At 172 minutes and comprised of much that is sentimental—a cozy World War II family involved in a series of hardships and tragedies—some viewers might wish for an end to Since You Went Away before that event actually occurs. Beyond the abundant provocations for tears most sophisticated individuals will feel too embarrassed to shed, it is also a slow-moving film, even by 1944 standards, and, in the final analysis—yes, too long and with an unremitting, heavily applied message.
The film is not, however, without merit.
Producer David O. Selznick wanted to do his bit for the war effort, here as a morale booster—without making a “war film” as such. He hadn’t produced a theatrical movie since Rebecca in 1940, and, as was his way, he took his time, sometimes getting pages of the ever-growing script to his stars the day a scene was to be shot. Filming lasted from the middle of September, 1943, to the middle of February, 1944, ending up some $1.25 million over budget. The final cost was $3.257 million, about three-quarters that of Selznick’s Gone With the Wind. Unlike the Southern epic, that large an expenditure doesn’t show on screen.
Selznick initially had been inspired to do a film about the war on the home front after reading a book—actually a series of letters from soldiers at war—by Margaret Buell Wilder. He hired her to write the screenplay, found her unsatisfactory and wrote it himself. His taking screen credit is easily justified, for Selznick’s elaborations went far beyond the original, with a multitude of characters and interlaced relationships, all bound together by the sanctity of the home so dear to him—at least on screen. Without success, Mrs. Wilder had appealed to the Screen Writers Guild to sanction her credit.
Since You Went Away can be viewed as a modified version of the British-set Mrs. Miniver, released by M-G-M two years earlier. Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert) is the mother of two daughters, Jane (Jennifer Jones) and Bridget (Shirley Temple). The bread winner is away in the service. At first, the husband, Tim (Neil Hamilton), was to be seen in flashbacks, but his presence was eventually relegated to photos on a dresser.
The Hilton household is inhabited, or frequented, by three guests of sorts. To help make ends meet, Anne takes in a boarder, a retired Army man, Colonel Smollett (Monty Woolley in a typical grumpy role). His grandson, Bill (Robert Walker), a corporal in the U.S. Army about to go overseas, comes to visit his grandfather and, in meeting Jane, the older daughter, initiates a romance. A Navy lieutenant and family friend, Tony Willett (Joseph Cotton), who had wooed Anne before her marriage, comes to recall old memories and idle away time until he receives orders for a shakedown cruise. If not an overtly dramatic actor, the Selznick favorite Cotton is at his best, as here, in exuding charm.
The minor supporting cast is headed by Hattie McDaniel, in the type of role inevitably restricted to her, that of a maid, here as Fidelia. Her greeting to Lieutenant Willett when he first arrives at the Hilton home is a resounding, “We thought we were through with you ’til the duration was over!”
Other supporting stars include Agnes Moorehead as an annoying socialite, Lionel Barrymore a clergyman, Albert Bassermann a doctor, Keenan Wynn a Navy buddy of Willett’s, Craig Stevens an injured sailor and Guy Madison another sailor. Look quickly to see other performers—future stars, familiar bit players, some making their débuts, many as non-speaking extras: Rhonda Fleming, John Derek, Ruth Roman, Terry Moore, Florence Bates, George Chandler, Gordon Oliver, Dorothy Dandridge, even the future director Andrew V. McLaglen, in one of his two early “acting” roles.
Meticulously made, as are all Selznick films, Since You Went Away has enough emotion for everyone, but drives into the ground its theme of forbearance under trying circumstances—war deaths, letters from the front, servicemen missing in action, injured warriors, sad farewells. There is, fortunately, a relieving counterbalance of humor, mainly from the Woolley character, but also neighborhood gossip, dances for servicemen and warm gatherings before the fireplace.
In fact, throughout the opening credits a static camera is focused on a lighted fireplace, and after the image dissolves into a rainy shot of the Hilton’s two-story home and, in the window, the little flag with its single star, sign that a member of this family is in the service, there is a warm homily, written by Selznick himself, with his capitalizations: “This is a story of the Unconquerable Fortress: the American Home . . . 1943.”
From the current, more stoic perspective, the opening scene is unnecessarily depressing. Today’s audiences seem to relish as much blood and mayhem as possible, but unrelenting depression is another matter. Anne has returned home after seeing her husband off at the train station, and in her voice-over the mood is set: “This is the moment I’ve dreaded—coming back to our home, alone.”
The husband has gone to Louisiana for training, and will return on leave before going overseas, but it is as if he is already dead, so deep is the mounting sadness, so abundant the clues to his absence—an empty chair, the Defense Department telegram, his hidden love note, a sentimental poem, photographs of him, an empty bed (one of a twin, of course, in those days!), the group hugs by mother and her daughters and, as a final “touch,” uncontrolled crying from Anne, buried deep beneath the bedcovers. Even the bulldog, seen in the opening before any of its human co-stars, seems to be fighting back tears. This topped by all the schmaltz that Max Steiner’s orchestra can muster, including a dewy-wet solo violin.
Despite all the cuddliness that will follow, the movie must have been a welcomed consolation for those who were experiencing WWII on the home front. While the Hiltons are a financially above-average family—the name “Hilton” should suggest their social status—the film’s story conveys, with degrees of finesse and magic, an affecting sense of warmth and camaraderie. The sacrifices by everyone, nationwide, made WWII a truly shared war. Quite a contrast with America’s current war(s), where the great majority of the citizens are oblivious to even the existence of a war, equally unconcerned about the dead and the maimed who return from it—except, of course, the fighting men’s families, they alone making the sacrifices.
All the sentiment—it’s a risk to extend that to “sentimentality”—is aptly supported by a lush, melodic score by that tear-jerker master Steiner, who helped make hankies, like popcorn, essential during those Bette Davis weepers of the time. It’s amazing that the composer had any room for his own ideas: Since You Went Away contains over twenty songs, both source music and those blended into the score itself—children’s songs, classical, patriotic and military, traditional, sacred and, of course, Christmas songs.
For Christmas was Selznick’s favorite season—remember in Gone With the Wind the gloomy Christmas, the barren tree, the last of the wine? Since You Went Away ends at Christmas, with gift-giving, carolers on the doorstep singing “Silent Night” and a game of charades. Remember, with Colonel Smollett on his all fours on the floor . . . the secret phrase is “bottoms up”!
Steiner’s monothematic main title is, as usual with Max, romantically scored, here with arching strings, tubular bells and French horns in counterpoint. Shorter than most main titles of the day, there is, after all, room for only one theme, the main theme that is both uplifting and touched with sadness and nostalgia. Much later, Steiner joins forces with the cameraman and art director to make Jane and Bill’s farewell at the depot (reused from GWTW) the best-remembered moment from the movie and one of the iconic scenes from the ’30s and ’40s: after Jane’s race alongside the departing train, Stanley Cortez’ high camera, her long shadow stretching across the depot platform in a shaft of blinding light.
Of the nine Oscar nominations the film received, including Picture, Cinematography, Actress for Colbert, Supporting Actress for Jones and Supporting Actor for Woolley, Steiner was the only winner. His score was up against a ridiculous number of nineteen other nominations, including his own The Adventures of Mark Twain. Since that score also has musical borrowings aplenty, maybe one of the other nominees, Miklós Rózsa’s Double Indemnity or Alfred Newman’s now forgotten Wilson, would have been a more deserving choice.
Like so many Hollywood movies, Since You Went Away was filmed under many difficult and unhappy circumstances. Perhaps the least of the problems, Claudette Colbert had to be talked into the role, for it was unglamorous, she thought, to play the parent of two siblings. It had been ten years since she had appeared in the unexpected success of It Happened One Night that jump-started her career, and now, at forty, she had to be aware of the passing years.
Selznick was displeased with the way George Barnes was photographing Jennifer Jones, even though Barnes had won an Oscar in 1940 for Rebecca. The producer replaced him, as it turned out, with two cameramen—Stanley Cortez and Lee Garmes, due to the ever-enlarging scope of the film. And the sixteen-year-old Shirley Temple, on loan from 20th Century-Fox and now beyond her child-star years, was jealous of the attention Jones was receiving.
Jones and Walker, while playing young lovers on screen, were in the process of ending their marriage. Walker was rumored to be seeing Judy Garland, and it was about this time that Selznick began his infatuation with Jones, despite a seventeen-year difference and the presence of wife Irene, daughter of Louis B. Mayer. Jones and Walker would divorce in 1945, she would marry Selznick in 1949 and Walker would remain briefly married to John Ford’s daughter, Barbara, for the last five months of 1948.
David O. Selznick was the greatest independent producer in Hollywood, ever, but like many of the studio moguls—Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Darryl F. Zanuck, Harry Cohn and others in that “club”—he had problems with paranoia, megalomania and arrogance. He was also a compulsive gambler who lost enormous sums, a womanizer, a manic smoker, a victim of depression, a workaholic and a control freak, a hands-on producer who shaped all aspects of his films’ creation. Famous for not starting script sessions until well after midnight—a horror for the meticulous Alfred Hitchcock—he managed twenty-four-hour days with Benzedrine, and when he did decide to sleep, there was an array of sedatives.
In concluding his chapter on Since You Went Away, David Thomson wrote in Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick an apt summary of the producer in relation to his 1944 film: “All too busy to concentrate, far away from a civilian population put under real pressure or attack, buried in his own neuroses, David had been so moved by the idea of war that he had had a vision of life and society quite alien to his own selfishness. He had been moved beyond his own creative limits perhaps. . . . Years later, Since You Went Away is David’s most intriguing work, the one in which we grasp the sadness he worked so hard to hide.”
The final scene of the film is an emotional reversal of its opening. True, it begins, as before, with an atmosphere of sadness and distress. Anne, downstairs alone, opens an earlier wrapped Christmas present from Tim—a music box which plays “Together,” their song; it’s been heard often, in one guise or another, throughout the film. She is soulfully wandering the house when the phone rings—a telegram. Now exaltation, the euphoria that has been withheld so tightly during the preceding. Tim is coming home! Anne shouts the news to the girls upstairs. The bulldog leaves Colonel Smollett’s side to join the throng.
As in the opening of Since You Went Away,when the camera moved to a window of the Hilton home and that single-star flag, so, at the end, the camera now pulls back from the window and, inside, the mother and her daughters in a group hug. Now the “Unconquerable Fortress” epigraph of the beginning is replaced by a Biblical quote from the King James and, just for good measure, in Steiner’s orchestra, “O Come, All Ye Faithful”:
Added by Selznick of course, it could just as easily have been written by him.