Wednesday, February 20, 2013

1940s Blogathon: 'Since You Went Away'

 
“Since You Went Away” is a 1944 drama starring Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotton, Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple, Monty Woolley, Robert Walker, Hattie McDaniel, Lionel Barrymore and Agnes Moorehead.

It’s an impressive cast, but it’s producer David O. Selznick who drove this production from beginning to end. It’s his show, and he pulled out the stops for this, the ultimate World War II homefront saga.

Colbert plays Ann Hilton, whose husband Tim (whom we never see except in photographs) has left for the war as the film opens. She must raise her two daughters, Jane (Jones) and Brig (Temple), on her own and keep her home, despite being on a limited budget. This means letting go of their maid Fidelia (McDaniel) and taking in a border, Col. Smollett (Wooley), whose grandson Bill (Walker) falls for Jane. Family friend Lt. Tony Willett (Cotton) looks in on the family from time to time, while snooty friend Emily Hawkins (Moorehead) tries to maintain Ann’s spirits.

Directed by John Cromwell and with a screenplay by Selznick, the three-hour epic hits upon every facet of homefront life. Film scholar Thomas Schatz writes that this movie “was quite clearly a war film, tracing the conversion of home and family – the American community in microcosm – to the war effort.”

I love this film, both in story, in acting and in how it’s presented. Its history is also intriguing because it brought Selznick back to filmmaking after he abandoned production when his back-to-back triumphs of “Gone With the Wind” and “Rebecca” caused tax problems. During the early 1940s he acted more as a power broker by making deals for his contract talent, both in front of and behind the camera, with other studios.

But his infatuation with Jones, an unknown actress he put under contract, began to grow. While he was as much of a micromanager regarding her career as he was with the other actresses working for him, Selznick believed Jones had an untapped reserve of emotions that would lead to a versatile career. He also fell hard for her. Combined with his frustration at not helping the war effort more, he bought the rights to Margaret Buell Wilder’s book and proclaimed it as his first production in nearly four years. 


Selznick worked on the script for months and continued working on it even after shooting began. He enlarged the role of Jane specifically for Jones, although her marriage to Walker was crumbling. They would separate before filming ended, and the two actors had great difficulty portraying a couple falling in love.

As for Colbert, she came to this film after making the popular “So Proudly We Hail,” but it took a $150,000 paycheck to convince her to play the mother of two teenage girls.

The film cost $2.9 million and reportedly was the most expensive film made since “Gone With the Wind.” It contained more than 200 speaking parts and 5,000 extras. Selznick, who was forever chasing another “Wind”-sized hit, was crushed when the reviews were respectful but lukewarm. However, he was buoyed by the audience response, which put it among the biggest hits of 1944.

Critics may not have appreciated its sentiment, but “Since You Went Away” weaves the perfect amount of sentiment into the drama, comedy and romance. I love the opening, which starts with a literal nod to the home fires by showing the fireplace, as well as many objects in the Hilton home, especially Tim’s, as Ann talks about this being the time she’s dreaded most. The opening sets up the drama beautifully, as Ann presents a reassuring façade for her daughters while she fights to maintain her composure every day. 


 

If the movie is a Hollywood-ized look at the homefront, it touches upon the emotions that people would be feeling. One of my favorite scenes shows Ann reading a letter from Tim to Jane and Brig, the three clustered around the fireplace, happy to have word from Tim but worried that perhaps this may be the last time they hear from him. We can only guess today how many people were going through the same ritual, yet this lovely scene captures the yearning that anyone has for a loved one who is far from home.

Almost every possible homefront issue is touched upon. You have a wartime romance that blossoms  between Jane and Bill, with the most affecting train-station goodbye scene ever made, again touching the hearts of so many people then and yet emotionally still hits hard today. You have a large dance at nearby hanger to raise money and morale. It’s beautifully shot and features actual kids from around L.A. because Selznick didn’t think the extras looked real enough. You have Ann taking a wartime job at a nearby manufacturing plant, while Jane studies to become a nurse’s aid. And yet each scene is woven into the story to create a cohesive narrative.

Max Steiner’s marvelous score is interspersed seamlessly with familiar melodies that accentuates – not dictates – the mood.

“Since You Went Away” is a big production that often feels intimate because it manages to capture the mood of the homefront so beautifully. If critics were unmoved – such as Bosley Crowther, who called this “a rather large dose of choking sentiment” – Selznick knew what his audiences wanted, and they were rewarded by a film that spoke to them. I have one book that states that because of shortages during the war, many pieces of furniture used in the Hilton home came from Selznick’s own house.

The performances are all excellent. It was Colbert’s biggest hit in years, while Jones (a favorite of mine) followed up her Oscar-winning role from “The Song of Bernadette” with her portrayal of Jane. Temple successfully bridged her child star days with more roles throughout the decade. And a new star was born. Selznick wanted a real sailor for the small role of Harold Smith, so his staff found U.S. Navy sailor Robert Mosley at a radio presentation. Selznick signed him to a contract and changed his name to Guy Madison after seeing a Dolly Madison sign. Madison filmed his scenes during a weekend pass and was shocked by the popularity he received from the film. He eventually gained fame as TV’s Wild Bill Hickock.

Since You Went Away” received nine Oscar nominations, including best picture, actress, supporting actor for Woolley, and supporting actress for Jones. Its sole award was for the deserving Steiner. This is a marvelous film. If it allows us a glimpse into the mindset of the World War II homefront, it holds up today because it’s easy to identify with the emotional journey that these characters are taking. It’s Selznick’s last great epic (I don’t consider “Notorious” an epic) before he lost his sense of proportion. And while this may not match “Gone With the Wind,” “Since You Went Away” is memorable on its own terms.

36 comments:

  1. For some reason this film and I keep missing each other, but you've convinced me to go finally watch it. You figure that train scene has done something very right when it inspires so many homages and parodies. Thanks for the great review!

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    1. You are welcome, and I hope you finally get a chance to see this one. Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. While it is sentimental, it is also a good depiction of what life was like for women on the Homefront. I absolutely adore this, and I thought Jones and Colbert give phenomenal performances. Nice pick.

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    1. Thank you. I agree with you, especially about Jones and Colbert.

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  3. Hollywoodized? Yes. Sentimental? Yes. However, as you state "Since You Went Away" is genuine in its emotions and timeless in its appeal.

    The bulldog and the sprinkler is a moment that makes my memory smile.

    "Since You Went Away" is never screened on TCM Canada and my heart always lurches hopefully when I see it on the schedule. Sigh.

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    1. I do like the bulldog and the sprinkler. I hope TCM Canada shows it someday and you get a chance to see it again.

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  4. It is a great movie. As you said, many critics at the time did not appreciate this film. I think it showed the best of us(Jane working with wounded soldiers) and the worst of us(Agnes Moorehead as a selfish socialite who organizes USO shows so she can be the center of attention). As you correctly pointed out, it showed a number of homefront issues. Great piece.

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    1. Thank you. And yes, it did show the best and worst in people. Glad you stopped by!

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  5. This is a beautiful film to watch. The emotions are spot on, and while it's easy to satirize that train station scene (was it "Airplane" that did so?), I can't get enough of it. That dance sequence is beautifully shot, and a good example to anyone who says black and white is boring. I didn't know that about the extras being real LA kids.

    Selznick was such a perfectionist, that when the score he originally commissioned, one by Polish composer Alexandre Tansman, he threw out the whole score after it had been recorded and called on Steiner to write a new score. It must have cost him a pretty penny, but the end result was worth it. It's one of Steiner's best scores.

    It's almost heartbreaking to watch the scenes between Jones and Walker, knowing what was happening off screen. He's just wonderful in the role.

    A great look at what is one of the key World War II films, even though there's not a shot fired.

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    1. Thank you for your comments, and I agree with everything you say. Selznick spared no expense on this film, but it's clear he knew what he was doing by the big grosses.

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  6. I love this film, too. Jennifer Jones & Robert Walker are just wonderful, as is the rest of the cast. A great choice!

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  7. CFB, I tend to think of "Since You Went Away" and "Mrs. Miniver" as a sort of matched set - heartwarming takes on the American and British home fronts, respectively. Both are quite moving and contain many fine performances. Great choice and well done!

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    1. Thank you! I agree with you about these two films, and I'm a big fan of "Mrs. Miniver."

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  8. CFB, I haven't seen SINCE YOU WENT AWAY in a long time and it certainly warrants another viewing. Your love for this film came through wonderfully in this informative, heartfelt review. It was interesting to learn how Guy Madison got into acting. I remember local stations showing this TV series when I was a wee lad.

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    1. Thank you! I hope you catch the film again soon.

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  9. Filmboy, you did a great job of discussing the film's virtues. When I first saw this a few years ago, I was mighty impressed. I liked it so much I immediately watched it again a couple of weeks later, something I hardly ever do. Selznick always assembled fabulous all-star casts, but here he almost outdoes himself. For me Claudette Colbert can do no wrong, and I thought she was a perfect choice for the lead. If she could be this convincing as a Midwest housewife, she was some actress! I also especially like Monty Woolley as Col Smollett (although the feud with his grandson seems contrived). And dare I risk heresy in saying that this film contains my favorite Hattie McDaniel performance--even more than "Gone With the Wind"?

    The photography is another thing that especially struck me, as do some of the big set pieces, like the dance in the airplane hangar. And who can resist Soda the bulldog? Only the end, where Claudette goes to work with Nazimova in the factory, doesn't ring true for me. Otherwise, a wonderful film and definitely Selznick's last successful "spectacular."

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    1. Thank you, R.D. I always appreciate your comments. I will admit that the factory work feels more like Selznick making his point about women having to work; however, I'm willing to overlook it because of the overall excellence of the movie. And no heresy ... McDaniel is terrific here, as is Woolley and the wonderful bulldog!

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  10. CFB,
    I watched this film again just a few months ago. Not sure why I didn't know David O. had his hands all over this one. And I'm quite surprised that it had this large of a budget. Not saying the film seemed cheap or on a shoestring.

    As beautiful as Jones was, I really enjoyed Shirley's performance in the film but don't tell Ivan!

    R.D. mentions Soda and I'm glad because I had forgotten that dogs name. I want an English Bulldog just like him. I loved that he kept getting in the way, up on beds and was an overall nuisance.

    Colbert was perfectly cast as the mother but her relationships in the film had me confused at times. That was the only issue I had with the film.

    Another wonderful review of a film that I like very much.
    Page

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    1. Hi Page, glad you stopped by. I promise not to tell Ivan, and I thought Colbert, Jones and Temple made a fine trio. Looking forward to reading your post!

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  11. Classicfilmboy - I agree with you on the great qualities this movie has, and you covered them beautifully in your post. And despite Colbert's reservations about playing a mother to teenagers, this clearly marks the division between her earlier roles and the more mature acting she would develop henceforth. This movie is a wonderful depiction of life on the homefront during WWII and a classic Selznick film. Thanks for selecting this great film for the blogathon and writing about about it so expertly.

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    1. Hi Christian ... thank you for your comments. Colbert was wonderful in this movie, one of my favorite of her performances. Despite her reservations, she seemed comfortable in the role.

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  12. This film was the reason I ended up joining Net Flix. We didn't have dish then, so no TCM, and our library (which is where I got my classic films back then) did not have this one. So, I signed up for NF, and "Since You Went Away" was my first rental from them. And you know, I haven't seen the film since then (nearly 5 years ago). In the last year or so, I've thought it was time for a re-watch. Your review has reinforced that thought.

    Given the war and its effect on those left at home, I think you chose a perfect film for inclusion in the blogathon

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    1. Hi Patti, Thank you for your comments and for stopping by. I hope you do see it again soon.

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  13. Thank you for spotlighting this wonderful film, This film captures perfectly the worry of those who with loved ones fighting in the war.

    I loved the unforgettable scene when Mr. Mahoney leaves the movie theater.

    Also, one of my favorite Jennifer Jones performances. You will need a box of Kleenex for this film.

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    1. Hi Dawn, Thank you for your comments. You are right about needing Kleenex for this one!

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  14. Oh boy. I am ashamed to say I have not seen this film. However, thanks to your blog, I have a terrific film experience to look forward to! And I'll appreciate it all the more for your analysis and background info. Thanks!

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    1. You are welcome. Let me know when you see it!

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  15. Great post! The historical context of this film is invaluable. Sadly, we are losing in huge numbers WW II vets, and many young people don't even think about that dark time in the world. We can only hope that many today and future generations will see these films and watch as it all plays out on film. A great reminder of the many sacrifices of our military, and their families. Thanks for posting and choosing a film which is the epitome of what life was like for the greater part of 1940's!

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    1. Thank you for stopping by and your comments. I'm glad you appreciate the film as much as I do, and you are right about future generations looking to these films to understand what the world was like.

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  16. Hmmm...how have I missed this film? It sounds wonderful. I'm a sucker for WWII homefront dramas like this. Great post with lots of fascinating production details, Classicfilmboy! For what sounds like an intimate drama, this sure seems a massive production. Selznick was a control freak but he certainly was a boon to Jennifer Jones career, and it seems she rewarded him by standing by him until his death some 20 years later.

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    1. Thank you, Jeff, and thanks for stopping by. You definitely have to check this out, especially if you like WWII homefront dramas. This is the definitive one! Let me know what you think when you see it.

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  17. A late but appreciative comment, CFB -- you've done justice to a film that I love very much. Yes, it was sentimental, but why do critics consider that a drawback? This movie showed so much of the range of feeling in such a time, and it was also a real heartbreaker in the story of the characters of Jones and Walker. To me, even more heart-tugging was the quiet scene where Colbert has to tell her daughter that Walker is dead. Jones' reaction shows her acting talent, with no need for overblown acting. I think you've done an excellent job reviewing a much-loved movie.

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    1. Hi CB! So good to see you. I'm glad you love this movie as much as I do. Critics don't like to show their sentimental side. They are often more intrigued by the art of filmmaking. But this film has both, and it's really wonderful to watch today.

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  18. I'm late to the party here but just want to say I really enjoyed your review and will now hope to see this film - I'd like to see more home front movies and this one sounds excellent, with a wonderful cast. I'm especially intrigued by the thought of Claudette Colbert in such a different role!

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    1. Glad you stopped by! Let me know what you think of this movie; I believe you'll really enjoy it.

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