This World War II romance between Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten makes Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees feel all warm and cozy, as only stories of convicts and shell-shocked veterans can.
They could shut out the world…but not their pasts.
This wartime romance isn't one of the better-known Christmas classics, like It's a Wonderful Life or The Bishop's Wife (1947 version), but it partakes of some of the same kind of old-fashioned earnestness and optimism. It takes a simple story of two wounded souls finding each other and uses it to bring up themes of hope, compassion, and second chances. If you shy away from sentimentality, I'll Be Seeing You is not the film for you; but if you are weary of cinematic cynicism, or if you want to see the softer side of stars Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten, this tender story will probably win you over.
Our story begins when Mary (Ginger Rogers, Roxie Hart), who is traveling to spend the Christmas holidays with her family, meets Zack (Joseph Cotten, The Magnificent Ambersons), a GI on medical furlough. Although Mary does not at first realize it, Zack won't be returning to the front: He is suffering from shell shock, and this vacation from medical supervision is actually a last chance to convince himself that he will be able to function again in the world. With the dread of being institutionalized hanging over him, he finds a ray of hope in Mary's presence. As Christmas passes and the new year approaches, they fall in love.
As Mary comes to help Zack rediscover faith in himself, however, she finds herself covering up more and more about her own life. She is actually a convict, released for a Christmas parole due to good behavior, and soon she must return to prison. She knows that she and Zack have no future together—but she can't risk shattering his newfound strength by telling him the truth about herself. Nevertheless, hiding the truth means living in constant fear that he will discover it himself, and as their brief time together draws to a close, Mary struggles to decide what to do.
As much as I like Ginger Rogers, she would probably not have been my first choice for the role of Mary. Rogers is so winning when she's allowed to be sassy, wisecracking her way through comedies like Stage Door and Bachelor Mother, that I'm always a bit taken aback when I see her playing it straight. Of course, after she won an Oscar in 1940 for her performance in the drama Kitty Foyle, it became more common to see her shelving her sass and wearing her heart on her sleeve. Her performance here is subdued, even melancholy; this will be a completely new side to Rogers for those familiar only with her work with Fred Astaire. The actress carries it off, though, and she creates a believable character in the troubled Mary. If she's not as much fun as in some of her other movies, that's scarcely her fault.
The lighter moments are instead carried by Shirley Temple as Mary's teenaged cousin, Barbara. A flirtatious, lively young girl, she brings energy and humor to the film, but her inexperience also creates some interesting tension in the household: When Mary first arrives, she finds that her cousin has carefully labeled everything in the room they share so that there will be no overlap between their areas, as if Mary might contaminate her. Over the course of the film, Barbara becomes more understanding of her cousin and of how easy it can be to unintentionally make a grave misstep, and her dawning knowledge is a gentle message to the viewer about compassion and forgiveness.
I have yet to see Joseph Cotten turn in a poor performance, and he does an excellent job as Zack: He conveys his shakiness and uncertainty without overdoing them, and although sometimes the dialogue he's given is a bit stiff, he creates a believable and sympathetic character. The pivotal scene in which he undergoes a near breakdown is particularly well handled: Cotten convincingly evokes the panicked feelings of an anxiety attack, yet he doesn't depend on histrionics—or even on the standard combat flashbacks. He and Rogers work nicely together, creating a gentle but credible connection. Also notable is Spring Byington, as Mary's aunt, who brings her distinctive combination of warmth and bubbliness to the film.
With no subplot to take the focus from Cotten and Rogers, the two must bear much of the burden of the film's success, and they acquit themselves well. The film also benefits from the small-town setting, which helps to create a cozy Christmas atmosphere, although some viewers may find it corny when the characters say grace or sing Christmas carols over dessert. If you find this atmosphere cloying, or if you can't buy into the central romance, you may begin hoping Cotten will suddenly emerge as the serial killer he portrayed in Shadow of a Doubt and start trying to kill off young Barbara. If you're in a sentimental mood, though, it's heartwarming, and the handsome production values—characteristic of producer David O. Selznick's work—enhance the appeal.
The transfer for this film is extremely handsome. Shown in full frame, in accordance with its original aspect ratio, the film boasts a black-and-white picture of beautiful clarity and depth of tone. It's surprising to see this fine a visual transfer on a barebones disc, and MGM is to be commended for it. Audio is likewise superbly clear and free of distortion or hiss. The lack of extras is a pity, but with the film itself presented so beautifully, this release should greatly satisfy fans who have been waiting for the film's DVD release, or just those who would like to add another old-fashioned comfort film to their Christmas Eve lineup.
Although it does venture into schmaltz, I'll Be Seeing You is a sweet story, nicely acted by its experienced cast. In the spirit of compassion and goodwill, this court declares it not guilty.
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