A Pair Of Selznick Wartime Weepies

SINCE YOU WENT AWAY

DIRECTED BY JOHN CROMWELL/1944

I’LL BE SEEING YOU

DIRECTED BY WILLIAM DIETERLE/1944

STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 21, 2018/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS

Just in time for Thanksgiving, a pair of holiday-themed films from producer David O. Selznick, both released in 1944, receive the Blu-ray treatment from Kino Lorber. Continuing a deluxe series of high definition home video transfers that has so far included other Selznick International and Vanguard Pictures productions like A Farewell to Arms (1957), Portrait of Jennie, The Paradine Case (both ’48), and Duel in the Sun (’46) – along with many earlier Selznick endeavors soon to come – KL Studio Classics takes us back to the waning days of World War II for two slice-of-life portraits of women during wartime and soldiers on furlough. From the epically-inclined sensibility that burned down Atlanta in Gone With The Wind (1939), brought Alfred Hitchcock to America for Rebecca (’40), and wrote enough Benzedrine-fueled memorandums to fill two volumes of critical study, David O. Selznick – the “O” standing for the looped symbol of seeming eternity that often commenced his lengthier films with the full-bladder foreboding word of “Overture” – shifted his outsize attention to more intimate though no less weighty matters relating to the domestic front.

At 2 hours and 51 minutes, with an additional 5 minutes of entrance and intermission music included in this Roadshow Edition, 1944’s grand wartime weepie Since You Went Away may not be, as adverts for the day had it, the “four most important words since Gone With The Wind”, but the epic sweep of the film certainly remains undiminished after seven decades of intervening romantic dramas. The unifying romance of the Christmas Eve-concluding tale of Americans, particularly women, keeping the “homefires burning” takes place mainly offscreen – through letters, telegrams, and wistful perusals of memory albums – as Mrs. Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert) presides over her suburban household while her husband is overseas; mothers her two growing teenage daughters Jane (Jennifer Jones) and Bridget/“Brig” (Shirley Temple); receives help, advice, and (mostly innocent) comic relief from selfless former household maid Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel); takes in an imperious, fussy boarder in retired army colonel William G. Smollett (Monty Wooley); simultaneously wards off and subtly encourages the teasing (and again, mostly innocent) affection and (yet again, mostly) welcome attention of charming family friend, Lt. Tony Willett (Joseph Cotten); and even successfully deals with a crisis of patriotic conscience near the end of it all. With a more directly onscreen and ultimately tragic romance depicted between eldest daughter Jane and the army colonel’s estranged grandson, Corporal Bill Smollett (Robert Walker), there are enough plot and characters to fill three such war-era tapestries, but fortunately the sizable Selznick scale is kept fairly involving by appealing performances, a cozy tone that only intermittently verges on sentimentality (despite its famously gloppy reputation), and some of the lushest images, credited to master cinematographers Stanley Cortez and Lee Garmes, ever captured in black-and-white.

At precisely half that running time, the end of year release of I’ll Be Seeing You significantly scales back the drama and storyline(s) of its epic wartime predecessor, but is no less an ambitious evocation of and reflection on the smalltown American homefront. Moving the unnamed Midwestern locale of Since You Went Away further west to the mid-size city of Pinehill, the continued four-title words – taken from a popular song hit of the era by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal – similarly evoke family life and wistful celebration of the holidays, but this time more intimately details the smaller-scale meet-up and comparatively fragile romance between two outsiders. Originally titled Double Furlough, and based on a radio drama first recorded under that title, Mary Marshall (Ginger Rogers) and Sgt. Zachary Morgan (Joseph Cotten) encounter each other on a train ride after both are given Christmas to New Year’s time-off from a women’s prison (Mary) and a psychiatric army hospital (Zach). After exchanging names, while also concealing the true reasons for their leaves, the two lonely souls are reunited through a series of (cannily crafted) movie coincidences at the happy home and bountiful dinner table of Mary’s aunt (Spring Byington), uncle (Tom Tully), and young cousin (Shirley Temple). The film-length question of whether the pair can be honest with each other and sustain a relationship from individually troubled circumstances is, of course, successfully and positively answered in this heart-warming holiday drama, and one feels after 85 minutes of setbacks and reversals that Mary and Zach will indeed be seeing each other again at war’s end.

Besides their respective entertainment value, which is considerable, both films are fascinating documents of their time, and in addition to the respective scale of their production – immense, given the obsessive reputation of their producer – have only gained in viewing and reflective interest since the year of their release. From the fascinating snatches of overheard, offscreen dialogue as characters move through an air hangar-turned-USO dance hall and a scale-constructed train station depot in Since You Went Away – giving viewers a time capsule-like glimpse into everyday life circa 1944 – to a rather frankly depicted attempted rape and a traumatic war-inspired hallucination in a YMCA boarding room – mutually serving as motivational character flashbacks in I’ll Be Seeing You – the patriotic fervor, optimistic tone, and romantic passages of these wartime romances are expertly balanced by darker undercurrents suggesting the moral complexity and social difficulties of life during wartime.

Making an expert, scholarly case for a deeper view of otherwise innocuous-seeming Hollywood fare, an incisive split commentary between Kat Elinger and Samm Deighan accompanying the Blu-ray of I’ll Be Seeing You articulates the many historical, artistic, and sociological details that together coincide with the complexity of David O. Selznick’s ambition and vision. The joking reference made earlier in this review to the producer’s middle initial may be weak – Selznick actually did not have a middle name – but this reviewer honestly feels whatever “prestige” the empty though impressive signifier imparted has, in retrospect, brilliantly served these undervalued and underviewed wartime productions.

Except for the two Blu-ray covers, all other images are credited to DVDBeaver and are taken directly from both Blu-ray releases.