Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees used up all her Kleenex watching this classic drama about the struggles of an American family during World War II.
"This is a story of the Unconquerable Fortress: the American Home…1943."
Since You Went Away, producer David O. Selznick's attempt to create an American Mrs. Miniver, was the longest and most expensive Hollywood film since Selznick's own Gone with the Wind. Despite those hefty statistics, however, this tribute to the American family in World War II is an intimate, personal story, an unabashedly emotional film in which Hollywood tries to honestly portray the lives of real people in a time of turmoil.
Facts of the Case
Tim Hilton has just gone away to war, leaving his wife, Anne (Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night), to look after their home and two daughters. The elder, Jane (Jennifer Jones, Portrait of Jennie), is about to graduate from high school and is in a hurry to grow up; the younger, Brig (Shirley Temple, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer), finds it harder to put a brave face on her father's absence until she discovers an enthusiasm for the war effort. To supplement their small income, the family takes in a lodger: crusty old Colonel Smollett (Monty Woolley, Night and Day), whose haughty manner puts a strain on the household. As she juggles the needs of her growing daughters and her demanding tenant, Anne welcomes the emotional support of Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind), the family housekeeper and the girls' second mother, and Tony, a jaunty naval officer and old family friend (Joseph Cotten, Shadow of a Doubt). Tony still carries a torch for Anne, but it's Jane who falls for him—even though she's young enough to be his daughter.
At the same time that she is trying to convince Tony that she's grown-up enough for him, a shy young suitor has begun to pursue Jane, in his diffident way: Bill, the colonel's grandson (Robert Walker, Strangers on a Train). There exists a mysterious estrangement between the two men, which Jane tries to set right before Bill leaves for combat. But time is running out, and it looks as though the old colonel will let his grandson go into battle without a word of affection or encouragement. Then Anne receives word that Tim is MIA, and from this point on she and her daughters will need all the courage they can muster.
Since You Went Away opens with the image of a fire burning brightly in a fireplace—a fitting emblem for a story that will be about keeping the home fires burning. The home as the film presents it embodies everything that the American soldier was fighting to preserve: decency, security, stability, and love. Thus, the women (and men) left behind have quite a task before them: Not only must they summon up the courage to face an uncertain future—and constant anxiety about the safety of their loved ones in action—but they must maintain the home as the sanctuary for returning veterans, not only to welcome them back (they hope) into the comfort of familiar surroundings, but to reassure them that their fight has not been in vain.
This task becomes all the more daunting once Anne begins to realize that she will not in fact be able to hold onto the past—that she will help her country more by being flexible enough to let go of her former dreams. Thus, where once she felt that she would be fulfilling Tim's wishes by sending Jane to college despite the war and maintaining her own genteel lifestyle, she gradually comes to realize that it may be better for her and Jane to contribute to the war effort than to let others make all the sacrifices. At moments like this the film carries a faint, perhaps inevitable whiff of didacticism, becoming a lesson in patriotism, but Colbert is professional enough to make her character's epiphany believable.
Colbert warmly embodies the brave mother who holds the household together in the troubled times. For many years Colbert had been successful as a comedienne, winning an Oscar for It Happened One Night and going on to give deft comedic performances in such rollicking comedies as It's a Wonderful World and Preston Sturges's The Palm Beach Story. But Selznick, having seen her play a valiant nurse in the war film So Proudly We Hail, knew she would be ideal as the compassionate, patriotic heart of the Hilton family, and he was right: Both valiant and vulnerable, she brings an engaging presence to the character, along with a saving touch of self-deprecating humor.
Colbert's professionalism shows in her relaxed onscreen presence, which contrasts with the sometimes strained acting of Jennifer Jones. Jones tends to come across as affected in the early parts of the film as she tries to project girlishness, but once her character is allowed to mature, she seems to relax and become more comfortable in her skin; in the second half of the film her performance becomes quite moving. The fact that she and Robert Walker, as Bill, establish such a tender rapport on screen is remarkable, considering that their marriage was breaking up at the time the movie was filmed. For his part, Walker is almost too sincere and guileless to be true, but his youth and boyishness make his character touching nonetheless. Shirley Temple, who emerged from a two-year retirement from film work to appear here, is also a trifle stiff and self-conscious at the start of the film, but once her character becomes absorbed in war work, her natural charisma and spunkiness shine through.
The younger actors are surrounded by an accomplished cast of film veterans: Joseph Cotten is all charm and insouciance as Tony, bringing a whiff of romance to the distaff world, but also conveying the sense that his banter is protection against his more painful experiences. Hattie McDaniel, as the aptly named Fidelia, is the outspoken housekeeper and de facto member of the family, prone to malapropisms, but a strong and loving presence who helps to keep the family together. Look at this performance next to her Oscar-winning work in Gone with the Wind and you'll gain a new appreciation for McDaniel's range. The inimitable Monty Woolley brings his unique brand of prickly, dry humor to the domestic arrangement, but he also lends power to the more somber plot thread about his estrangement from his hapless grandson. Because Woolley is so implacable in his rejection of Bill, his eventual unbending is particularly effective. Agnes Moorhead (Dark Passage) is all sleek nastiness as the bitchy "friend" who exemplifies everything patriotic Americans should not be—both a proscriptive example for the audience and an indication of what insidious antipatriotic forces may be at work against unsuspecting Americans.
The famed Selznick glossy production values are particularly evident here in the striking black-and-white cinematography by Lee Garmes and Stanley Cortez. The two skillfully use darkness and light in their compositions to evoke atmosphere in different and powerful ways. In a scene in which Jane and Bill share confidences on the front porch, the darkness creates an intimate mood, with just sparse highlighting of the actors' profiles to show how close they are to one another. In other scenes Garmes and Cortez use shadows to evoke a sense of loneliness and isolation, as in the haunting segment when young couples waltz in a dimly lit airplane hangar before the men go off to combat, their shadows dancing with them like melancholy omens of sorrow to come. One of the most effective uses of lighting and shadow effects is in the scene where Jane bids farewell to Bill at the train station: After their painfully extented parting (a scene parodied in Airplane!), Jane stands alone, silhouetted in a doorway, her shadow stretching before her along the empty platform as if to underscore her solitude. Moments like these communicate the aching loneliness that women like the Hiltons must have experienced when their men went to war.
The attractive black-and-white visual transfer, in its original aspect ratio, allows us to experience these moments at their fullest, giving us deep, inky blacks and a rich range of greys. The picture is remarkably clean and free of flicker or other age-related defects; the audio, in its original mono form, is also robust, with especially impressive bass for its time, and no sign of hiss. This a very nice audiovisual presentation, and I'm particularly pleased that the film as presented on this disc is uncut, including Max Steiner's overture and entr'acte music (both of which are played against a slowly rotating selection of stills from the movie). This bad news, on the other hand, is the utter lack of any extras. Not even one little trailer accompanies this film. Even if there was no content specific to the film available, it would have been nice to see some vintage clips about the war effort or life on the homefront to add some context—but no such luck.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
By its very nature, Since You Went Away tends toward jingoism, and its emotionalism definitely makes it vulnerable to the label "tearjerker." The earnest way it presents its wholesome American values will strike many as hokey, and its not-so-subtle messages about appropriate patriotic behavior may cause some rolling of eyes. After hearing Lionel Barrymore (as a clergyman) deliver a heartfelt sermon, some viewers may agree with Moorhead when she complains, "I don't see why there has to be all this flag waving." A scene in which silent film star Alla Nazimova quotes the famous lines inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, accompanied by the strains of "America the Beautiful" on the soundtrack, is almost too much to take: You could choke on all the fervor.
It's these very qualities, though, that I think make the film valuable as a reflection of its era: It's important for us, in understanding our own past, to recognize the concerns and values and struggles that normal people were undergoing—or, at least, Hollywood's interpretation of these values and struggles. It says a lot about who we were as a country and—perhaps more important—who we wanted to be. Likewise, it's easy to dismiss the film as dated, since it's rooted so firmly in 1943. But so many of its themes—of facing adversity with courage, of fighting to maintain what's valuable and precious in life even as the world threatens to crumble—are timeless. In fact, when we look at the film from that perspective, it's not surprising that it was brought to us by the man who produced Gone with the Wind, another tale of wartime, survival, and courage.
As a handsomely mounted piece of Americana and an evocative look at our past, Since You Went Away is well worth your while. Its earnestness and lack of irony will prevent it from appealing to everyone, but those who enjoyed Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives should definitely give it a look. And don't forget your hanky.
It would be downright unpatriotic to declare this film guilty. However, MGM's shore leave is hereby cancelled for its failure to include any extra features.
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