Tuesday, September 15

Good 40s Films: Since You Went Away

1944 Drama
From Selznick International
Directed by John Cromwell

Claudette Colbert
Jennifer Jones
Joseph Cotten
Shirley Temple
Monty Woolley
Robert Walker
Lionel Barrymore
Agnes Moorehead
Hattie McDaniel
Alla Nazimova
Guy Madison
Craig Stevens
Keenan Wynn

I have a warm regard for this one which I consider to be one of the best about those on the home front during WWII.  It is also about as fine a story of familial love that one was likely to have seen in those days.  In this case it is the Hilton family, namely a mother and her two daughters but also all the colorful characters they encounter.  We might add it has one of the most exquisite casts of the decade.

After Gone with the Wind and then Rebecca (both of which won Oscar's best picture awards), producer David O. Selznick needed something big.  The problem in Hollywood was and is the answer to the question... what have you done lately?  Since You Went Away was a good choice and very timely.  It didn't overshadow its predecessors but audiences left feeling good that they spent some time with characters who were alive due to good writing and a film that kept one totally engaged.  At 177 minutes it may be too long for some.  It came with an overture and an intermission and the DVD contains both.

It was always so with Selznick that there was a story behind the scenes, during the scenes, before the scenes and after the film was in the can that often rivaled the movie itself.  Cameras may have spent most of the time in the family home instead of the great outdoors, but make no mistake, this was an ambitious production  and a prestigious one.  It was richly written, gorgeously acted and beautifully filmed as only some black and white films in the 40s could be and it had a sweeping musical score to boot.  But before we get to that other story, let's start with first things first. 

It opens with a shot of an upscale brick home with the proverbial picket fence.  It is pouring down rain.  On the screen, perfectly placed, come the words... This is the story of the unconquerable fortress: The American Home. 1943  The camera takes us inside and allows us to build a picture:  a big ol' ugly bulldog is lying on the floor in front of an empty, over-stuffed leather chair; a calendar page showing Tuesday, January 12; a telegram telling Tim Hilton to report for active duty; his keys lying open from a leather case with the initials T.H. on it.  There's a plaque saying that Anne and Tim caught a fish on their wedding day, August 23, 1925.  After lingering on some bronzed baby shoes, we see a picture of daughters Jane and Bridget (called Brig).

Anne (Colbert) arrives home only an hour after taking her husband to the train station.  She is sad in her large, empty house.  In their bedroom she notices his pipe and she cries as she clutches his robe.  She wipes her tears away as she hears her daughters enter the home and call out to her.  It is obvious in all of Anne's movements and expressions that she will be strong for her daughters, first and foremost.

We meet the family maid, Fidelia (expertly played by McDaniel), who is more a trusted family member.  This loving and sassy woman is heart-broken that she is going to have to be let go because there is no longer the money to pay her.  She loves the family so much that she offers to work for room and board only until better times and Anne agrees.

Brig (Temple) suggests that they take in a boarder.  He will get the home's main bedroom and be charged a tidy and needed sum.  Answering the ad is retired army Col. Smollett (played by Woolley, mainly for laughs), a curmudgeon of the first order.  Unfortunately, that bulldog, named Soda, takes quite a liking to the old gentleman, perhaps because they look so much alike.

At the same time, longtime family friend, Tony, a naval officer in town awaiting his next assignment, pays a surprise visit.  He has been Tim's longtime friend and he was the Hiltons' best man.  The truth of the matter, however, is that he is in love with Anne, but being a well-mannered, well brought-up gentleman, he keeps those feelings in check.  One of the fun things of this film is watching their relationship play out.

Jane (Jones) sees Uncle Tony in a different way than she ever has and likely does her best to keep her ardor from spilling over into an embarrassing mess, but watching this relationship is also fun.  The writing allows Tony's relationships with mother and daughter to be shown in a frequently light and yet responsible manner.

Further complicating matters is the arrival of the colonel's grandson, Bill (Walker).  He immediately falls for Jane while she is making goo-goo eyes at Tony.  We learn the old colonel has some puzzlingly negative issues with his shy, awkward grandson.  Before long, Jane comes to her senses and falls for Bill.

As all these characters adjust to life, most of them residing, at least briefly, in the same house, there are issues dealing with making one feel useful at home during wartime, gossipy friends, thoughtful coworkers, loneliness, sadness, hope, faith, fear, devotion and love.  One thing to be said for the length of the film is that there was plenty of time to develop characterizations.  Anne and Jane, particularly, are fleshed-out characters that we come to understand.

At the core of the story is the longing for the husband-father fighting in faraway lands.  He has thoughtfully planted loving notes around the house and bought Christmas presents in advance which he has given to Fidelia for safekeeping.  He is loved by all although Brig is a Daddy's girl through and through.  Three-quarters of the way through the film we learn he is missing.  All three lead actresses don't miss a beat in conveying the fear and the sadness.  We don't learn his fate until the final scenes, which were not the first to make me get all teary-eyed.

Throughout the film is a glorious musical score by Max Steiner (who won the film's only Oscar) with special attention given to the  song, Together.  It is a haunting melody with a final line you're gone from me but in my memory, we always will be together.  The Christmas present Tim leaves for Anne is a music box with this theme.  I defy anyone to not get choked up.

There are countless scenes that stand out on their own.  To name a few...

There is a wonderful dance scene in a decorated airplane hangar with most of the cast present.  Additionally several dances were wonderfully choreographed by Chuck Walters, a future director at MGM.  The best of this film's photography (by Stanley Cortez and Lee Garmes) is at this dance.  The moody shadows, the striking lighting and the set and art direction are so memorable.

From L: Temple, Jones, Colbert, Cotten, Woolley, Walker, Barrymore

A kitchen scene between Anne and Col. Smollett over his treatment of his grandson fascinates me.  Watching the camera catch a potpourri of farewell conversations in a train station was so well done... visually, structurally and as written.

A bowling alley scene where Jane and especially Bill are teased by a stranger named Hal was fun and heart-racing.  People who know this film certainly know that Hal was played by Guy Madison, devastatingly handsome in his film debut.  Selznick was so impressed that he paired him with Temple again in Honeymoon in 1947. 

There was a great scene involving Agnes Moorehead as bitchy, snooty gossip Emily Hawkins whom Jane and finally Anne both tell off.  I'll bet patrons in 1944 applauded at the conclusion of this scene.  On the plus side, Moorehead played this kind of a character so incredibly well and Emily was needed to give some balance to the other women characters.

The scene where Anne tells Jane that Bill has been killed is heart-wrenching.  Colbert and Jones were at the top of their games with this one and it's certainly one of those where one reaches for the tissues.  One of Jones' gifts as an actress is her uncanny ability to play scenes involving loss.  One of Colbert's strengths was her ability to convey such strong emotion in her face. 

There are gorgeously-photographed scenes of Jane and Bill walking in the fields and winding up in a barn on a haystack during a rainstorm.  It was a most difficult experience for Jennifer Jones and Robert Walker because in real life they were going through a tough divorce.  Both were shy, deeply troubled people and their lives at this time were very painful.  It is mind-blowing that they made this film together and were forced to do these scenes.  Bill is off to war that very day and says to her... oh Jane, I don't want to leave you.  Robert Walker very publicly said he didn't want the divorce.  Jane says I'll always think of you.  While Jones initiated divorce proceedings, she was severely distraught to go through with it.

Behind all of this was Selznick.  He was still married to Irene Mayer (MGM head honcho L.B. Mayer's spirited daughter) but he had fallen in love with Jones, signed her exclusively to his company and forever more didn't allow her to think for herself.  He orchestrated everything she ever did, said, wore and perhaps thought, starting with the divorce.  Technically, Selznick's machinations started when he hired Walker who was absolutely right for the part but wrong for the actor at that time.

Some say the producer was a masochist when it came to Walker.  He didn't just want the actor gone, he wanted him hobbled and crippled.  After scenes with Walker or even scenes in which her character spoke of him, Jones would break down hysterically and run off, generally to her dressing room where she would be joined by Selznick.

Throughout her career Jones always needed very specific direction.  John Huston, who would work with her five years later, said she couldn't do anything without his coaching.  Where do I put my hands, she would say.  It doesn't matter, Darling, he would coo.  No, really, where do I put my hands and should I cock my head a little, she would respond?  This film's director, John Cromwell, echoed the same sentiments but he not only had a greatly upset Jones to work with but a force like Selznick who wouldn't let him function as the director.

Working with her estranged husband and her new boyfriend wasn't the only problem with Jones.  Always highly nervous as an actress, it was increased because she thought she wasn't right for the part.  She didn't understand Jane, she said, didn't know what made her tick.  She also thought she looked foolish because she was too old for the part and she disliked wearing dresses for a younger girl.  For the record, Jane was 17 and Jones was 25 and had Walker's two sons.

In their autobiographies, Cotten and Temple said it was a hectic set.  There was always something unpleasant going on... and lots of tears.  Temple, who had long before departed the Good Ship Lollipop, was a movie veteran and a tough customer.  Under personal contract to Selznick as well, she complained loud and long to the boss about not having enough to do in the story (she was right).  She felt an obligation to the entire company to complain that their scenes were being shortened or cut out while Jones had scenes lengthened or added.

Colbert, despite that sweet, heart-shaped face was also someone to reckon with.  Her first issue was playing a mother to actresses as old as Jones and Temple and in truth she was only 13 years older than Jones.  Colbert had known Selznick personally but had never worked for him and was amazed at how chaotic he caused the filming to be.  Her contract stipulated that she was to have three days off each month for female issues but when Selznick asked her to make an exception once and she refused, he got mad at her and then she got angry with him for getting mad at her.  Her rigid insistence at not being photographed on her right side also angered him at one point but she was immovable.

I regard it as a nearly perfect film.  It is too long and has small moments of being a bit cloying but on the whole it is quite marvelous.  It's certainly right in there with what I have claimed most 40s movies are about... war (although we see none) and  clearly a woman's film.

Future stars Dorothy Dandridge, Rhonda Fleming, Ruth Roman, Terry Moore and John Derek have uncredited bit parts.  I've never spotted any of them.

Since You Went Away not only has one of the finest casts of the 40s but also one of the gayest.  You've read this so you know I don't mean cheerful.  Check out again the cast listed above... only numbers 2,3,4 and 7 are not gay or bisexual.  Now don't smudge your computer screen during your counting.

Next posting:
The Directors


  1. I LOVE YOU! I like to make believe that you wrote this post just for me!
    Not a scene, not a performance is less than perfect and I do believe that nobody noticed that Jones is 25 instead of 17.
    If I don't bother you I'd like to tell you something happened many years ago, when I was singing in a night club in Roma.
    An American girl asked me if I knew the song I'll Be Home For Christmas ( It was Xmas season )and when I said I did she asked me to sing it for her and her boy friend. Well, believe me, I couldn't go on past the third line.
    The girl was exrtremely nice: she joined me and both sang the song crying like lambs.
    We received the biggest applause of all our life.
    Yes! Since You Went Away. What a film! Grazie

  2. Believe me, Carlo, with every stroke on the keyboard I thought of you. I remembered that you once told me how much you loved this film.

    1. This is a PS. I caught Terry Moore in the scenes of the train. Ciao