Tuesday, August 10, 2010

SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (Selznick International 1944) MGM Home Video

Director John Cromwell’s Since You Went Away (1944) was producer David O. Selznick’s attempt at transforming a simple war time drama into his version of a contemporary Gone With The Wind. Ever since Gone With The Wind, Selznick had viewed subsequent projects as valiant successors to his most profitable movie. In more recent months however, Selznick had also been moved by MGM's Mrs. Miniver (1942) and had hoped to find a uniquely American equivalent to rival that film's popularity and success.

The quest was not so easily waged with 270 synopses gracing Selznick's desk - all of them rejected for one reason or another. Then came 'Since You Went Away - Letters to a Solider from His Wife' - a serialized memoir written by Margaret Buell Wilder for The Ladies Home Journal that eventually became a novel. Selznick immediately gravitated to Wilder's warmth and insight, pronouncing the book a modern day 'Little Women' and purchased the rights for $30,000.

Running just under three-hours – and with enough tear-jerking moments to stock three films - this cry-fest extraordinaire follows Wilder's structure faithfully and was meant by Selznick as sincere tribute to all families who stayed behind while their sons and husbands went off to fight during World War II. Touching on virtually all the aspects of an America in crisis and transition, the screenplay eventually crafted by Selznick undoubtedly proved a showcase for his latest discovery - Jennifer Jones with whom Selznick had begun a rather torrid extra marital affair even though she was then married to co-star Robert Walker.

As in the novel, the film's central protagonist is Mrs. Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert), the dutiful wife and mother of two angelic daughters, Jane Deborah (Jennifer Jones) and Bridget (Shirley Temple – all grown up and not nearly as effective as during her childhood tenure at Fox). The narrative begins in the tearful aftermath of Anne driving her husband Tim to the train station. Jane and Brig' comfort their mother who very quickly realizes that she will not be able to sustain their household on her husband's meagre military salary.

To alleviate her financial woes, Anne finds a new household for their loyal maid, Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel), takes up work for the war effort inside a factory and also rents a room to curmudgeonly retired Colonel William G. Smollett (Monty Woolley) whose stalwart ways generate plenty of friction within the household. In her downtime, Anne is courted by Lieutenant Tony Willet (Joseph Cotten); a close friend of Tim's who has always carried a torch for her - though Anne considers their friendship strictly platonic.

Jane has a terrible school girl crush on her 'Uncle' Tony that is tempered after she contracts the mumps. Meanwhile, Anne's bitchy friend, Mrs. Emily Hawkins (Agnes Moorehead) invites herself into Anne's good graces repeatedly while attempting to spy and gossip on her and Tony whom she wrongfully suspects are having an affair.

The first hour or so of the film, charting the family's day-to-day life and struggles, wears a bit thin on the mind and heart. But then there is the eye – so decorously abused by Selznick’s zeal for lavish sets and staging – that one can almost as easily excuse the obvious plotting for what it is – sluggish melodrama. Architect William Pereira and Production Designer Ray Klune get high marks for their evocative, full size sets depicting the Hilton home and their small town surroundings with a genuine affinity for idyllic Americana - a la Hollywood style.

As for the Hiltons; they take their lumps with pride as is befitting the American spirit. At a serviceman's dance, Anne learns that the son of one of her neighbours has been killed in a plane crash while practising manoeuvres; Selznick's foreshadowing toward a more sinister darkness that will soon follow. Jane is introduced to the Colonel's grandson, Corporal William Smollett II (Robert Walker); a naive and awkward youth who is unremarkable in every way and a source of disappointment in all his mediocrity to the Colonel despite the fact that he has enlisted to do his part in the war effort.

Jane finds William Jr.'s gallantry rewarding, though she has grown up and decidedly away from her boy crazy fancies after becoming a war nurse for the Red Cross. Romance blossoms between Will Jr. and Jane and they are eventually married. Meanwhile, Anne learns that Tim is missing in action and suffers a mental collapse.

At this juncture in the story Selznick wisely inserts an Intermission, presumably to re-evaluate the trajectory of the story for the second half that grows more sombre in tone and mood. We return from this break to learn that Will Jr. has been killed in action; the realization softening the Colonel's gruff exterior and bringing him and Jane closer together as she diligently pursues her work with the Red Cross. These are the scenes at which Jennifer Jones most excels and is arguably best remembered for from the film.

Behind the scenes Selznick, who had championed Jones in the part, quickly realized what a mistake he had made for she was hardly happy on the set. Feeling as though her career had taken a quantum leap backward after her overwhelming success in The Song of Bernadette (1943), Jones was an emotional wreck throughout most of the shoot. Frequently, director Cromwell found he had to tenderly guide Jones out of a depression to get a performance from her. The shoot was also exacerbated by a bout of flu that flattened Jones, Colbert, Temple and McDaniel - causing production delays.

In the interim of his cast recovering, Selznick wrote an inspired declaration about the American perspective on life and liberty, coaxing retired film great Alla Nazimova to perform the cameo as immigrant Zofia Koslowska inside a lunch counter built on the Selznick back lot. As workers exit a factory from their shift, Zofia tells Anne what America means to those inspired by its promises of freedom from afar, receipting the inscription from the Statue of Liberty with such overwhelming and angelic pride that she easily steals the moment and makes it her own. The silent humility expressed by Anne as she listens to Zofia's words is an image not forgotten long after the rest of the film's perfunctory melodrama has come to an end.

As for the rest of the plot: Anne finally realizes what a destructive influence Emily is and discards their 'friendship'; turning her focus inward to support and quell Jane's overwhelming sadness at losing her husband. On Christmas Eve the family modestly rejoices with a quiet house party attended by Tony, Fidelia and the Colonel at the end of which Anne learns that Tim has been found safe and will be returning home shortly. Anne's ecstatic cries to Jane and Brig are concluded by the film's epitaph that reads "Be of Good Courage and He Shall Strengthen Your Heart. All Ye that Hope in the Lord."

Viewed today, Since You Went Away retains much of its homespun lustre and timely appeal - its script histrionics forgiven by superb performances that render most of Selznick's flair for flowery dialogue more naturalistic than it actually is. Colbert in particular is a major strength to the production, as is Cotten, never more winningly devil-may-care or genuine than here. Pictorially too, the film is on solid ground thanks to the stunningly evocative cinematography of Lee Garmes, Stanley Cortez, George Barnes and Robert Bruce; each bringing their own unique sense of dramatic style to the assignment. The last bit of kudos belongs to Max Steiner whose brilliant score is a poignant and melodic counterbalance to the story and whose central theme is arguably as memorable as his Tara's Theme from Gone With The Wind.

Despite, or perhaps because of its narrative shortcomings, Since You Went Away was a resounding box office success when it was released, grossing over $4,918,412. For the most part, the film succeeds in bringing promise, hope and a sense of American pride to the forefront of this oft idealized, occasionally maudlin melodrama; only briefly suffering from too much treacle and conventionality to be completely enjoyed.

Critical reception was largely negative, particularly over what some critics deemed a 'glossy' treatment of a very frank subject. Nevertheless, Since You Went Away was nominated for a truck-load of Oscars. Regrettably, the tide had begun to turn against Selznick films by this time. Since You Went Away took only one statuette for Max Steiner’s moody and hauntingly beautiful score. In the years that followed, Selznick would discover more indifference not only from the critics but audiences toward his product.

MGM Home Video bows Since You Went Away on DVD in a rather impressive transfer. For the first time we get to hear the film’s overture and exit music (absent from previously released laserdisc and VHS editions) but the Overture has no extra chapter stop so if you want to view the film's opening credits you have to listen to this music first.

The B&W elements are in fairly decent shape and exhibit a nicely balanced gray scale with smooth, solid blacks and very clean whites. Age related artefacts are present throughout but most do not distract. Some minor edge enhancement crops up but pixelization is kept to a bare minimum - no small feat given the lengthy running time and DVD's limited compression bit rate. Overall the picture will surely not disappoint, though at times it can suffer from a softness. The audio is mono but more than adequate for this presentation. Regrettably, for a film of such historical importance, there are no extra features on this disc. Nevertheless, recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)