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.
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.