“I’m going to break that marriage up!”

Today is the wonderful Teresa Wright’s birthday.

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The Best Years of Our Lives was the magnificent William Wyler film that swept the Oscars for 1946. It won 7! Best Picture. Best Actor (Fredric March). Best Director. Best Screenplay (Robert Sherwood). Best Editing (Daniel Mandell). Best Music (Hugo Friedhofer). Honorary Oscar to actor real-life WWII vet and amputee (he lost both of his hands when some TNT exploded while he was holding it), and eventually the guy who helped form AMVETS, Harold Russell (“For bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives.”)

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Teresa Wright plays Peggy, daughter of Fredric March and Myrna Loy. March has been away at war. The scene where he returns home, quietly entering the home unannounced, is one of the most moving scenes in all of cinema. (Not to mention the goosebump-inducing scene when the great Dana Andrews goes to the airfield of planes following the war, and sits in the cockpit of one of them, staring out, lost in his memories of combat.)

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Peggy is a sweet ingenue, played with sincerity and intelligence by Wright. She falls in love with returning vet Fred Derry (played by Andrews). There’s one hitch, though. Derry is already married. He returns from the war to find his marriage is completely on the rocks. He tries to rebuild it, without much success. He is lost. Haunted by the war. No one to turn to. No woman to greet him back home, make things all right again. Abandoned. Peggy looks on, devastated, realizing that the man is actually married to the wrong woman. He is trapped.

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One night, Peggy and her parents have a long discussion about the situation. (The three have a wonderful and open relationship. She confesses to them she is in love with Fred, a married man. She tells them of her sadness about it. They are very concerned, but they don’t judge. They are worried for her. They listen.)

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During the course of that discussion, the three have the following exchange:

Peggy: I’ve made up my mind.
Al: Good girl.
Milly: To do what?
Peggy: I’m going to break that marriage up!

This exchange between a mother, father, and their daughter, has always struck me as so radical that I can’t even believe it happened. AND that it’s said by Peggy, the ingenue of the picture, a sweet sincere young woman. AND that she’s saying it to her PARENTS.

All of that together is amazing enough, and somehow the line does not come across at all as manipulating-homewrecker. Not at ALL. She’s going to do something GREAT, and she is going to HELP a man who is trapped with the wrong woman. She and he NEED to be together, and now she has a PLAN to save him. In the context of the film, she does not seem delusional or cruel. She seems loving and damn near patriotic. He must be saved. And she will do it.

It’s a crazy hat-trick of tone/mood/casting, and I’m just not sure a similar thing could happen today. In a lot of ways, story-tellers were way more bold back then. Perhaps because cynicism/pessimism were not in style, and so they had more freedom with certain elements of their stories. They didn’t need to undercut things with the ironic wink. Who knows.

Today is Teresa Wright’s birthday, and I’ve always loved her work, but it’s that determined lit-up “I’m going to break that marriage up!!”, said to her parents, that I think of when she comes into my head.

One of my favorite line-readings ever.

Radical.

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13 Responses to “I’m going to break that marriage up!”

  1. Oh yes – “It’s a crazy hat-trick of tone/mood/casting, and I’m just not sure a similar thing could happen today. In a lot of ways, story-tellers were way more bold back then. Perhaps because cynicism/pessimism were not in style, and so they had more freedom with certain elements of their stories. They didn’t need to undercut things with the ironic wink.”

    So sick of modern cynicism. It’s limiting in modern storytelling. It’s become trite.

    • sheila says:

      Jacqueline – thank you for your comment!

      I agree with your comment on the trite-ness of cynicism – at least how it comes across today. The noirs were cynical, but it came from a deeply grounded place of neuroticism and sexuality and paranoia, and all that. But today sometimes it feels like people just don’t want to be caught dead being sincere, earnest, or emotional.

      Boring. And yes, limiting.

      It is nearly impossible to imagine “I’m going to break that marriage up!” playing in the same way today.

      • HelenaG says:

        “But today sometimes it feels like people just don’t want to be caught dead being sincere, earnest, or emotional”.

        Yes, and at times it seems that no one bats an eye if you disparage or belittle something or someone, but it can be seen as a radical act to actually speak positively about something or someone. If you admit to liking something, you’re opening yourself up to the possibility of cynicism and derision. Not that one should care, but I think it does silence a lot interesting opinions and ideas, in real life, and in film and television.

        • sheila says:

          // Not that one should care, but I think it does silence a lot interesting opinions and ideas, in real life, and in film and television. //

          So so true. It’s tiresome.

          It’s interesting – in my resurgence of research for the Gena Oscars narration I found a quote from John Cassavetes about all of this that I found fascinating. Because his films, as chaotic and sometimes bleak as they are, are filled with love and positivity. They say: “Be kind to each other. Try to understand – even the kooks, or the cruel ones …”

          • sheila says:

            Cassavetes said when setting up his acting workshop in the 1950s what he wanted to do with it, a counterpoint to the psychoanalytic and mumbling-antihero style of the day: “Heroes have been forgotten – nowadays everyone wants to play the schmo. We don’t allow negativity of any kind. A student doesn’t attack another’s work. Our school is not for psychoanalysis and airing personal problems. It’s a time and place for work and creative happiness.”

            His films are often so painful that a lot of people often miss this element of his philosphy – which was seen as quite old-fashioned in the 1950s. The “old-fashioned” interests of Cassavetes is quite amusing when you consider he single-handedly launched the independent film scene in America – a truly modern far-seeing man.

            But he believed in the “old” values sneered at as being “bourgeois” : heroes, love, man/woman/marriage, trying to be kind, etc.

          • sheila says:

            And here’s the real quote from him I was thinking of: He was talking about the directors who came out of the old studio system, guys who were sneered at by the new generation as square, old-fashioned, etc.

            “[Those directors] were interested in the epic quality of man, rather than the lessening of his ideals, showing how little mortality and how little soul he had. The old filmmakers showed that everybody had a soul, even the most violent, evil people. Their soul was black, OK, but at least it was a definite thing. And I think people who go to the cinema don’t want to say, ‘Yes, we are confused, we are nothing.’ It destroys all kinds of entertainment.”

            Really “square” old-fashioned words from one of the most radical men of his day. Maybe the most radical thing you do in a time of cynicism is to be positive, bourgeois, and old-fashioned.

          • HelenaG says:

            So, so true! What a great quote. It’s so easy to cut oneself off from the humanity of one another, by simply focusing on the “otherness”, rather than the shared experience of being human.

            Btw, I’ve been loving how you’ve been sharing here all your Gena Rowlands material that you’ve been researching for your narration. The stills alone are fascinating. Maybe you could provide a video collage or something for the Oscars Powers That Be with your narration as well. :-)

          • HelenaG says:

            Sorry Sheila, but my last reply at 1:18 pm, was in response to your comment at 1:00 pm, not 1:12 pm, or even 1:09 pm. I am a much slower writer than you are!

            Not that it’s really a big deal to you, but it’ll bother me if I don’t make that clear.

            Anyway, I’m glad you found that Cassavetes quote. Really beautiful, inclusive ideals at work.

          • sheila says:

            Helena G –

            I was busy at work yesterday putting together a compilation of Gena Rowlands quotes – so your comment came in AS I was doing this – perfect timing!!

            Oh, and I’ve seen a rough cut of the Oscars video – and it’s clips/photos galore. They have (not surprisingly) done an incredible job with this footage and stills!

  2. carolyn clarke says:

    I think one of the reasons that she get’s away with her reading of that line is that she is the innocent in a way. She is the hero and as you say, she is doing good.

    There is a similar scene in one the “Buffy” episodes. Angel has been captured and she goes to rescue him. She says to the Scooby gang (and I am paraphrasing here), “You can try to kill me…but no one messes with my boyfriend!” The line and situation is funny (she is going to rescue a vampire!) but totally believable. No irony, no cynicism, just a heroine doing the right thing.

    • sheila says:

      Carolyn – yes, her innocence just shines through as she says that shocking line. It’s just an unbelievable performance. Another actress might have sneered it in a calculating way, but she’s all lit-up and inspired. It’s amazing!

      I love the Buffy anecdote, too!

      And, of course, because all things loop back to SPN: I think that may be one of the main attractions for me. With all its world-weary darkness, etc., it believes in things like family, heroism, good. Of course it messes it up entirely, so good becomes bad, evil is good, and all the rest. But there’s something epic about its concerns, and somehow there’s a similar lack of cynicism – and I’m not sure how they pull it off.

  3. Maureen says:

    I have always loved this line in one of my favorite movies-the way she doesn’t pull her punches-she sees her goal and she isn’t afraid to say what she wants.

    I love, love, love this movie-it reminds me of The Philadelphia Story, where every moment is perfection to me. The dance between Frederic March and Myrna Loy in the bedroom, the morning after he gets home…the awkwardness, the passion when they kiss…wonderful.

    This is a movie I have seen maybe 20 times, and it reduces me to tears at each viewing. The casting is perfect, and Teresa Wright couldn’t be more believable as Myrna Loy’s daughter. That same kind of pragmatism, clear sightedness-love it.

    Even Virginia Mayo’s character, very believable-she isn’t portrayed as a horrible villain-they simply got married too soon, and weren’t right for each other. That must have been a very common occurrence during those times, when passions were running high.

    Thanks for this post!

    Lovely, lovely movie

    • sheila says:

      Maureen – I so agree that Virginia Mayo was not portrayed as a villain, or whatever. The whole movie is just filled with messy flawed human beings trying to figure it out. She was just not prepared to have a husband come home and have things get really really serious, or him want to be serious with her about his experiences.

      Oh, Fredric March and Myrna Loy. Their scenes just kill me together. That hug in the hallway. Wordless. It’s just too much – BEAUTIFULLY filmed too. Just hanging back, giving them privacy, in a way.

      and God, I love Dana Andrews.

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