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Since You Went Away
The picture is an intimate epic. At nearly three hours long it was more than twice the length of the average feature in 1944, yet wisely focuses almost exclusively on the emotions of a single family, the Hiltons, whose upper middle-class lives are disrupted when patriarch Tim goes off to war, leaving behind his wife, Anne (Claudette Colbert), teenage daughters Jane (Jennifer Jones) and "Brig" (Shirley Temple), maid Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel), and Tim's bulldog Soda.
Faced with food rationing, a housing shortage, and a reduced income, Anne reluctantly agrees to take in a boarder, a haughty retired colonel, Smollett (Monty Woolley). He's soon joined by Tony (Joseph Cotten), an old flame of Anne's (and Vargas-like illustrator) now a lieutenant in the navy; and Bill (Robert Walker), Smollett's meek grandson.
Though the Hiltons gradually involve themselves in the usual homefront activities -- Brig sells war bonds and plants a victory garden, Jane becomes a nurse's aide, Anne eventually goes to work as a welder -- the heart of the film is its intimate and emotionally honest portrait of one family's struggle to cope with the indefinite loss of a beloved father whose fate is uncertain.
Except in photographs, Tim Hilton is never seen on camera; the movie opens with Anne returning from the train station after they said their goodbyes. In keeping him offscreen, the universality of Anne's plight doubtlessly hit home to millions of wives whose husbands were in Europe and the Pacific in 1944 and, for that matter, will surely resonate even today with the wives and husbands whose loved ones are in Iraq and Afghanistan right now.
The pain Anne and her daughters experience runs deep, and the film was somewhat unusual by depicting this so honestly; wives and daughters in '40s Hollywood movies usually didn't send their men off with as much trepidation as they do. And two years before Harold Russell's Oscar-winning role as an amputee in the postwar production of The Best Years of Our Lives, Since You Went Away offers its own unblinking look at the price of war. At the hospital where Jane works, we see (presumably real-life) soldiers missing arms and legs, and in another scene Jane witnesses a psychiatrist counseling a burn victim. (This is dated with a quaint attitude toward psychiatry; even the doctor is named "Sigmund.") In another scene, at a movie theater where a newsreel celebrates a "flyboy hero," a father whose own pilot son anonymously died in a recent crash grieves unnoticed except by Anne.
Director John Cromwell (father of actor James Cromwell, the human star of Babe) does an especially fine job with these kind of scenes. One long montage at a train station is fascinating because its makers seemed to realize the historical significance of the period in which they were living through, and zero in on the kind of little details that speak volumes: a poster about collecting scrap metal, the Red Cross tag of a war orphan being shipped to Los Angeles, anxious newly-drafted soldiers having innocuous conversations with their loved ones minutes before their train leaves.
At the same time, Since You Went Away has a kind of wistful romanticism. Also unusual, while Anne never stops loving her husband, she's also determined to get on with her life and not live like a hermit. She goes dancing with Tony, even though she's aware he's still in love with her. Jane, initially infatuated with Tony, gradually falls in love with mild-mannered Bill.
Beyond its faultless cast, the film boasts stunning camerawork by Stanley Cortez and Lee Garmes, and an especially memorable score by Max Steiner. (This reviewer also remembers its title track as the theme for an excellent and long-running radio series devoted to movie soundtracks, hosted -- I think I'm getting this right -- by Jack Goggin.)
Video & Audio
Previously released by Anchor Bay, MGM's DVD (by way of Disney) is a solid transfer, somewhat better overall than its concurrent release of Portrait of Jennie. The image has strong blacks (important given Cortez and Garmes' use of shadow) and overall is satisfyingly sharp. The opening titles are windowboxed and this edition includes a five-minute overture, an intermission break (at 1:50:45) and a two-minute entr'acte. Somewhat annoyingly, these play over frame-grabs of the movie, and are not given chapter stops of their own, meaning you can't skip ahead to the beginning of each act. MGM must not have been provided much in the way of still images. The image on the disc itself is particularly ugly. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish. There are no Extra Features.
Since You Went Away, though dated in some respects, remains a powerful and immediate case study of one family's struggle and emotional heartache during war. Though some might write the picture off as romantic fluff, in fact it gets to the heart of conflicting, complex emotions that anyone separated from loved ones for an extended period will relate to.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.