The Home Front, 1944

Few people remember Since You Went Away. Produced (and written) by David O Selznick in 1944, after his great successes Gone with the Wind and Rebecca, it was a commercial and critical success at the time, nominated for 9 Oscars, including Best Picture and 3 of the 4 acting Oscars. 

The stars of this prestige production were Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple (her first teenage role), Robert Walker, Hattie McDaniel, Agnes Moorehead, Monty Woolley, Lionel Barrymore and Guy Madison. Several future stars appeared in small roles and crowd shots, including Keenan Wynn, Rhonda Fleming, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruth Roman, John Derek, Craig Stevens, and Terry Moore. The director was John Cromwell (Of Human Bondage, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Dead Reckoning).

To this day it’s still famous for the emotionally powerful parting scene at the railroad station between Jennifer Jones and her soldier-boy, Robert Walker. (The scene was parodied in Airplane.) An added element was that Jones and Walker were married during the filming, but their marriage was cracking under the strain of, among other things, Selznick’s infatuation with Jones, whom he would subsequently marry. 

But time hasn’t been kind to the film. It’s length (2:45 minutes) and idyllic middle class-ness didn’t wear well after the war, when a grittier realism and moral ambiguity predominated in the country and in Hollywood. 

The movie is hardly a must-see. It really is too long and is overly sentimental. Because it is a woman’s movie centered around relationships and not action, things drag on and get repeated. But it is still worthwhile, if for nothing more than a glimpse of a long gone America.

Jones, Colbert and Temple / Since You Went Away

Since You Went Away is a home-front movie which follows the Hilton women (wife and two daughters) after Captain Hilton ships out and they try to cope with changes, hardships and loss during wartime. Cinematically, it was a classic tearjerker, consciously meant to sustain domestic morale, which it did. 

The older daughter (Jones) volunteers in a rehab center for wounded soldiers and there are shots of men with prosthetics, but nothing like how that was handled in The Best Years of Our Lives. (William Wyler’s way was too graphic and hard for this picture, but as I said, things were grittier after the men all came home and the propaganda stopped.)

For the mother (Colbert) and younger daughter (Temple) the biggest challenges to their wartime lives are dealing with the grumpy boarder (Woolley) they have to take in to make ends meet, and with an obnoxious busybody neighbor (Moorehead), as well as with realizing that death could be around the corner. The mom eventually takes a job in a shipyard in order to contribute more, but that occurs with only about 15 minutes to go in the film. She continues to look like an affluent white suburban, very attractive woman throughout. 

There’s also a subplot involving the mother and a handsome naval officer and long time family friend (Cotten). Both early on and then again later in the movie the mother refuses to let herself be romanced by the persistent officer. Such virtue was clearly meant as an exhortation to the women in the audience to remain patriotically faithful to their men overseas in the third year of the war effort. 

There is a lot of overt Christianity in the screenplay and the score. Selznick understood that the US in 1944 was a Christian country and he did not stint in marshaling Scripture or the traditions and symbolism of Christmas right alongside the words of Lincoln and Emerson to strengthen moviegoers’ resolve and unity. 

If you are interested, Since You Went Away is free on You Tube. The 2:57 version I watched is called a “Roadshow Edition,” which featured both an orchestral overture and intermission. Max Steiner did the music. 

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6 thoughts on “The Home Front, 1944”

  1. Thank you!
    The world seems like such a different place from that movie. I shudder to think how the same movie would be handled today. Would Miley Cyrus play the Shirley Temple part?

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  2. I also suggest everybody read Dawn Powell.

    This was a great time to be an older man, with all the young men away…and also a great time to be a lesbian.  Women at this point had tremendous “freedom”, more like tremendous responsibility, working at everything on the home front. The war ended, the young men came home, the women married and moved to Levittown—which is where Betty Friedan found them in 1963 when she wrote The Feminine Mystique. 

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  3. Freesmith:
    There’s also a subplot involving the mother and a handsome naval officer and long time family friend (Cotten). Both early on and then again later in the movie the mother refuses to let herself be romanced by the persistent officer.

    Right, and what a jerk that Cotten character is, showing up at their home at all hours, in uniform. He knew she was married and that her husband was overseas.

    Thanks for the thoughtful review and reminder of a film that preserves for us another time.

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  4. We watched this movie last night. The country is so changed from what the movie depicted; it made me sad.

    Several scenes made the point forcefully. At the older daughter’s high school graduation ceremony, there was a statue of Lincoln in the background. Today, that would be defaced and spit-upon by the callow and disrespectful students. The US Public Health Service hospital had a sign over the door that read “Man dresses the wound, God heals it.” It’s hard to imagine any such sentiment being expressed today.

    The film was made before the D-Day invasion, when the outcome of the war was still in doubt. By the date of general release for the US in July, the disasters of Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge were still to come. The privations and dangers of the war were still in full effect.

    The people of that time were so brave, in contrast to the bedwetters who cower in fear today, who prefer to live on their knees instead of risking dying on their feet. I’m sure Chinese leadership is watching and gleefully rubbing their hands together as they await the ascendancy of a senile old man and an affirmative-action running-mate to the leadership of the world’s (once) most power nation to deliver the coup de gras. Pathetic.

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  5. I probably watched this movie in the mid 1970s late at night in the summer in my parents’ basement. The TV was relegated to the basement. I don’t actually remember any of the specific movies but I remember that for several nights in a row they ran a retrospective of David O. Selznick, and Jennifer Jones was in some or all of the movies. I was fascinated then because it seemed a lost world to me….though a mere thirty years prior at that time.

    Now that I think of it, 1990 seems like a lost world now.

    I probably should not watch it, I believe it would make me sad just like drlorentz.

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