Today is the wonderful Teresa Wright’s birthday.
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.”)
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.)
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.
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.)
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.