Thursday, August 17, 2017

Punching Nazis in the Face - The Best Years of Our Lives - 1946

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is rich with profound and moving scenes.  The current events of the past week bring to mind the scene with Ray Teal in the drugstore.  He is, as we learn by his conversation, a far-right fanatic, one of those who believed President Roosevelt started the war, and that the Nazis were the good guys. 

Harold Russell stops in the drugstore to visit Dana Andrews, who works behind the counter as a soda jerk.  Ray Teal notices Harold Russell’s prosthetic hooks:

He says, “Terrible to see a guy like you that had to sacrifice himself, and for what?”

Harold Russell responds, “’And for what?’  I don’t get you, Mister.”

“We let ourselves get sold down the river.  We were pushed into the war.”

“Sure, by the Japs and the Nazis.”

“No, the Germans had nothing against us.  They just wanted to fight the Limeys and the Reds.  And they would have whipped them, too, if we didn’t get deceived into it by a bunch of radicals in Washington.”

“What are you talking about?”

Ray Teal taps his newspaper, likely a publication that fans his views and his inbred ignorance, and strokes his arrogance.  “We fought the wrong  people, that’s all.  Just read the facts, my friend.  Find out for yourself why you had to lose your hands.  And then go out and do something about it.”

Dana Andrews, who has been listening, interrupts.  “You’d better pay your check, Brother, and go home.”

Ray Teal, insulted, fires back to the hired help, “Well, who do you think you are?”

“Pay the cashier right over there.”

Ray Teal huffs, “That’s another thing.  Every soda jerk in this country’s got an idea he’s somebody.”

Teal goes to the cashier.  Homer follows him, wanting to pursue Teal's meaning.  “Look here, Mister what are you selling anyway?”

Teal proudly, stubbornly announces, “I’m not selling anything but plain, old-fashioned Americanism.”

Homer replies, angrily, “Some Americanism.  So we’re all a bunch of suckers, hey?  So we should have been on the side of the Japs and the Nazis, hey?”

Teal taps his folded newspaper, “Again, I say, just look at the facts.”

Homer blows up, they argue.  Homer wants to punch him, but can’t because of his prosthetic hooks.  So Dana Andrews sails over the lunch counter to break up the fight, and punches the American Nazi in the face.  It is a satisfying thing to watch.  

It will not change Teal’s views, however.  We probably know that even though we never see him again in the movie.  We can imagine he will avoid Andrews on sight from now on, and feel himself to be a victim, not just of Dana Andrews, but of a society where his dumbass and putrid views are polar opposite to what the Constitution prescribes. 

Neither do we see any resulting lawsuits against Andrews for the assault, but then the movies like to end arguments with punches, and end bad guys with instant death; the courtroom that should be the final arbiter usually isn't dramatic enough for Hollywood.

It is a brave and prescient scene for the day, acknowledging that not all Americans were united about the war, and that being anti-Nazi was going to have to be a stance we would need to continue to take if we wanted to keep ourselves free.

The bitter scene is followed by a tender, touching scene, as Homer notices the flag pin that fell off Teal’s lapel and landed in the floor.  Homer picks up the flag pin with remarkable dexterity with his hook, and puts it in his jacket breast pocket, near his heart.

Dana Andrews may have landed the punch, but Homer saved democracy by scooping it up off the dirty floor and protecting it.


Caftan Woman said...

Beautiful. Necessary.

Irish Jayhawk said...

Great scene and how incredibly fitting today. Sadly we are still battling nazis and nationalism.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

A sad week, ladies, but how remarkable to find perspective and meaning from classic films regarding specific modern events.

rcocean said...

I think its the weakest scene in the movie. Imagine someone in Late 1945 or early 1946 - in public - stating that the "Japs" had been the "Good guys" and the 300 thousand Americans had died for nothing. And saying that to disabled vet.

Extremely unlikely.

And then Dana Andrews sucker punches the "nazi", and he crashes into a glass case. Y'know where he could have been cut to pieces and bled to death. And Dana just says "this customer wasn't right" and walks off. Hello? He just committed felonious assault!

Its the most absurd scene in an otherwise very realistic movie.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

A sock to the jaw is invariably Hollywood's stock answer to an argument, as I mentioned. However, the sentiments expressed by the character played by Ray Teal were not extremely unlikely. They were expressed, for instance, in Congress by elected officials on the far right who despised Roosevelt. Or, someone like white supremacist John E. Rankin (D-Mississippi), who denounced blacks and Jews on the floor of the House and often used racial slurs -- how difficult is it to believe that those who voted for him for several terms agreed with his paranoid sentiments? Pearl Harbor did not banish bigotry and the idea that Hitler had the right idea as regards the Jews. This scene is important because it reflects the reality that we were not as united during the war as most movies of the day would have us believe. It may be simplistic, but its acknowledgment that we were still not one big happy family just because we'd just won a war is realistic.

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