Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
The Best Years of Our Lives: Shattering Glass, Shattering Disability Taboos
By Denise Noe
‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ is a 1946 black and white motion picture rightly regarded as a classic. William Wyler directed this film from a screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood based on a novel by MacKinlay Kantor. The movie won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Film Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay.
One actor, Harold Russell, won two Academy Awards for his performance in this film: an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and a special honorary award “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” By casting Russell, who had lost his hands and forearms in a military training accident, the film shattered a major cinematic taboo: he was the first physically disabled person ever cast in a major role. To this day, Russell remains the only actor to win two Oscars for the same performance.
In Best, Russell played Homer Parrish, a sailor left disabled when his ship caught on fire as it was downed.
A booklet inserted into a DVD of the film reports, “In the original screenplay, his character was that of a shell-shocked sailor. But after viewing a documentary in which Russell appeared, Goldwyn and Wyler were so touched by his personal war account that they decided to have Sherwood re-write the script to tell Russell’s own story.”
Although Russell had no previous experience in acting and no formal training, he turned in a superb performance.
Showing Its Age
Before exploring further, it must be noted that Best is a product of its time. It focuses exclusively on Caucasians. Although the Nazi death camps exposed the dangers of anti-Semitism, no character is depicted as Jewish. Blacks are seen only briefly, in the background as servicemen or as porters and restroom attendants. Characters casually use demeaning ethnic references such as “limeys” and “Japs.”
Traditional gender roles are taken for granted. When a returning soldier wonders about the absence of the family maid, his young adult daughter assures him that the home is in good hands since she “took a course in domestic science.” When another returning soldier asks his wife to quit paid work for full-time homemaking, she cheerfully complies. At the same time, sex roles are not as rigid as some 1970s-style “women’s lib” extremists might expect. For example, at one point, a man and woman are shown in a car with the female driving. At another, the man comes home with the food – and cooks it.
Homosexuality does not exist within the world of this 1946 film, so it is purely a joke when one man offers to dance with another and when a woman remarks, on seeing two men lean against other in drunken sleep, “They make a nice couple.”
Three Men, Three Interlocking Stories
Best focuses on three veterans returning from the horrors of WWII to civilian life in their fictional hometown of Boone City. One is the aforementioned Homer Parrish. The others are Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Al Stephenson (Fredric March). Al is well into middle age while Homer and Fred are twenty-somethings. The three meet in an airport and are soon in a plane taking them to Boone City.
Before boarding that plane, Homer fills out a form at the airport.
As he takes a pen in a hook, an office worker offers to fill out the form for Homer who cheekily retorts, “Think I can’t spell my own name?”
The worker is embarrassed; Homer helps him out by laughing it off. However, an important point has been made: Yes, he can write with the hooks.
On the plane, Homer displays his hook skills to Fred and Al.
As Homer lights a cigarette, he exclaims, “You ought to see me open a bottle of beer!”
Then he proudly relates, “I can dial a phone, drive a car, and even put nickels in a jukebox!”
The conversation turns to home life. Al mentions that he and his wife have been married for twenty years. Fred remarks that he and his wife “didn’t even have twenty days” before he departed. Apparently, they wed after a whirlwind courtship. Al tells Fred the two of them will have time to really get to know each other now.
Homer is the only bachelor. He tells them he had a girlfriend named Wilma. They had planned to marry before he went into the service but he expresses uncertainty about their future while calling her a “swell girl.”
From their place in the sky, Fred comments about “people playing golf – just as if nothing had ever happened.” Homer has a faraway look with tears glimmering in his eyes.
There is a sense of wonderment in all three men, expressed by Fred’s “just as if nothing had ever happened.”
So much has happened.
They have watched those close to them killed. They have had to kill. They have lived through the most barbaric experiences of terror and anguish. If they spent time in Europe, they may have seen the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Homer has become disabled as a result of war. Yet they return to a world continuing on “as if nothing had ever happened.”
The three major characters in Best are neither saints nor villains. They are ordinary men who have been required to act heroically in the service of their country and bear consequent scars, physical in one case and emotional in all three.
After landing, the three get into a taxi.
Homer is let off first in front of his parents’ house where his elementary school aged little sister, Luella Parrish (Marlene Aames), excitedly shouts, “It’s Homer! It’s Homer!”
Mr. Parrish (Walter Baldwin) and Mrs. Parrish (Minna Gombell) greet their returning son. Mom suddenly bursts into tears.
Dad explains, “She’s just so happy to see you.”
Inevitably, we see her tears as anguish at Homer’s amputations.
In a coincidence characteristic of the movie world, girlfriend Wilma Cameron (Cathy O’Donnell) is quite literally the “girl next door.” She also rushes over to greet Homer.
The taxi’s next stop is Al’s apartment. Although his family does not appear wealthy, their environment is clearly that of the comfortably upper-middle-class. Al seems to have a classically all-American family: caring, sensitive wife Milly (Myrna Loy), wholesome, pretty daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright), and college-attending son Rob (Michael Hall). Milly greets Al enthusiastically, tears in her eyes. Al is flummoxed to see how much the kids have changed. Children when he left, they are at the cusp of adulthood and his son is a college freshman. Peggy is the previously mentioned young lady who has “taken a course in domestic science.”
Working-class Fred returns to a small, cluttered home. His Mom and Dad, Hortense Derry (Gladys George) and Pat Derry (Roman Bohnen), also greet him enthusiastically. However, he is disappointed by the absence of his wife. His parents inform him that she moved out of their house awhile back and works at a nightclub. There are unable to provide him with contact information for her.
When the film returns to Homer we see him, together with his parents and Luella, visiting at Wilma’s house. Both Mr. Cameron, (Don Beddoe), and Mrs. Cameron, (Dorothy Adams) appear to like their daughter’s boyfriend. Homer offers to light Mr. Cameron’s cigar but the latter declines. There is inevitably awkwardness.
“It won’t bite.”
Homer clumsily drops a beverage on the carpet. Although people with normal hands routinely have this type of accident, there is an immediate sense that the accident is related to his having hooks. Embarrassed and self-conscious, Homer suddenly excuses himself to leave the house. Wilma gazes at his exiting figure but the audience cannot be certain whether her look is that of love or pity.
The story returns to Al who proposes that he, his wife, and Peggy (we don’t know why the son is excluded), go nightclubbing to celebrate being “back in civilization.” Here again, the film shows its time period: rock and roll had not yet developed. Jazz, big band, and polka are the musical genres played in the nightclubs. We soon learn that Homer has made his way to a bar at which his Uncle Butch, (Hoagy Carmichael), plays piano.
Talking lightly with the bartender, obviously an old pal, Homer offers his hook, wittily saying, “Shake, pal, it won’t bite.”
With another of those coincidences allotted to a movie universe, Fred is at this bar when Homer arrives and Al, Milly, and Peggy are soon there as well.
At one point, a slightly inebriated Al asserts, “Homer has those hooks. It doesn’t bother him so it shouldn’t bother us!”
However, that assertion is belied by a conversation between Homer and his Uncle Butch.
Recounting his evening at the Camerons, Homer comments, “They got me nervous. They were always staring at these hooks – or staring away from them.”
At this nightclub, Fred meets Al’s daughter Peggy. There is an obvious, somewhat ominous, attraction between the married man and the wholesome ingénue. The forbidden nature of such an attraction places a peculiar pall over these characters.
A scene soon follows of Homer in bed. His expression is not one of anguish as much as simple uncertainty. We are apt to think he is wondering whether or not he and Wilma have a future together.
The Wholesome “Other Woman”
Too drunk to find his way home, Fred is put to bed at the Stephenson residence. He talks in his sleep as he suffers a nightmare that is clearly about combat. Over breakfast Fred asks Peggy why she does not have a man in her life.
Pointedly she answers, “I guess the best of them are already married.”
We also learn that before the war, Fred worked as a “fountain attendant,” more familiarly called a “soda jerk.”
Finally, Fred rings the door of an abode he knows is inhabited by wife Marie, (Virginia Mayo). She is overjoyed to see her husband. Hers is the previously mentioned female character who cheerfully obliges when her husband asks that she quit paid work for full-time homemaking.
However, the overall character of Marie soon turns out to be unsympathetic. This was a departure for Mayo who had spent her career prior to Best playing likeable women, often in comedies. In some articles, Marie is described as a “gold-digger.” This is misleading. There is nothing to suggest she married Fred for money. Rather, she is disappointed at having to survive on a paltry salary and her sour attitude toward Fred puts their marriage under strain.
The character of Marie is presented with attributes that, in cinema, tend to signal a “bad woman” type. When her husband was away, she worked in a nightclub – a tawdry environment. She is often shown in shimmering dresses and jangling jewelry. Marie’s glamorous mien and demanding attitude make kindly, caring Peggy look all the more attractive to Fred. Seeing Peggy again, Fred impulsively kisses her. She is responsive but both are embarrassed. Again, Best broke with tradition in depicting the “other woman” as wholesome and likeable while presenting the “betrayed wife” as sleazy.
Shattering Glass, Showing Truth
When the film shifts back to Wilma, we see her visit the Parrish residence. Mr. Parrish informs her that Homer “keeps to himself” and is in the woodshed practicing shooting. The war is over; this target practice is for hunting.
A group of children, including Luella, are outside the shed. Wilma passes by them on her way inside. Homer is indeed target shooting.
Wilma begs to talk “about us.”
She reminds him, “You wrote me that when you got home, you and me were going to be married.”
“Things are different now,” he says in a desultory manner.
He does not specify what is “different,” but we know he refers to his amputations.
Spotting the kids outside the shed, rage and frustration suddenly boil over in Homer.
He screams at the youngsters, “You want to see how the hooks work? You want to see the freak?”
Then he shatters a glass window with his hooks.
The children are frightened and shocked. Homer is instantly remorseful. Wilma tells him that she still loves him but he retorts that there are things he must “work out” on his own.
“I’m going to break that marriage up!”
The film cuts to Marie in a shimmering dress.
She has made arrangements for them to eat out but Fred nixes them, saying, “We’re eating at home” because he is “broke.”
He tells her, “You’ll eat what I cook and like it.”
On another day, Fred meets Peggy for lunch. Walking her to her car, he takes her in his arms and they kiss.
“That shouldn’t have happened,” he says.
Fred returns home to find Marie ironing. She cheerfully informs Fred that they have been invited out by a “Miss Peggy Stephenson” who plans to treat them. It turns out that Peggy arranged for a double date in the hopes that seeing Fred with his wife would put out her feelings for him. Instead, the opposite happens.
After that evening, she informs her parents, “I’m going to break that marriage up!”
In 1946, audiences gasped at this statement – as well they might have. A wholesome, sympathetic character has just proclaimed her intention to become a “home wrecker.”
However troubled a marriage might be, the ethics of setting out to break it up are questionable. Her parents are understandably concerned and tell her to leave that marriage alone.
A Hand To Hook Fight
Another scene shows Homer at the drugstore in which Fred is employed. A man reads a headline stating, “Senator Warns of New War.” The man recognizes Homer as a veteran left disabled by the war but the jaunty Homer jokes about the loss of his hands.
“I just got tired of washing my hands and manicuring my fingernails,” he says with a grin.
The man admires Homer’s evident courage – and then blasts the cause for which Homer fought, saying America had no business in that war because “the Germans and the Japs wanted to fight the Limeys and the Reds, not us.”
Fred and Homer are instantly offended. In outrage,
Homer asks, “So we should have been on the side of the Nazis and the Japs?”
Homer tells of the men who went to their deaths on the boat that sank.
“Were those guys suckers?” Homer asks.
The man indicates that they were and a fistfight – to some extent a “hookfight” – ensues with Fred and Homer letting the man have it. In the mayhem, the man loses the American flag decoration he had been wearing on his lapel. Homer picks it up and pins it to himself.
After Fred is fired because of the altercation, things deteriorate even further between him and Marie. Eventually he comes home to find Marie with Cliff (Steve Cochran), an apparent boyfriend. She announces that she plans to divorce Fred.
This scene demands explanation. It appears the filmmakers believed it necessary to tack on a suggestion of Marie’s infidelity – not previously hinted at – to somehow justify Fred and Peggy’s behavior to the audience. Only by making Marie a “scarlet woman,” can the filmmakers justify audience sympathy for Fred and Peggy – who we are given to believe are apt to marry.
A Happy Ending – A Realistic Ending
Perhaps the most powerful and moving scene in the film is the final confrontation between Wilma and Homer.
Desperate for Homer’s affection, Wilma plaintively asks, “Do you want to get rid of me?”
He answers, “I don’t want you tied down just because you have a kind heart.”
A pivotal scene follows in which Homer invites Wilma into his bedroom – NOT for sex but to see what it is like for him when he removes his hooks. It is a scene that is powerful but never maudlin.
He shrugs out of the harness, telling her, “I can take off the harness. I can even wriggle into a pajama top. But I can’t button it up.”
He tells her of how “helpless” he is without the harness and hooks.
Then he says, “Now you know. I guess you don’t know what to say.”
But Wilma does know what to say:
“I love you.”
He realizes that she is up to the task of living with a handicapped man.
Best ends on the best possible note: the wedding of Wilma and Homer. When Homer uses a hook to place the ring on his bride’s finger, we know that these two characters are marrying not because of pity and obligation, but because they genuinely belong together.
It is important to understand what a superb job Harold Russell did in playing Homer Parrish. Like all good actors, Russell undoubtedly draws upon his own experience in playing Homer but, also like all good actors, he does not play himself. He plays Homer: bravado, self-pity, despair, pride, embarrassment, rage, hope, and love are alternately there in his performance at the right places and in the right amounts. It is a truly remarkable performance.
However, it did not usher in a distinguished acting career for Russell. After Best wrapped, Wyler told Russell, “There aren’t that many parts for a guy with no hands. You should go back to college, get your degree.” Russell earned a business degree from Boston University. Although he occasionally played in a film or television program, he devoted most of his life to a career in a public relations firm he started. He was also active in a veterans’ organization called Amvets, serving at one point at national chair. In 1950, he helped found the World Veterans Foundation.
Russell campaigned on behalf of his fellow disabled, asserting, “It’s not what you lost but what you have left and how you use it.” Writing for The Guardian, Ronald Bergan reports, “In 1961, President Kennedy appointed Russell as vice chairman of the presidential committee on employment of disabled people. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson made him chairman, and Richard Nixon reappointed him.”
In 1992, Russell auctioned off his Best Supporting Actor statuette for $60,500 to pay his wife’s medical bills. Widely criticized for this action, he said, “My wife’s health is much more important than sentimental reasons. The movie will be here, even if Oscar isn’t.” Russell died in 2002 at the age of 88.
Although dated in some respects, even cringe worthy in spots, Best remains relevant. It shattered the taboo against honest treatment of disabilities, especially the issue of intimacy for the disabled, like Homer shattered glass. Both William Wyler and Harold Russell displayed extraordinary courage in creating the character of Homer Parrish. Best paved the way for other realistic cinematic portrayals of the handicapped. It is a film that rewards watching and re-watching. All who are disabled, and all who care about disabled people, owe a debt to The Best Years of Our Lives.
Denise Noe suffers from schizotypal personality disorder with obsessive and compulsive features. She is also a chronic pain sufferer due to lower back problems. She has published essays, articles, poems, and short stories about a variety of subjects in a number of venues.