Since You Went Away is very well-trod territory for me. I’ve parsed it, studied it, scoured the Web for information about it. I’ve even counted the number of times the movie mentions war bonds and stamps (five times and twice, respectively, in case anyone is wondering).
For those who might not be familiar with the plot, it follows upper-middle class Midwesterners Anne (Claudette Colbert), Jane (Jennifer Jones), and Brig Hilton (Shirley Temple) in the year after they send husband and dad, Tim, played by a solely offscreen Neil Hamilton, to war. Mom Anne hides her tears when her girls come home from school, despite having buried her face in her husband’s robe not two minutes previously.
We see the family struggle to pay their bills. We see them eagerly wait for letters from Tim and nervously hope he’s all right. The family takes in a roomer, Colonel Smollett (Monty Wooley) because there’s a shortage of lodging in town, and soon meets his grandson, Army corporal Bill (Robert Walker), with whom Jane falls in love. Family friend and Navy man Tony Willitt (Joseph Cotten) is in and out of the picture when he’s not off fighting, and he enjoys occasionally and innocently flirting with Anne. Meanwhile, faithful housekeeper and friend Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel) keeps a careful watch over the Hiltons, often eyeing Tony suspiciously.
While the family is always conscious of the war and wanting to do their part, it becomes more and more personal with the passage of time, especially as they see their friends lose family members and Tim himself is missing in action. As the year goes on the family goes from being isolated in their own little corner to building a community among the people they meet and help,
The movie’s screenplay was written by David O. Selznik, who drew from Cleveland journalist Margaret Buell Wilder’s bestselling novel of the same title. Originally, Wilder and Selznik were gong to collaborate on the adaptation, but Selznik decided to do it all himself. On the bright side, Shirley Temple made friends with Wilder’s daughters, who were her classmates for a short time at the Harvard-Westlake School.
What keeps me coming back to Since You Went Away? It’s not always thought of as the best movie of 1944 nowadays (a lot of people prefer Double Indemnity), although it was a big success during the war. It’s very long. It can be melodramatic. It’s naturally and unavoidably dated (Who remembers the song, “The Dipsy Doodle“? How about Anne’s favorite tune, “Together“?). Some might consider it bloated and self-indulgent (Bosley Crowther called the film “a rather large dose of choking sentiment.”). It was definitely an attempt by David O. Selznik to recapture his Gone With the Wind success. And it was pretty mean of Selznik to cast Robert Walker as Jennifer Jones’ love interest when he knew Walker and Jones were breaking up.
Still, I love this movie. I first saw it at my grandma Little’s house when I was in high school, probably at some family gathering or other, and after that I had to see it whenever it was on TV. I knew Shirley Temple and I was familiar with Claudette Colbert, but the rest of the actors were a black and white mystery.
After I bought the DVD at Fry’s, because of course I had to, I started getting more into the details of the film, and there are tons of references that go beyond the surface-y or prestigious parts of the war into the day-to-day, when bars and restaurants are packed to the gills, and we hear little snatches of conversation rising above the noise.
The film is an educational experience as well. There’s a scene on a train in which Anne is talking to an older lady who says her granddaughter was at Corregidor, and Anne’s face crumples up in sympathy while the score strikes a melancholy chord. This scene used to be mystifying because World War Two isn’t taught in American schools the way it should be. Even in my AP history class when I was a junior in high school it was barely mentioned; we talked about Watergate more than World War Two. Even Pearl Harbor and D-day were simply touched upon. Ergo, Since You Went Away inspired me to dig deeper into that time period to find out what it was really like, and it’s one of the most accurate depictions of the home front.
Plus, I like the look of the movie. There are war posters literally everywhere except at the Hilton house. These characters can’t even go to a bowling alley without seeing a giant poster above the lanes reminding them to bowl over the Axis and another one behind the counter asking them to give blood.
The Hilton house is so cool, too–it’s like something out of Good Housekeeping–very comfortable and cosy, even if they did go a little crazy with the plaid (Brig’s room has plaid wallpaper). The house is almost another character, because everything revolves around home and hearth, the clear message being, “This is what we’re fighting for.”
Away’s story is very much in the moment, because the movie was made while the events of the war were still going on. These actors and the public did not know how things would turn out, so there’s no sense of hindsight anywhere, and it gives the film a unique authenticity (More on this another day).
I think what I like best is the family, because they obviously love each other and look out for each other. When Tim goes missing, it’s not hard to feel the clammy dread and sadness of the moment. Selznik may not have used much of Wilder’s original material, but he certainly wrote these characters well. They’re easy to like and root for because they’re good people.
Since You Went Away might be a sad movie in some ways, but it’s also a comforting bit of time travel, like spending time with a friend from the past. That’s why this movie won’t ever get old to me.
For more of the Umpteen Blogathon, please see Theresa at CineMaven’s Essays From the Couch. Thanks for hosting, Theresa–it was a blast! Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you tomorrow, because we’ll be starting that new series I hinted at last month…
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