If there’s one thing that makes The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler) really interesting, it’s the way it shows the logic behind post-war suburbanization without getting 100% behind it. I’d say the film’s more like 75% pro-suburbanization. Of the three main male characters, the younger two return to live with their parents. This return home bespeaks not just the relative youth of the military, but also the mid-century housing shortage. Suburbanization addressed the very real problem of where to put the demobbed, but it wasn’t the only or inevitable solution. The Best Years of Our Lives shows that at the end of the war, suburbia had its appeal, but it wasn’t the only potential route to coming back to the American Way of Life.

When the three returning servicemen share a cab home, they go to Homer’s (Howard Russell) place first. They’re crowded into the rear view mirror, with what we’d recognize as inner-ring suburban houses offering a spacious, homey counterpoint to crowding and enclosure.

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Homer, who lost both his arms in the war, returns to a family that, while it’s not always aware of how to help Homer, really wants to help him. The utopian potential for suburbia shows up in establishing shots that put a shine on Homer’s street, giving it a sense of happiness and hope.

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At the other end of the spectrum we find Fred’s place, in a slum in the shadow of highway overpasses. It’s dark, dingy, and crowded – and Fred doesn’t think much of it when he returns:

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Fred struggles to re-integrate into Boone City (Cincinatti, Ohio) society, finding the shift from war hero to order-taking soda fountain worker jarring. In the end, Fred discovers purpose in work building the new suburbs that will spread out from Boone City like the airplanes lined up for recycling (the first image resembles a street of houses, the second a well-establish suburb’s tree canopy):

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In this way, The Best Years of Our Lives is pretty straightforward in its embrace of suburbanization. But the Sergeant, Al Stephenson, represents the appeal and acceptance of urban living. Al returns to his family home in a large, quite nice, apartment building. It’s not Central Park West, but for a middle-American provincial city, it’s plenty good.

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Al should be an asshole – he’s a banker, he lives in a swanky apartment – but he’s a good guy. He’s married to Nora Charles! The Stephenson family place has lots of room, looks expensively appointed, and has enough frippery to let us know that Al is on the high end of the pyramid.

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In the first image, the children who flank the image, directing our gaze to the warm reunion, are key. The Stephensons raised kids in an apartment in the city. When it comes to domestic life, Al has a rough road to getting his shit together, but the kids are pretty alright (if anything, Al is a bit of a jerk about how his kids lead their lives, although he does see reason in the end) and his wife is supportive and perceptive without sinking into sainted suffering. When Al is at work, he approves a loan for a tomato farm on the edge of town for a returning veteran who doesn’t have any collateral (the scene is the humane version of Buck Swope’s humiliation in Boogie Nights (1997, PT Anderson)). That is to say, Al’s third of the story shows that while there’s something exciting and appealing about the suburbs, there is also a lot to recommend the city (even if it puts your kids into contact with possibly unsavoury sorts) and even the country/farm life.

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