provide for Peggy “the material comforts she has come to expect.” That he no longer cares about his prospects as he declares “I’ve shot the best years of my life already.” Peggy is disgusted by this defeatist worldview as she has “faith in his character and his ability to grow along with the nation.” As a result she replies, “If you had any sense — any guts — you’d know that the best years of our lives are still ahead of us.” She drives off, but it gives Fred the resolve to stay and better himself in order to be with Peggy.
The fact that the scene in which the titular is spoken was cut from the final film is baffling. Perhaps the film was already running long (the final draft of the script consists is 220 pages) and maybe the line itself was a little on the nose. However, the fact remains that the titular line of the film was given to a young woman, a call to arms not only to the man she loves but to the country at large, is remarkable. That a woman is the one to tell us that we can heal is the crux of this entire picture. History looks back at postwar America and sees the women to be demure, obedient minions. That women only went to universities to obtain an MRS Degrees and find a man who they could surrender themselves to and chain themselves to domestic servitude. Betty Friedan became an icon perpetuating that image of postwar women. However, history shows that is not entirely the case and The Best Years of Our Lives is one of many pieces of culture from the time that suggests the opposite.
Of course The Best Years of Our Lives, a movie written, directed, produced, and shot by men did not solve sexism. The fact that none of these actresses were nominated for Academy Awards for this film shows the true magnitude of their performances went unnoticed. But this film sowed the seeds of something much bigger. Milly, Marie, Wilma, and Peggy are all deeply nuanced and fascinating characters that represent different facets of the cultural and social struggles women were facing following the end of the war. The Best Years of Our Lives showcases the fortitude of women and presents them as an example to be followed and not an opinion to ignore.
The decades following the Second World War would be a struggle for American women. Fights for equal pay in the workplace, sexual independence, and civil rights reform were all bumps on a long and difficult road to equality. The road would continue to be hard for women in America, but the Second World War allowed them to find the power within themselves. The men went to war and returned home to strong, tenacious women waiting for them and they tried to put them back in the box they had left them in. Little did they realize though, that those women would not be put back into that box so easily.