When I was a boy, the greatest of the secular holidays—if you’ll forgive the oxymoron—was Thanksgiving. It sat defiantly on a Thursday and, fortified by the mythology of America, simultaneously closed the stores and clogged the airports and the bus stations. Gourmandizing aside, it was—and still is—a holiday that defied commercialization because its elemental substance was gratitude. So it is perhaps unsurprising that, encroached on one side by the increasingly commercialized Christmas and on the other by a Halloween metastasized from ever -expanding childhoods, Thanksgiving has not been a font of pop culture. Or, as Loudon Wainwright III put it:
Suddenly, it’s Christmas right after Halloween
Forget about Thanksgiving, it’s just a buffet in-between
(Wainwright’s thoughts on Thanksgiving can be found here.)
Up until a few years ago, when John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles emerged from the cinematic soup of the ’80s as a modern Thanksgiving classic (and setting aside the second best Peanuts special), the film I most associated with Thanksgiving was The Best Years of Our Lives. So ingrained was this in my head, I was rather surprised on a recent viewing to discover Thanksgiving makes no appearance in the film whatsoever—though it was released one week before Thanksgiving in 1946.
No Thanksgiving, but a whole lot of giving thanks.
Directed by William Wyler from a screenplay by Robert Sherwood (Rebecca, The Bishop’s Wife) from a novella/poem by MacKinlay Kantor (who also wrote the book Follow Me, Boys! was based on), it would be the top grossing film of the decade and win seven regular Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Screenplay and both Best Actor Oscars, and two special Oscars.
Our story begins with three servicemen returning from the war: An army sergeant (Frederic March), a Navy Petty Officer (Harold Russell) and an Air Force bombardier (Dana Andrews) who share an uncomfortable 16-hour plane flight to get to the fictional town of Boone City where each discovers that while the town hasn’t changed, they and their relationship to it has.
There’s nothing more American than the fact that their status in the military service has nothing to do with their non-military lives. (See this Al Jolson song, “I’ve Got My Captain Working For Me Now”.) Sergeant Al (March) was a wealthy banker, Petty Officer Homer (Russell) was a solidly middle class high-school sports star, and the highest status among them, Bombardier Fred (Andrews) was a soda-jerk from the wrong side of the tracks.
Al returns to loving wife Milly (top-billed Myrna Loy) and two children who have grown to adulthood in his absence. Milly is so patient and so adept at handling Al that daughter Peggy thinks (Teresa Wright) that they’ve never had a single marital difficulty. Although Al finds himself welcome back at his old job (in charge of G.I. loans), he wants to use his gut sense about men—his faith in their abilities as he saw them during the war—as a basis for making loans. (This is literally illegal now.) And he finds himself dealing with the stress by drinking.
Homer’s difficulties stem from the loss of his hands. Russell won two Oscars here, both for best supporting actor and an honorary one for supporting disabled veterans because the Academy assumed he couldn’t win the regular Oscar, not being a professional actor. It’s a powerhouse of a performance because Homer, who has already wrestled with his disability, has to repeat the grieving process with practically everyone he comes into contact with.
In an excess of decency, he wants to free his best girl Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) from feeling obliged to stay with him while she struggles to make him realize her feelings haven’t changed.
The main arc of the movie belongs to Fred. A genuine war hero who ends up working for the kid who probably was too young for the draft and whose home-town pharmacy was bought out by a big conglomerate, he’s also suffering from what we now call PTSD, and his party-time pin-up gal wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), whom he married two weeks before shipping out, doesn’t really have anything in common with him any more and also really hates that he can’t hold down a job. The movie’s great irony being that the least grateful and understanding person in the film, Marie, is the one who bitterly utters the words “the best years of my life”.
Complicating matters further is that an encounter with Peggy convinces Fred that she, rather than the bubble-headed bimbo, is what he really wants in a wife. This doesn’t go down very well with Al.
I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that things more-or-less all work out for the best, and some critics, especially in later years, would regard the movie as too “neat”, but the whole point of the film is giving thanks. When Homer is describing the process of how he has to put on the harness that holds his hook-hands, he says, “I’m lucky. I have my elbows. Some of the boys don’t.” (Sort of a variant on “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”)
It isn’t really “neat”, though: All three of our heroes have to face the fact that life is going to be full of new challenges. Al’s challenge is moral and institutional, Harold’s is physical, and Fred basically has to start over. But a big part of giving thanks, as it turns out, is not giving up—and the guy who stands in the future suggesting a movie like this should end in despair is like the conspiracy theory guy (Ray Teal) who calls the servicemen “suckers”: he deserves a sock in the jaw.
With a relentlessly emotional score by Hugo Friedhoffer (and directed by Emil Newman), and occasionally blocked so arrestingly that a home viewing has the vital advantage of letting you pause and rewind to appreciate it, this is a unique film that has me choked up for almost the entirety of its 2:50 runtime, every time I watch it—and feeling that I need to be more thankful.