The minor actors in “The Best Years of Our Lives” tell us even more about the three veterans. Fred’s father, played by Roman Bohnen, has a very brief but exceptionally moving scene as he reads aloud his son’s war citations. Homer’s younger sister, not uncomfortable with his hooks, stares openly fascinated at them as children will. Ray Collins is both pompous and subtly sinister as Al’s hypocritical boss. Hoagy Carmichael plays the easygoing Uncle Butch, who gives Homer a sense of perspective.
It is left to the minor characters of Butch and Al’s son, Rob, to introduce the post-war world for us by discussing the atom bomb. The central characters are too preoccupied with jobs, and fitting into their families and fitting into their clothes to care about the new geopolitical realities. Rob refers to the recent enemy as “Japanese” with a delicacy that eludes his veteran father, who persists in referring to them as “Japs.”
Wyler, with subtle observation even manages to put a toe across Hollywood’s color bar by training the camera’s eye on the African-American ex-GI who waits to go home just as Al, Homer and Fred must wait at the ATC depot. A black soldier brings his family into Fred’s drug store and is seen buying candy for his two children. The man standing in line next to Fred at the unemployment office is an African-American. It is as if Wyler hints there is a parallel story here to the one of Al, Homer, and Fred, but we only get a peek.
Another legacy to us comes from the man with the flag pin on his lapel who challenges Homer to consider that a left-wing conspiracy brought the nation to war. Al, played by Oscar winner Fredric March, chides the stuffy bankers at his welcome home banquet of their suspicion of “do-gooders” and “radicals.” Today, these salvos between right and left have been diminished to a cliché about blue states and red states. We are a nation at war today, and many of us wear flag pins on our lapels, or magnetic ribbons on our cars, but the civilian population has not been called upon to make sacrifices. Only civilians who have loved ones in the military have made sacrifices. The rest are untouched, and uninvolved. It was not so in World War II.
More on "The Best Years" tomorrow.