Of Jerks and Soda Jerks: The Best Years of Our Lives

We talk about old movies the way we talk about old people, in front of their faces and condescendingly, as if they’re incapable of surprising us.

I saw The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) on the big screen last week, and can’t get it out of my head. It’s easy to see why, just looking at the headlines. The V.A. can’t sort out its hospital problems. Iraq is cracking apart, as predicted. And most tellingly, the Bowe Bergdahl case is inspiring all kinds of emotionally transparent opinions. Is this normal?

If you believe The Best Years of Our Lives, it is.

Here’s a great movie setup for ya: Fred is a soldier who gets discharged months after World War II, and he’s looking for a commercial flight to his hometown, if he can afford one, and finds out the flights are booked solid for days. So he goes to the military transport office, a free service that gave rides to a few vets at a time in the extra space in planes making cargo runs around the country. While on the flight, he befriends two other vets from his hometown. One is a working sap just like Fred, but he’s had the bad luck of losing his arms. The other was an officer, going back to his secure job as a bank vice president. They all struggle with the adjustment to civilian life, and/or suffer alone through PTSD, and Fred not only finds he has nothing in common with the wife he married on a lark before deployment, he also falls in love with the bank vice president’s daughter.

Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews.

Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews.

Screenwriter Robert Sherwood was 50 when he adapted the MacKinlay Kantor novel The Best Years of Our Lives. Sherwood was George S. Kaufman’s writing partner for a time, and had previously written scripts for Rebecca and many other films. He was a hired hand at adaptations, and a dialogue polisher, but also had a number of “story by” credits, meaning he pitched ideas to producers just like the rest of us. Today, he’d probably write for a TV series, and that’s a good thing. Watching Best Years of Our Lives, I wasn’t thrilled the way you are when you watch a genre classic from the ‘40s. More sprawling and episodic, its situations were more memorable than its action, and it lacked the “Oh my God, this character’s so screwed!” urgency we look for in a feature script. This kind of story does better as a TV miniseries.

Which explains why, though it was a giant hit and swept the Academy Awards, it hasn’t enjoyed nearly the half life of, say, Casablanca or To Have and Have Not. Even Laura (1944), the other film Dana Andrews (Fred) is remembered for, seems to get screened and talked about more. There is no race to the waiting airplane. No bottom of the 9th rally. No fight to the death. It’s more about the dull pain. Iwo Jima and Battle of the Bulge were about adrenalin, but the times called for subtler hormones.

A friend of mine recently posted an excerpt from a letter his grandfather wrote from Germany right after Berlin fell. Part of it reads, “As the smoke lifts silently from yesterday’s battle field exposing the bodies of the men who sacrificed their all, I wonder how the people at home can be quite as gay as the papers lead me to believe….I wish the people could have seen the front-line doughboy when he heard the news. The looks on their faces seemed to say, ‘That’s over – what now’ – No merry- making – no shouting…”

Spoiler Alert – and I admit, it feels goofy offering a “spoiler” alert for a movie that’s almost 70 years old, but it was new to me: In all that slow burn, Fred does eventually face an urgent problem. He’s had to go back to his old job as a soda jerk – an indignity he swore he wouldn’t resort to – and his friend the double amputee shows up to check on him. Coincidentally, a political malcontent is having a sandwich at the counter, and tells the guys they were suckers for fighting: The system is still rigged against them, and the world is just as dangerous. So Fred does what any sexually frustrated, PTSD-suffering vet would do when his fellow vet, an amputee, is having an argument with someone who thinks their sacrifices were all for nothing: He jumps the counter and slugs the guy across the face.

Detroit, 1945.

Detroit, 1945.

Although Sherwood, or maybe director William Wyler, was careful not to politicize the encounter too much – the guy’s a nihilist crank, not a Red agitator – the scene shines a light on a wound in the American soul that makes us politically lame to this day. It is against the rules to ever tell a soldier, “Your good intentions, and your sacrifice, got abused.” And if you do say so, that soldier and his friends are within their rights to pop you one.

Apparently there were people in 1945 willing to make that case, even when we had just beaten a global enemy that really was, as the saying goes, “just like Hitler.” And the predictable response from the war vets was to lash back, to make no concession to anyone who questions the war’s purposes or effects, and to go ahead and channel all that frustration you’re feeling about the very thing the critic is talking about into an ad hominem attack against him. In The Best Years of Our Lives, this scene is treated matter-of-factly, as if a political argument with a cynic that gets out of hand was something that just happens. The only thematic meaning that sticks to it is Fred’s transformation from a broken man settling for his old soda jerk job to a confident man who’ll stick up for his friend, even if it means throwing away the job he doesn’t need.

I can forgive a Fred for serving up a knuckle sandwich or two in 1945, but I can’t forgive someone today who exploits this impulse to dumb down the long overdue national conversation about peace. As the case of Bowe Bergdahl (no relation!) shows, we can’t even say the two words that need to be said first just to place any conversation about Iraq and Afghanistan here in the real world: “We lost.”

Hitting the Historical Sweet Spot, or Why “Turn” is Superior to “Game of Thrones”

I tried Game of Thrones and just couldn’t get into it, but have to admit I’m hooked on Turn, which airs on AMC opposite the fantasy hit, in the Sunday night slot before Mad Men. Next Sunday June 8th is its first season finale, and I’m crossing my fingers that AMC doesn’t pull the plug.

I guess it’s a simple matter of not enjoying the fantasy genre. There’s so much real mythology, and real history, to get to know, it seems like a waste of energy to become literate in a fake one. Like learning Klingon when you know your Spanish sucks. The genre’s defenders say that because it’s undiluted by any messy complications, it can have perfectly crafted plots. The plot lines in real history books are often clumsy, and full of unsatisfying split decisions. Why not Tolkienize them, so that the heroes are pure, and everyone takes the world of the story at face value? So author and viewer alike can forget about the priggish Elizabethan music buff or Civil War enthusiast who’s looking for an excuse to call “Bullshit”?

I have no answer to that, except “G’ahead!” I’m not saying the genre should be banned, I’m just saying it bores the hell out of me. I hunger to connect with other times and social landscapes, and can’t foresee any fantasy world thrilling enough to offset the lost opportunity. Even if the writers take liberties with historical details, then what attention they do pay to getting the period right still gives us a chance to think like a person from that place and time.

The sweet spot, it seems to me, is giving the viewer just enough familiar things to relate to, while having the integrity to challenge them to get their heads around a somewhat authentic version of the period. The American Revolution is famously lousy for TV ratings and box office, and the rare attempts at taking on the material usually center on families: Mel Gibson’s Patriot movie (2000) was a father-son revenge story, and HBO’s John Adams miniseries (2008) kept the John-Abigail relationship front and center. The Patriot was a Red State chest-thumper that romanticized aggression after eight years of Clinton’s cautious use of the military – I saw it in a gorgeous old theater in Clarksville, Tennessee while on a road trip, and people seemed to love it – while John Adams was the Blue State call for a return to technocracy and an assertive national government at the end of the Bush years.

Turn beats Gibson’s propaganda by a mile, but I also – and this is heresy among history nerds – prefer it to John Adams. It too centers on a family, but a much more interesting one: the young Revolutionary double-agent has a father who supports the British, a wife who leans that way, an ex-flame/accomplice married to a Revolution supporter in prison, and a handful of roughnecks trying to pass what secrets they come across back to General Washington.

June 1, 2014, The Prison Ship Martyrs monument in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn...

June 1, 2014, The Prison Ship Martyrs monument in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn…

I’m not saying I never blow raspberries at the TV when the plot devices come across as false or unduly sensational. In fact, it happens a few times an episode. The double-agent, who grew up on Long Island in the 1760s, speaks, as you’d expect, like an Englishman, but his father’s accent inexplicably sounds like he’s on Ohio Public Radio. I especially dislike the way characters handle pistols and muskets, which shot inaccurate knuckleballs, as if they’re in a shootout at the OK Corral with weapons from 100 years later. In one episode, a night ambush by a few soldiers at a farmhouse turns into a standoff that lasts till morning, while the civilian farmer lies bleeding a few meters from his front door and his family must listen to him moan. That’s like a World War II story, a level of brutality that wouldn’t have occurred to 18th Century fighters.

But for each device like that – red meat for the viewers creator/writer Craig Silverstein no doubt feels like he has to feed – there are good historical details, and you never lose the sense that revolution, civil war, and military occupation are messy, and it’s set right here in the U.S. of A., and that’s kind of the point. It’s a series for a country that’s tired of Afghanistan, and wary of sending national guardsmen to Syria.

In 1776 Long Islanders weren’t really Americans, just a bunch of politically divided opportunists with chips on their shoulders about taxes and a slowly emerging consensus of beliefs about legislative authority. Silverstein was careful to give each major character a personal motive, and not just an idealistic one, to join the Revolution. They didn’t have a mythology to believe yet, they were living the mythology.

The affection between the double agent and his female accomplice is a nice touch – that he was in love with one woman but married his brother’s fiancée when he died young – is a very real and very 18th Century problem.  I also find the attention to the prison ships that were anchored in what’s now the Brooklyn Navy Yard especially welcome. The threat of ten years on The Jersey is like a death sentence. I also appreciate that the African-American characters, who get displaced by the Revolution, into a semi-slave, semi-free status in the lower rungs of the workforce, aren’t just there to be scenery, but play consequential roles.

...and the door to the vaults where the bones are kept.

…and the door to the vaults where the bones are kept.

Based on a book, the series walks the line between a familiar trope – a spy ring – and the unfamiliar 18th Century colonial society. It goes to show that there’s a wealth of historical content out there on the peripheries of momentous events. If the series had gotten closer to the icons, and been called Valley Forge, or Hamilton, then the core audience of, well, people like me, would have expected more history and less license. I didn’t know who John Woodhull was before Turn came on, so I’m ready to roll with it. Let’s hope the numbers add up, or at least AMC figures that enough of us aren’t going to watch Game of Thrones anyway, to keep it around another season. I want to know what happens next.