Friday, April 12, 2013

Since You Went Away

I've briefly mentioned Since You Went Away several times in comparison to other moviews about World War II. It's airing again tonight at 10:15 PM on TCM as part of Cher's look at studio-era movies with strong portrayals of women; this week's theme being women during wartime.

Claudette Colbert stars as Anne Hilton, a wife and mother of two. There's a war on, of course, and Mr. Hilton has gone off to fight, leaving Anne alone to raise two young adult daughters. Jane, the elder of the two, is played by Jennifer Jones, while Bridget, the younger, is played by Shirley Temple. The family was at least middle-class before the war, and probably higher on the economic ladder than that considering how big their house is and the fact they used to have a maid they had to let go because they could no longer afford to keep her on, what with the husband's salary being replaced by allotment checks. What's a mother to do? Well, she decides to advertise for roomers for the last bedroom, with a preference for military personnel. What they get is Col. William Smollett (Monty Woolley). He's military, all right -- a colonel from the first World War! But he's no dummy, either, and points out that he is military, which is what they wanted, so they really have to take him.

Col. Smollett proceeds to turn everybody's life upside down. He's a difficult, exacting person who expects everything to be run his way, and that forces the three women to change the way the house is run. However, it turns out he's also got a grandson, William II (Robert Walker). The young William is an enlisted man, and one who seemingly can do nothing right by his grandfather, which understandably frustrates him. Jane feels sympathy for him and eventually he begins to pursue her romantically. This is also an issue for Jane as she's had her eyes on a much older man, Lt. Tony Willett (Joseph Cotten). He's an old friend of Anne's who's in the military on business that I don't think is ever quite made specific. The movie is sprawling and there's a lot of detail that's easy to miss.

Eventually, the war starts to turn personal for all the women, at least in the sense that it begins to hit home and makes them make real sacrifices and suffer far more than just having to share a bedroom. Young William is called off to war; young men on the periphery of the Hiltons' lives get killed in action; and a telegram arrives containing the sad news that Mr. Hilton is missing in action. Where the first half of the movie is a bit slow, the second half picks up and becomes rather more forceful.

The bad news is that forceful doesn't always mean powerful in a good sense. Since You Went Away was released in 1944, and as such had to provide a sense of morale on the home front. So there are some scenes that are almost obvious in the way they're trying to deliver their message. There's one with an immigrant, and one where Anne tells off a gossipy woman (Agnes Moorehead) about "doing one's part" for the war effort. And some of the action is telegraphed. But there are also some quite excellent sequences, such as when young William gets on the train to go off to war, leaving Jane behind. The performances are also quite good, with Colbert being strong in the lead and Monty Woolley providing very good light relief.

I don't know that Since You Went Away is the best of the movies about the home front. It was compared in its time to Mrs. Miniver, a movie that audiences back in the day loved but which I find interminable at times. It could also be thought of as a bookend to The Best Years of Our Lives, seeing as how both of them run about 170 minutes and deal with the way war affected people: the former with the women and how they handled things during the war, and the latter with the men having to adjust to the end of the war. The Best Years of Our Lives never feels too long despite its 170 minutes; Since You Went Away does feel too long at times. And I've also mentioned a few foreign films that look at the homefront, in places where the war came much closer; In Which We Serve and The Cranes Are Flying come to mind. Still, Since You Went Away is a worthy movie, both on its own and as a contemporary look at how America was handling the homefront back in 1944.

Since You Went Away got a DVD release years ago, but I don't know if it's in print. The movie is available for purchase on Amazon, but not at the TCM shop.

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