As I’ve noted before, I’m a fan of retellings of familiar tales. I also occasionally let my imagination roam after the words The End appear on the screen or on the page. I wrote a fan fiction piece, in fact, on what I envision happening after the series Mad Men finished spinning tales on air. It’s set on a sad day in September in New York City.
For many years, I’ve enjoyed imagining what a sequel to the movie The Best Years of Our Lives would look like. First, if you’ve not seen this Oscar-winning tale of three servicemen returning to their small town at the end of World War II and readjusting to civilian life, give it a try. It’s moving, bittersweet, and, ultimately, uplifting. The scene where Al Stephenson (Frederic March) surprises his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), in their postwar reunion is an understated yet breathtaking moment that leaves you suppressing tears.
At the end of the movie, though, I wonder what would have happened to those characters? Would Al conquer his drinking problem and find the contentment he’d lost going away to war? Would former airman Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Peggy Stephenson (Teresa Wright) find happiness after getting together following his divorce from gold digger Marie (Virginia Mayo)? And would former sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) and new wife Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) flourish on his disability payments after he’d lost his hands in the war?
I could think of all sorts of answers to those questions. I even thought of actually writing a story based on those answers.
But I’ll content myself for now by offering a narrative of what I think would happen in the future to the characters of this tale. I hope those familiar with the movie enjoy it.
Join in the fun and tell me what you imagine for characters from some of your favorite stories!
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES: THE SEQUEL
Thirty years later, in the 1970s, poor Al has given up drink, but the smoking is doing him in. He’s retiring due to a lung cancer diagnosis his wife, Milly, hides from him. Or thinks she hides from him. Al knows he’s not long for this world, and he’s decided his last days, months, will be spent on a mission to reconcile with son, Rob. He and Rob broke when the young man joined in anti-Vietnam War protests, even landing in jail at one point. A campus radical in the 1960s, Rob did many things he now regrets. He stayed in touch with his mother, though, who knows he has a daughter out of wedlock with a hippie he hooked up with in California years ago, and he’s been trying to track down the whereabouts of his child.
Before leaving on this journey, though, Al and Milly have a dinner with daughter Peggy and son-in-law Fred at their beautiful rancher in a nearby suburb. Fred has done very well for himself and now owns his own construction company. They’ve lived the American Dream except for the tragedy of losing a son in the Vietnam War, a loss that led Peggy to join her father in shunning her brother, Rob. Their two daughters are both away in college, and one wants to be a lawyer. Both Fred and Peggy are enormously proud of them. Fred is a member of the VFW and American Legion, and Peggy is active in social and community affairs. While Fred chats with Al, Milly takes Peggy aside and tells her that her father isn’t well, although she doesn’t divulge the full gravity of his situation. When she explains they are going to California to see Rob, however, Peggy guesses the truth — her father’s health condition is terminal. She doesn’t let on that she knows, but she sobs out her distress to Fred later, who suggests she might reconcile with Rob, too, as a gift to her father. She agrees to give her brother a call. Fred also suggests they try to plan a reunion with Al and Homer when Peggy’s parents return from their trip. Fred and Peggy had lost touch with Homer over the years when Homer and Wilma moved out of state after the death of Homer’s parents.
Wilma, in fact, is returning to Boone City from Chicago at that moment, but without Homer. The former sailor died of a heart attack in the past week, and she’s come back to tell his friends and to make arrangements to move permanently to her hometown. Sad and even a little bitter, Wilma resented Homer’s determination to move from Boone City. They’d been lured to Chicago by a navy buddy of Homer’s fifteen years ago. The buddy had promised Homer a partnership in a restaurant, but it turned out to be a front for a mob-related money-laundering operation. Homer was lucky not to land in jail–in fact, Wilma hides the secret guilt that she is glad he passed away before being ensnared in a federal probe of the operation that began right before his death. She was unhappy the entire time they lived in Chicago, not comfortable with the sprawling city, fearful for her children, especially during the 1968 riots, afraid to drive on the new highways springing up. Their children left as soon as they were able. Three daughters moved back to Boone City and married, two became teachers, one a part-time librarian, raising families of their own. Their son is a test pilot in Texas, a career Homer encouraged but one that upsets Wilma.
Back in Boone City, she stays with her oldest daughter, sees friends, and prepares herself to visit Al and Milly and Fred and Peggy to give them the bad news about Homer. She begins to regain her equilibrium, feels she can breathe again. Before seeing friends, her first stop, though, is back to the old tavern her husband loved to frequent. There, she learns the place is up for sale, and she breaks down at the news. If they’d stayed in Boone City, this is the place Homer would have loved to have owned, a legitimate business that would have made him — and her — proud. After a good cry, she makes her way to see Peggy. Fred’s at work, but Peggy is glad to welcome Wilma, asks her in…and learns the sad news of Homer’s passing. Wilma learns, meanwhile, that Al and Milly are away. They’ll be back in a couple weeks, Peggy tells Wilma, and she also lets her know of Fred’s plan to have a reunion. They plot together to make this happen at the tavern.
Meanwhile, Al and Milly’s reunion with their son is strained at first as they adjust to staying in his small apartment, all he can afford as a part-time reporter for an alternative newspaper.As the stay wears on, though, he peppers his father with questions about his life, his war experiences, and, when Al opens up, Rob decides he’ll use the material for a book about his father and his friends, their life, in particular, after returning from the war. In the midst of the visit, Rob gets great news–the private investigator he’d hired has found his daughter, Grace, in a foster home, her mother having passed away from a drug overdose a year ago. Rob and Milly and Al have a tearful get-together with Grace, a shy and beautiful child. When Milly confides in Rob that his father is “not well,” Rob gets the meaning just as Peggy did. He pledges to come to Boone City with Grace soon for a visit, telling his father “this isn’t goodbye.” He looks forward to seeing them all, including Peggy, who wrote to him recently. Milly is happy her children are reconciling..
When Al and Milly return to Boone City after their heart-wrenching visit, they join Fred, Peggy, their two daughters, home on spring break, Wilma, her three girls, and their various spouses and children, at the tavern for a bittersweet reunion. The reunion is elevated to happier levels when Rob walks in with Grace holding his hand. He tells his mother he couldn’t stay put knowing his father was so ill, that his ties to California are scant, and he’s committed to living in Boone City…at least until “Dad’s health crisis is over.” A tearful Milly knows he’s telling her he’ll be there until the end of Fred’s life.
When Wilma tells her girls how much she’d wished their father had known the tavern was up for sale, they talk to her about the possibility of her buying the tavern, but she says she’s too old for that sort of thing. They say they’re willing to invest in her, in her business. She’s the one who ran the household for years as Homer drifted further into memory and drink. She’s a good manager, and she’s committed to Boone City’s future. Al, too, is willing to write a check. When she demurs, he insists, saying he’ll be her partner. Milly overhears him telling Wilma he’ll make sure she inherits his share should he predecease her. Now Milly knows he knows his diagnosis. They share a sweet kiss and telling glances as the party continues around them. Fade to black.
Two other stories I like to think of sequels for are…Oklahoma and The Graduate. Yes, I know, you could hardly get more different. Oklahoma intrigues me, though, when thinking of its characters, because the young couples in it would all face the Dust Bowl, right, if they stayed in the Sooner State? How would they have fared?
And The Graduate…well, you tell me what you think happened to Ben and Elaine after they ran out of that church….