Saturday, October 4, 2008

Since You Went Away

1944 Directed by John Cromwell. Screenplay by David O. Selznick. Based on a book by Margaret Buell Wilder. Cast: Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Shirley Temple, Monty Woolley, Lionel Barrymore, Robert Walker, Hattie McDaniel, Agnes Moorehead, Alla Nazimova, Albert Bassermann, Keenan Wynn, Guy Madison, Craig Stevens. Music by Max Steiner. 172 minutes. Black and White.

Movies, both old and new, are often described as "escapist", meaning the folks who watch them want to, well, escape. But escape from what? Boredom. Stress. Their jobs. Their marriages. Their families. Themselves.

Of course, there's always been that other kind of movie. You know, the serious ones. The ones the critics like. The ones that are "realistic". The ones that are "slice of life". The ones that are called--what's that French term?--"cinema verite" The ones that think they're doing their audiences a favor by confronting them with all the boredom and stress that they want to escape from in the first place. The kind that John Cassavetes used to make. The kind Henry Jaglom still makes. The kind Woody Allen makes in between the funny ones. The kind that wins awards at Sundance. The kind film students make until they sell out to Hollywood and get filthy rich making the escapist kind.

But suppose, just suppose, there was a movie about boredom and stress, that was slice of life, that was actually entertaining? Suppose there was a movie that took ordinary existence, and, in some weird, twisted fashion, actually made it escapist? Is such a thing possible? For the answer we have to go all the way back to World War II. No, no, no, no, I don't mean the World War II of tanks and grenades and dive bombers and depth charges and battleships. That was hardly ordinary. I mean what was going on here at home. The World War II of rationing, the World War II of separation, the World War II of uncertainty. The World War II of producer David O. Selznick, the man who gave us Gone With The Wind.

Since You Went Away begins with this written introduction: "This is the story of that unconquerable fortress--the American Home, 1943." And sure enough we see a nice, big American home. Residing in this unconquerable fortress is Tim Hilton, an advertising executive, his wife,, and his two teenage daughters. Actually, Tim was residing in this house. He's left, by his own free will, to fight World War II. He exists in this film only as a framed picture (it's actually Neil Hamilton, who had been a star a decade earlier. And two decades after this movie, he would play Commissioner Gordon on TV's Batman.)

To play Bridget, or "Brig", the younger of the two daughters, Shirley Temple was lured out of "retirement." 16 when she made this, she talks and acts like she's still six. In fact, throughout this movie I kept half-expecting her to start singing "On The Good Ship Lollipop." Good thing she didn't. It would have clashed with Max Steiner's fine score. The older daughter, Jane, is played by Jennifer Jones, only one of the most beautiful women ever to have walked the face of the Earth. Her mother, Anne, is all right, too. More than all right, as she's played, at age 41, by the still sexy Claudette Colbert. The filmmakers didn't necessarily want her to come across as sexy. At least not initially. So they do their best to dowdy her up. Well, if all dowdy women looked like this, the Miss America Pageant would be forced to start a frumpy house dress competition.

As I said earlier, Tim was an ad executive, and the loss of his paycheck means Anne has to get rid of the family's black housekeeper Fidelia, played by Gone With The Wind veteran Hattie McDaniel. That Academy Award she won, the first by an African-American, really opened up a lot of doors for her, didn't it? From slave to maid. Well, as she herself said, "I'd rather play a maid for $700 a week that be one for $7"

Mr. Mahoney, a local shopkeeper, agrees to extend credit to the now struggling family. Anne, in turn, agrees to talk to her husband about giving Mahoney's serviceman son Johnny a job with the ad agency once peace is at hand. Betcha' didn't know we had a barter economy during World War II, huh?

You probably did know about the housing shortage. The family agrees it's their patriotic duty, as well as a way to bring in some needed money, if they rent out a room to a serviceman. A young Marine that answers shows a decided interest in Jane, testing the limits of her mother's patriotism. It's back to the barracks for him. Next to answer the ad is a much older man played by Monty Woolley. Woolley had played Sheridan Whiteside in the stage and movie versions of The Man Who Came To Dinner , and he, initially, plays a similarly fussy character here. When Anne informs him that the room is meant for a serviceman, he INFORMS her that he's Colonel William G. Smollet, retired. Then, without knowing for sure if he's going to get the room, starts listing all sorts of demands. Watch Claudette Colbert's pretty face as he does this. She actually looks amused that she's being taken advantage of.

Next thing you know Mammy, er, Fidelia's back. She wants a room, too, and offers to house keep as rent. Like I said, barter economy.

War or no war, everyone deserves a night out. Anne, dressed to the T's, goes to a crowded bar (much like a crowded bar you'd see nowadays, minus the rock music) with her friend, Emily Hawkens, played by Agnes Moorhead. Twenty years in the future she'll be playing a witch on TV. Here, she's a divorcee, pretty much the same thing as far as 1940s Hollywood is concerned. Snobby, vain, and consumed by excessive makeup (you remember how Endora looked), it was characterizations such as this that kept women trapped in loveless marriages for the next few decades. Why exactly a kindhearted woman like Anne is friends with a upwardly-mobile shrew like this is never explained. Well, maybe I explained it already. She's kindhearted. She's also, as I stated earlier, hot, and is hit on by a number of fellas, much to the chagrin of man-hungry Emily. One of those fellas she recognizes. It's Tony Willet, best man at her wedding and now a lieutenant in the navy. He's played by Joseph Cotten.

Old Hollywood stars like James Cagney and Cary Grant are fun to watch, but it's hard to imagine them in a 21st century movie along side Russell Crowe and Brad Pitt. The acting styles are just too different. Not so Joseph Cotten. This low-key thespian drags this movie kicking and screaming into a new millennium. He's post-modern at a time when it's still post-antiquity. As Tony he basically invites himself to stay at Anne's, again much to her kindhearted amusement (you'd think the military might provide places for all these servicemen to stay. Someone should write Congress.)

Hilton is an appropriate last name for this family, as their house is now a hotel. To make room for all the new arrivals, Anne and her two daughters double and then triple up into the same bedroom. Anyone who's ever struggled moving a mattress can identify Anne's dilemma as she turns hers vertical, then horizontal, then vertical again through a series of doors. Even the fussy Col. Smollet finds himself doubling up, much to his displeasure, with Soda, the family's pet bulldog.

Tony was a commercial artist in civilian life, and he now shows the family a recruitment poster he's painted, a woman in a military uniform with her skirt hiked up, revealing a long, shapely leg. The woman's face? It's Anne's. Sixty-five years of changing sexual mores later, this scene is still pretty weird. What the hell kind of friend of the family is this anyway? And remember, he's showing this cheesecake poster to the woman's two daughters. By all rights he should be thrown out of that house on his ass. Anne, however, looks surprised, then amused.

Incidentally, for those of you who's seen the famous hitchhiking scene in It Happened One Night , Tony got that leg exactly right.

Shirley Temple and Monty Woolley team up a bit in the first half of this movie. Although I have a certain aversion to Temple, they do work well together, whether planting a liberty garden or looking over a map, with Woolley a supercilious foil. In fact, he may be her best screen partner since Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (though he obviously moves a lot slower.) It's when they're looking over the aforementioned map that the doorbell rings. Jane tells Col. Smollet that it's his grandson Bill. We, the audience, can tell at once, from the very kind expression that momentarily appears on the Colonel's face, that he's really fond of his grandson. But for some reason he doesn't want the characters in this film, including Bill himself, to know this. Bill is played by Robert Walker (Jennifer Jones' real life soon-to-be ex-husband.)

At this point in his career Robert Walker specializes in playing the green enlistee. Whether it's a comedy (See Here, Private Hargrove), tragedy (Bataan), or romance (The Clock), he always plays these characters in the exact same way , with a golly-jeepers-gee-whiz-willikers-boy-that's-swell kind of dorkiness. Sounds like I'm being mean, but this makes me feel even more sorry for him when he's coldly rejected by the Colonel. More significantly , Jane feels more sorry for him when she overhears the brushoff. For now, that's all she feels, for she's in love with "Uncle" Tony.

Nevertheless, she accepts when Bill invites her to a serviceman's ball. Tony takes Anne, which might seem like a kind gesture if he HADN'T painted that picture. At the ball, she meets Mr Mahoney's son, Johnny, who thanks Anne for that cushy ad agency job awaiting him when he gets out of the army. That job will have to await someone else. Soon after, Johnny is killed when his plane crashes during a training flight.

Tony drives Anne home. Along the way he stops along the shore, and makes what may be, might be, could be, should be, probably is, quite possibly is, arguably is, a pass. Anne, amused as always, rebuffs it.

The time comes for Tony to leave, his passion for Anne unrequited, just as Jane's passion for Tony is unrequited, and just as Bill's passion for Jane is unrequited. This movie could use a cold shower. At any rate, Jane's come down with the mumps and doesn't want Tony to see her. She needn't worry. Even with her face stuffed with more cotton than Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, Jennifer Jones ain't half-bad.

Time heals all wounds, as well as mumps, and Jane is soon over Tony. She agrees to go bowling with Bill. A word about that bowling alley. Huge cartoons of Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini hang right above the pins. You just couldn't escape that war (imagine what putt-putt golf must have looked like.) Anyway, now you might think Bill has it made. Not quite yet. At the bowling alley a young sailor, played by Guy Madison, takes a shine to Jane. This couple of minutes actually made Mr. Madison a star for awhile, eventually ending up in a TV western playing Wyatt Earp. Fortunately for Bill, he's not challenged to a gunfight, and the two young men, and one young woman, strike a very brief friendship, until he gets on a bus to some distant naval base. You just couldn't escape that war.

Afterwards, Jane and Bill go to a soda fountain. Nowadays, they'd go to McDonald's. OK, I'm beginning to understand nostalgia. While there, Jane asks Bill just what is it between him and his grandfather. It seems the Colonel is upset that Bill was expelled from West Point, and has to go into the Army as a private. He shows her a watch his grandfather had given him, with an inscription that mentions his family's proud military tradition. Don't feel too sorry for Bill. All this failure and disappointment causes Jane to fall in love with him. How do I go about getting kicked out of West Point?

The next morning Jane criticises the Colonel for the way he's treating his grandson. The Colonel then criticises Jane for butting into a family matter. Anne, not amused for a change, criticises the Colonel for speaking in that tone to her daughter, the upshot being the Colonel no longer gets his meals made for him. There are wars you can't escape, and then there are wars you can't escape.

Tim--the father--the guy in the picture--still looms large in this family's conscience, if not always the audience's. In an earlier scene with a ring of truth about it, the family had gone to a movie, and had watched a newsreel (no CNN back then) about the war. They, and probably everyone else in that theater with a loved one overseas, think they've caught a glimpse of him on-screen. Later, they find out Tim will be changing trains in a nearby city, and see if they can't catch up with him. Unfortunately, they don't.

At this point Anne and Jane are a little on the outs with each other. Anne wants her to go to college right after she graduates, but Jane wants to put that off so she can work as a nurses aide in a local army hospital (kids can be so selfless at times) On the train ride back (with a few of the war wounded aboard) from the aborted reunion, the family meets a woman whose granddaughter disappeared in the Battle of Corregidor. Affected by this story, Anne allows her daughter to work at the hospital.

This movie started out as a mild sitcom, but, as you might have guessed, it's not going to end as one. Especially now that Anne receives a telegram that reads: WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR HUSBAND TIM IS MISSING IN ACTION...

Anne passes out cold.

A little while later, Bill is ordered to report to duty. He and Jane, now engaged, spend one last day in the country.

Monty Woolley, not surprisingly , gets the best lines in this movie, but the young man playing his grandson gets the funniest scene. Driving some sort of combination tractor-hay thrashing machine, Bill starts singing, unaware that his fiance, who was sitting in back, has fallen in the hay, and is in mortal danger of getting...thrashed.

Meanwhile, Anne informs the Colonel that his grandson's been called up, and he can see him off at the train station. The Colonel haughtily claims a previous engagement with some old army buddies. Then, more softly, tells her he'll try to get to the station afterwards.

Back at this farm they've apparently trespassed onto, the two young lovers share a romantic moment in a barn, as it rains outside (no matter how much a pain in the ass rain can be in real life, it always looks romantic in movies, doesn't it?), Jennifer Jones really does look gorgeous here, and the fact that a nerdy, geeky, dorky, dweeby guy like Robert Walker can latch onto someone like that, both in this film and in life, gives hope to the rest of us who suffer from similar afflictions. At least is does until you find out that in real life she left him for producer David O. Selznick, the man who gave us Gone With The Wind.

That night, Anne and Jane go to the train station (a very convincing Hollywood set) to see Bill off. They're hardly the only ones seeing a loved one off. We see people of all different races, religions, and classes. Nothing like a transportation hub to get an idea of our nation's diversity. Of course, nowadays, train stations are few and far between. But if you've ever been in an airport terminal around the holidays, you'll find this scene familiar.

Speaking of scenes, a famous one's coming up. In fact, this scene may be more famous than the movie as a whole. It's been copied many times. And not just by hacks. Both David Lean and Billy Wilder seemed inspired by it, though there variations were a little more...sober. Here's what happens. Bill gives Jane his grandfather's watch as as an engagement present. Then he gets on the train. As the train begins to slowly move, Jane slowly moves in the same direction, telling Bill she loves him. The train moves a little faster. Jane, too, moves a little faster, still declaring her love for Bill. The train moves faster still, as does Jane, still shouting, "I love you, Darling!" The train's now in full throttle, and so is Jane! Had any Olympic judges been around I'm sure they would've handed her a gold medal. If this movie had been in 3D I'm sure she would've burst right through the screen and onto the moviegoers lap, causing popcorn and Milk Duds to fly all over the place, all the while screaming "I LOVE YOU, DARLING! I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU!"

Wow! That's certainly an emotionally charged scene, isn't it? But what I find equally poignant, if not more so, is what follows: the Colonel finally arrives at the station, but he's too late. His grandson's train has left.

Some time passes, and yet another telegram arrives at the Hilton home. This one's even worse. In fact, I'm bothered by it! Bill has been killed in action (I know I was kind of making fun of him earlier, but I actually liked this character.) Anne breaks the news to Jane, who cries, as anyone would in that situation. Jennifer Jones tries her damnedest, but it's oddly less memorable than that train scene. Less moving, because there's less movement.

Anne also breaks the news to Colonel Smollet. No tears, but he's nonetheless devastated. He had forgiven his grandson for dropping out of West Point, but just couldn't bring himself to tell him. Great acting here by Monty Woolley. He was funny in The Man Who Came To Dinner, but this film allows him to be both funny and dramatic, without ever betraying character. I think this scene reminds us that death affects broken relationships as well as those that work. How we may love someone but, for whatever reason, can't stand to have him or her around for the time being. Or, as with the Colonel, estrangement is just a habit you fall into, one that you'll kick later on. Assuming you get to that train station on time.

Jane throws herself into her hospital work. We see what looks like documentary footage of actual amputees. It's all very moving. And real. So vot vould you tink follows all dat movink und veal stuff? Vy, a Viennese psychiatrist, of course! Vun vith der first name Sigmund!

I think were I to examine Albert Basserman, the actor who plays the shrink, as well as David O. Selznick, who wrote the scene, I might find they're both suffering from lack-of-originality complex, and prescribe a round of shock therapy treatments. If those don't work, frontal lobotomies. Anyway, the good doctor counsels Jane, who's upset at what she sees around her. How she even understands his psychiatric advice, given his thick accent, I don't know. But it works; she feels better. Perhaps at their next session they can do word association, such as, STEREOTYPE--HACKNEYED.

The Colonel's a regular member of the family by now, and he's about to bite into the birthday cake Mammy, er, Fidelia's made for him, when the doorbell rings. Jane opens the door, and, what do you know? It's Tony! (For a naval officer fighting a global conflict, he sure gets a lot of time off, doesn't he?) He joins the party.

The doorbell rings yet again. It's Emily Hawkens. Remember her? Agnes Moorhead? Just as Endora doesn't approve of Samantha cavorting with mortals, so Emily thinks it's beneath Jane to hang around that army hospital with all those amputees and basket cases and so forth. It's just not proper! At that Anne lays into Emily, basically accusing her of treason. But Emily has the last word. She reminds Anne that she's done nothing to help the war effort. Anne reluctantly agrees, and decides to start by kicking Emily out of the house. Still, that's not enough. She decides to get a job at a defense plant.

While working at the plant as a riveter, a la Rosie, she meets an immigrant woman named Zofia, played by Alla Nazimova, a former silent film star who once worked with Valentino. Much more talkative here, she compares Anne to the Statue of Liberty. Anne reacts with amused humility.

Just as the Statue of Liberty invites the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, so too does Anne invite much of this movie's masses to her house on Christmas Eve. There's her two daughters, of course, and the Colonel, Fidelia, Zofia (whom the Colonel seems to have taken a shine to), Soda, Danny Williams (played by Craig Stevens, he was one of Jane's patients. And, perhaps, a new beau?), Tony, and Tony's shipmate, Lieutenant Soloman (Keenan Wynn). These navy guys really know how to liven up a party, and for a second there I thought this movie was going to turn into On The Town. The alcohol flows. Soloman tells Anne about a Medal Tony received for some heroic action above and beyond the call of duty, leading directly to the scene that made me want to write about this film in the first place.

Anne invites Tony into the kitchen. He's been holding back, not telling him about that medal. Tony just laughs it off. Anne looks--you guessed it--amused. But more than amused. Look into her eyes. I think Anne is turned on by heroic action above and beyond the call of duty. Or maybe she's turned on by false modesty. Or maybe she's turned on by both. Also, I wonder if she's not just a little buzzed. I am sure she's a little lonely. We know Tony wants her. Could she want him?

I'm at the edge of my seat now, talking, pleading to the screen. C'mon, you two. I know you both want to. What's stopping you? Tim? I won't tell. I've never even met Tim. He's just a framed picture. He's Commissioner Gordon, for God's sake! C'mon, you two. You know how that Bob Seger song goes. Actually, you don't. Bob Seger hasn't been born yet. Well, it goes like this: we've got tonight, babe. Why don't you stay? Or how about Crosby, Stills and Nash? If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with.

C'mon, you two. Do it. Throw off your inhibitions! Throw off your clothes! Do it! HAVE MAD, PASSIONATE SEX RIGHT THERE ON THE KITCHEN LINOLEUM! DO IT! DO IT! DO IT! DO IT! DO IT!

They don't. This is, after all, a 1940s movie.

After that, the party wraps up fairly quickly. The navy guys leave first, still whooping it up as they walk down that snowy street. Inside, Anne and her two daughters take turns giving the Colonel a kiss under the mistletoe. Finally, Anne is alone in that dark, living room, staring at the presents under the tree. She's starting to cry when, suddenly, the phone rings. It has to do with Tim. He's coming home. In what condition is left an open question. Still, after one year, one long year (and one long movie review), Tim is coming home! An unconquerable fortress, indeed.

If you read other old movie blogs, you'll see this film's often described as melodramatic, or as a soap opera. I don't know. There are no amnesiacs, or split-personalities. No murder mystery. No young lovers on the run. Luke and Laura would be out of place here, as would Erica Kane. As far as the story goes, there's nothing that happens in this movie that couldn't happen in real life. Much of this film is merely ordinary existence, punctuated by death. So why doesn't it always seem real? Well, it's real life once the screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, producers, wardrobe people, make-up artists, hair stylists, acting coaches, set designers, sound effects people, publicists, and, this being 1944, war propagandists, get through with it. It's reality to escape into, not out of. And who wouldn't opt for ordinary existence if such ordinary existence included the likes of Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones, and Monty Woolley? Hell, even Shirley Temple (just think, all you parents out there, this is one teenage daughter you don't have to worry about getting knocked up. She'd be too afraid of getting cooties.)

As for Anne's and Tony's unconsummated affair, well, I can't say I'm too disappointed. I suspect people abstain as much as they give in to passion. Old movies exaggerate the former, the new the latter. I'd grown fond of these people, and I think their "doing it" would just have complicated things. Sometimes sacrifice is necessary, in both war and peace.

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