“I’m going to break that marriage up!” Teresa Wright in The Best Years of Our Lives

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.

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. Derry is already married. He returns from the war to find his marriage on the rocks. He tries to rebuild it, without much success. He is lost. Haunted by the war. No one to turn to. Abandoned. Peggy looks on, devastated, realizing that how trapped the man is.

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One night, Peggy and her parents have a long discussion about the situation. She confesses to them she is in love with Fred, a married man. She tells them of her sadness. 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 film. AND that she’s saying it to her PARENTS.

All of that together is amazing enough, but what is most amazing is that somehow she does not come across as manipulating-homewrecker – and this is entirely due to Wright’s performance. She’s going to do something GREAT, and she is going to RESCUE 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.

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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33 Responses to “I’m going to break that marriage up!” Teresa Wright in The Best Years of Our Lives

  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.

      • Mark says:

        It’s shameful, to say the least, that Dana Andrews was never even nominated for an Academy Award. He should have WON it flat out for his stellar portrayal as Fred Derry. Myrna Loy, also, was never nominated for anything. She deserved at very least a nomination here. What were they thinking??

        • sheila says:

          The film won every other Oscar known to man – and they INVENTED an Oscar just for the film – so maybe they thought “enough is enough” but I agree with the implied point that they both give marvelous performances. Everyone does.

  4. Lizzie says:

    I absolutely love Theresa Wright! To me, she is the quintessence of what an ingenue can be if the role is approached with integrity, warmth and intelligence, and without condescension. I recently played an “ingenue” and, looking to her for inspiration, I watched Mrs. Miniver for the first time. She just radiated off the screen (and was so manifestly better in every way than the beanpole she ended up with, it was kind of ridiculous! Dana Andrews was a much more worthy onscreen partner). She just always managed to come across as a good, decent, rational person, but in a natural way–to be sweet without cloying, and to laugh at people’s foibles without mocking them…she’s really special, I think.

    • sheila says:

      Lizzie –

      // I recently played an “ingenue” and, looking to her for inspiration, I watched Mrs. Miniver for the first time. //

      I love this! You are so right that she is very much an inspiration for an intelligent ingenue.

      A very special actress – unique. Hard to picture another actress doing what she did with the role in Best Years of Our Lives. She’s so good.

  5. BOB HUGE says:

    My favorite line is “My career as a homewrecker is over.” Peggy realizes that the outcome is out of her hands and she must let the natural order of things take place. In the end, she is right and she wins because she is good and sweet and pure, which by the way was much easier to be back in 1946.

    • sheila says:

      // which by the way was much easier to be back in 1946. //

      Oh shut up. I wish men would just leave women ALONE. I am so SICK of men weighing in on women’s behavior through the ages. Not to mention how much damage the “purity” requirement has done to women. It was better “back then”, huh, when women were “pure”. Honestly, the EGO of you guys. It’s breathtaking.

      It’s amazing any of us want to sleep with you or marry you at all.

  6. Dan says:

    I finally saw this last year, thanks to the late, lamented Filmstruck, and was struck by how ‘modern’ the movie felt, or maybe timeless is a better word. It didn’t seem at all dated to me, maybe because as a society we’re once again dealing with PTSD.

    • sheila says:

      “the late lamented Filmstruck” – so lamented.

      and yes – this is a very fresh movie, it will always be relevant – the PTSD for sure – it was something you weren’t supposed to talk about and this movie did. Other movies had done it in the 30s – with men coming back shell-shocked, filling up the bread lines – but this was a major Award-winning A-list movie.

      How about the scene with Dana Andrews in the field of airplanes? Such a great great scene.

  7. Paul Dionne says:

    One of the greatest things about TBYOOL and so glad it won an Oscar is because the writing and performances is straight, direct, adult, no bs. And it always sucks me in – everyone in it is fantastic, esp Loy, March, Dana Andrews, and those 2 roles by Virginia Mayo, and Teresa Wright are superb.

    • sheila says:

      Paul – yes! Adult, no b.s. you’re so right. It’s not sentimental, or pandering. We were just talking about this on Facebook. Even Virginia Mayo gets to be human, and three-dimensional. Nobody’s a villain. War is hard, coming home is hard, nobody really “wins”. Or, they do, but everyone has paid a price.

  8. Claudia Gibson says:

    I just re-watched this movie and it gets me every time. The first time I saw it I was probably in my teens, and now much older, having been married over 30 years, it is even more true and more touching. One thing I still do not understand is how Dana Andrews did not win an Academy award for this movie. The two scenes that should have guaranteed it, the early nightmare scenes, and the later scene in the plane, are some of the finest acting I’ve ever viewed on screen. This film is a worthy tribute to a now mostly gone generation, and all that they had to sacrifice, both in war and at home.

    • Lalas says:

      I’m watching it now on YT. Have not seen it in maybe a decade. The scene where H. Russell is cleaning his rifle and pushes his loving girfriend away. She walks away in tears. Everything about this film is so piercing. It is bittersweet. Can’t watch it too often. Makes me cry. The actors and the film crew were truly brilliant. There is no other film quite like this -although there is that other one w Colbert, J Jones and S Temple. I am there are a few people who still remember this movie.

    • Mark says:

      Totally agree re: Dana Andrews. See my comment above.

  9. Chris says:

    I think that line was only possible because it was just after WWII about a movie dealing with the after effects of WWII being shown to an audience that was living through it. The pain was still too fresh that not being honest would have been unacceptable. People knew many war time marriages weren’t working out or in difficulties and some would end in divorce. I think if the movie had been made even a few years later the censors would not have let it through – the pain would have faded and the sanitization of the war years would have begun.

    I’ve only seen this movie once I think. I best remember Teresa Wright from Shadow of a Doubt which I’ve watched multiple times. Wonderful actress.

    • sheila says:

      Chris –

      // I think if the movie had been made even a few years later the censors would not have let it through – the pain would have faded and the sanitization of the war years would have begun. //

      Very good point!

      she’s excellent in Shadow of a Doubt.

  10. Bill Wolfe says:

    The Self Styled Siren posted a clause from Teresa Wright’s contract with Samuel Goldwyn that made me like her even more than I already did:

    “Miss Wright shall not be required to pose for photographs in a bathing suit unless she is in water. Neither may she be photographed running on the beach with her hair flying in the wind. Nor may she pose in any of the following situations: in shorts; playing with a cocker spaniel; digging in a garden; whipping up a meal; attired in firecrackers and holding skyrockets for the fourth of July; looking insinuatingly at the turkey for Thanksgiving; wearing a bunny cap with long ears for Easter; twinkling on prop snow in a skiing outfit while a fan blows her scarf.”

    Go get ’em, Teresa!

  11. charlie says:

    I wonder how the chemistry between Dana Andrews and Theresa Wright was during the making of the Best Years of Our Lives? Does anyone know? They were both so great in that movie, as were all the other actors. Just curious if they had good repour in real life.

    • sheila says:

      Charlie – you know, I don’t know! I know she was well liked, in general – as was he. He had his troubles but wasn’t known as a bully or anything like that. They really do have such great chemistry – and it’s so essential, you know? You have to believe they need to be together and you really do!

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