“It’s a Wonderful Life” was released in 1946, and although it’s considered a classic film today, it wasn’t well received upon its initial release. It was nominated for a few Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor, and Director, but it didn’t win any of them. Instead, those awards went to “The Best Years of Our Lives”, an equally important and powerful film but probably more accessible immediately after World War Two than “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Personally, I love both films the same, but I haven’t gotten a chance to write about “The Best Years of Our Lives” yet. I’ll change that today.
The film takes place after the war has ended and troops are heading home. We meet three people in particular: an Air Force captain named Fred (Dana Andrews), an Army sergeant named Al (Fredric March), and a Navy sailor named Homer (Harold Russell). All three of them end up flying back to the same area, Boone City (a fictional town), and they all have experienced some intense combat in the war. Homer, especially, had his hands burned when his aircraft carrier sunk, which got many of his peers killed. He now uses metal hooks for hands, which we see him use to pick up his luggage, drink a glass, and light a cigarette. (Russell, by the way, is a real WWII veteran who lost his hands, which makes the performance all the more impactful.)
All three of them arrive to their homes. Homer gets to his house first to find his family and his girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) waiting for him. They are all shocked (quietly) at first sight of his hooks, but they pretend as if nothing happened and welcome him home. Next, Al arrives at his home and surprises his children, adult daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) and college-age son Rob (Michael Hall), and his wife Milly (Myrna Loy). It’s an early scene when he comes home to see them, but I guarantee you’ll get teary-eyed even then. Finally, Fred arrives at his parents’ house to find that his wife, a woman he met in training named Marie (Virginia Mayo), has moved into an apartment and now works at a nightclub. Fred finds the apartment and embraces her, and then starts trying to get his former job back at a soda jerk.
Al, meanwhile, goes back to the bank he used to work at and resumes his position as a bank loan officer. The bank president Mr. Milton (Ray Collins) wants him to continue there to work with other veterans, but things don’t go as smoothly as Mr. Milton would want. When a veteran without collateral comes in and asks Al for a loan, Al gives him the loan simply trusting the veteran at his word. Milton disagrees with this, but Al convinces him that he must stand up for the other veterans who are having a hard time readjusting to civilian life.
Speaking of which, Homer is especially a victim of this, as his family and other people around him seem to judge him for his hands. He used to be a football quarterback, but any hopes of continuing that path have vanished. He even wanted to marry Wilma, but he can’t seem to think that she would want him, even though Wilma does her best to be there for him now. Fred eventually offers to be his best man, and one night, Homer invites Wilma to his house so she can see what exactly she would be dealing with, helping Homer with basically every single human necessity. After showing the complicated process of putting himself to bed, Homer finally tells her:
HOMER: 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: I know what to say, Homer. I love you, and I’m never going to leave you. Never.
She kisses him, puts him to bed, and leaves Homer falling asleep crying with joy. Meanwhile, Fred has his own troubles readjusting to civilian life. He may be married to Marie, but they are both starting to realize that married life is harder than they thought it would be. And soon, Fred starts giving up on Marie and starts developing affection for another woman: Peggy, and she develops interest as well. One night, she goes out with Fred, Marie, and another young man to see how meaningless chasing after him would be, but she believes that Fred and Marie don’t love each other. She decides she’s going to break up their marriage. Al and Milly are against it, of course, and she laments to them that they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in love because they never had any troubles in their marriage. And then Milly replies:
MILLY: We never had any trouble? (To Fred) 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?
Milly comforts Peggy as she sobs (something Teresa Wright is very good at on camera), and Al tells Fred that he mustn’t see Peggy anymore. It hurts him, and her, but what’s worse is when he finds another veteran at his apartment with Marie, and she tells him bluntly that she is getting a divorce. Eventually, Fred finds another job, and as he acts as Homer’s best man at his and Wilma’s wedding, he sees Peggy and thinks about what is ahead. After Homer and Wilma kiss and wed, the guests go to congratulate them, but Fred and Peggy embrace and kiss.
FRED: 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.
But that doesn’t deter Peggy—or Fred—and the film ends with them finally together.
“The Best Years of Our Lives” is a great post-war film that deals with the immediate effects of veterans coming home to civilian life and having to readjust. But I think a reason why it’s still so beloved is because it deals with the idea of continuing to love someone even after tough times have happened or are happening. Homer and Wilma experience it and overcome, as do Al and Milly, and even when Marie leaves him, Fred is committed to staying with Peggy.
This is yet another romantic film whose message about love I’m using to relate to the love of God. No matter how much we stumble, no matter how much we may neglect God’s will, He will never neglect us, and that’s extremely humbling. Loving God through tough times is probably the hardest thing in the world to do, and many have ended up falling away from their faith because of this. But my prayer for you today is the prayer of the apostle Paul to the Ephesians: “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17b-19) Amen.