Since You Went Away
David O. Selznick (Book by Margaret Buell Wilder)
Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Shirley Temple, Monty Woolley, Lionel Barrymore, Robert Walker, Hattie McDaniel, Agnes Moorehead
Approved (PCA #9990)
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
At the height of World War II, Hollywood was doing its part to sell war bonds, stamps and other pro-war efforts, including making films that were clearly propaganda. Some filmmakers made their propaganda a different way. Since You Went Away has a definitively pro-America approach to its style, but it effectively conveys the hardships and dangers fraught with serving your country even while focusing on the stalwart matriarch of a damaged family.
Claudette Colbert gives a beautiful performance as Anne Hilton whose husband has gone off to war leaving his upper middle class family to struggle without his advertising agency’s income. She must raise her two daughters (Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple) while maintaining a household without the aid of her long-time servant Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel). To make ends meet, she takes on the disagreeable retired Col. William Smollett (Monty Woolley) as a boarder. Together, they weather the rough waves of the war as Mr. Hilton comes up missing, daughter Jane (Jones) falls in love with Smollett’s tongue-tied grandson Bill (Robert Walker) while maintaining an infatuation with family friend Tony Willett (Joseph Cotten). Lionel Barrymore even makes a brief, but impactful, appearance as a clergyman with wise words to say about war and duty.
Although John Cromwell takes full credit for directing the film, it’s said that producer and eternal tinkerer David O. Selznick also had a hand in the filmmaking while Cromwell was out sick along with two other lesser known directors. Regardless of the effort involved, Cromwell crafts a dreamy, but earthen drama that tugs at your emotions with more death and dismemberment than your standard war drama. Men return from war with amputated limbs and must recover at a hospital where Jane works.
Colbert and Woolley were rightfully nominated for Academy Awards. Also nominated, Jones continues her sweet naif sensibilities from her prior year’s Oscar win for The Song of Bernadette with a performance that’s slightly more worldly, but no less innocent. Cotten is dependable while McDaniel overacts in the early scenes before settling nicely into a role that’s a bit too stereotyped. Also of note is frequent Cotten co-star Agnes Moorehead as the wealthy busybody whose disdain for the lower classes threatens her relationship with her “dear friend” Anne.
Walker is too wide-eyed for much of the film, never investing enough in his character to make him compelling or lovable. All of the heavy lifting emotionally is done through his co-stars. Also failing to live up to her fellow actors, Temple may have been early Hollywood’s darling youngster, but as an older actor, her performance stuck too closely to the cutesy act that made her famous. That may be what audiences expected, but it doesn’t give her room to stretch and makes one question whether she had any real ability at all. Her later scenes, like McDaniel’s are a bit more endearing and filled with life, but unlike McDaniel, she’s so grating in the early scenes you can’t let go of the problems as easily.
Special mention goes to the lovable bull dog whose frequent injections into the festivities add humor and emotion at just the right intervals. He was more compelling than any Lassie I’ve ever seen.
Among Cromwell’s achievements are a couple of interesting flourishes that don’t necessarily fit with the surrounding film, which is journeyman quality at best. The most notable is a scene at Jane’s graduation where the camera points down the line of chairs and we’re only able to see Moorehead’s Emily Hawkins as they are discussing the class president. Emily, Anne, Fidelia, and Brig (Temple) take turns popping out to converse with each other giving the audience a brief look at each speaker as they make their comments. It’s a very funny segment enhanced by the fascinating use of framing.
Since You Went Away is one of the best propaganda films of the period even if its influence on war participation was muted by its positioning of the deadly and ambulatory casualties of war. It’s the right kind of war movie for a populace committed to the war effort while being frustrated with it and hoping for its quick resolution.
August 11, 2013