Two War Movies

(5 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

I watched two war movies this weekend.  The luminous 1944 movie: Since You Went Away, a movie chock full of old fashioned Hollywood stars (and good ones at that) and a gritty 2010 movie,The Green Zone. Both these films were excellent, put me in a contemplative state and impressed me once again of the power of moving images with sound.

Since You Went Away, directed by John Cromwell (a journeyman studio director) and produced (and written for the screen by David Selznick) from a novel by Margaret Buell.  The cinematography of shadows and flickering, filtered soothing light was Stanley Cortez’ and Les Garmes’ and it is something to behold. (Cortez won an academy award) I’ve seen the film before but it seemed to be in pristine tones this time, so the film may have been salvaged and restored – and a glorious restoration it is.  Keep in mind that WW II was a necessary war (black and white war, one could say)- and in 1944 the tehnical skills of that medium was at it apex.

It starred Claudette Colbert as Anne Hilton, Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple as her daughters, Joseph Cotton as Lt. Commander Tony Willett, Monty Woolley as Col. William G. Smollen, Robert Walker as Corporal William G. Smollett II and Hattie McDaniel as Fidelia and the bitchy stand-in for all immoral, hoarding, selfish, unpatriotic Americans and the necessary dark shadowy female – Agnes Moorhead.

I’ve never seen Claudette Colbert better – never.  Her role as a central force, a touchstone of the family during the dark years of conflict was an exercise of empathy, elegance,  relaxed confidence and quiet determination to keep the home as “normal” as possible even with the background of war.  There was no clanging patriotism in this movie – only quiet scenes like Jennifer Jones’ work with the wounded boys at the nearby hospital as she worked as a nurses’ aid.  Her growth from a l7 year old schoolgirl to a young woman witnessing the aftereffects of war on young men not much older than herself is clearly registered on her young, innocent face and in the kind of sympathy only a child can evince.  Because the two adults in the film were muted and strong at the center – Jennifer becomes a better young actress before our eyes.  While in the beginning Jennifer was somewhat overwrought – that changes completely.  Shirley Temple was the younger sister and the weakest of the cast but she played her role well enough – a ’40s young teenager, funny and quirky.

Joseph Cotton (whom I liked very much for once) played the stock character role of a male suitor who lost out to the husband who is away at war and remains a bit in love with Anne.  But he puts a bite into that role – a dangerous bite and his welcome charm and playful sophistication (hiding a deeply patriotic naval officer – he has a Navy Cross we discover) are a welcome force in the household of four women.  He looked pretty good in those whites. (Not as good as Redford in The Way We Were, but who ever did) Heck, I welcomed his presence myself.  At times, I considered myself a fifth woman in the home.  If there is a heaven, I’d like to visit Anne some day – show up spontaneously in her l944 life.  Offer myself as a new neighbor, with a cake or pie (I saved my stamps for the sugar) and in the hopes she would offer me a cup of coffee.  Of course, she would and I could enjoy that comfortable home.  The family is upper middle class – but not in today’s sense   but in that time when the home seemed just about right, not over the top but furnished warmly with those beautiful white billowing curtains and lovely chairs covered in chintz.  Ever notice all those chairs in the 40’s films.  Think it may have been because people actually sat around and talked instead of watching television.  

To Be Continued

Continued later:

This is as good a place as anywhere to mention this is a propaganda piece but one with a light and deft touch – and as I said before there is no grandstanding patriotism in the movie at all.

The father in the film enlisted in the Army even though he was older.  That’s a quiet patriotic note.  He is evidently respected and loved by his family and his presence is felt throughout the film –  though physically only his photograph is available to the viewer.   Early into the film, he is missing in action, so the family is dealing with that sad uncertainty.

Anne offers a room (the master bedroom) to a boarder, Monty Wooley, a retired colonel in the Army.  He is of course the quintessential curmudgeon (with apologies to our own) – has it down to a tee.  The colonel has a grandson, Robert Walker – who appears one day.  Walker is an appealing character, shy and unsure of himself.  

Of course, the young couple fall in love and in a scene of grand beauty in a farmfield – where the lighting is simply splendid – it begins to rain and they flee to a barn.  This is where I thought they would make love but no – though they become engaged.  At the time of this movie, Jennifer Jones and Robert Walker were at the end of a rancorous divorce.  No one would ever dream this – the love scenes are tender and the tentative scenes leading up to their engagement are sweet and true.  Quite a compliment to the two actors and the director.

The scene at the railway station when Walker leaves for duty is one of the iconic scenes in American movies.  And again the lighting and shadowing is redolent of the sorrow of war and separation. Throughout the film, the cinematographers convey mood by lighting.  At the train station, it is all light until the train leaves and Jennifer is left in the shadows until the screen is all shades of dark grey and black.

Walker dies in action.  Jennifer is of course unconsolable but manages to continue to work at the hospital which oddly comforts her.

Anne admires her daughter’s bravery in her work at the hospital and questions her own “usefulness” – she becomes a welder at the factory.  This is quite a deal for a woman of her status of the time – both the women grow and change throughout the film.  Their journey is done with grace and a quiet bravery throughout.  The father does come home, though we never see him.  The last scene is of the three women reading the telegram upstairs in the bedroom while the camera pans away from the lit windows – above the night sky on Christmas Eve.  

As usual, when I watch a black character in these movies – I think how they were cheated out of their craft, usually playing the roles of servants with a limited range.  But here, Hattie McDaniel transcends that stranglehold.  In a scene at the end of the movie, there is a touching conversation between Hattie and Colbert in front of a darkened Christmas Tree.  Hattie is crying, says she admires Colbert because she has faith her husband will come home while she can’t conjure any faith in that or anything else in this war.  It is more of an exchange between friends than employer/servant and both actresses play it beautifully.  It is sad to contemplate how Hattie was cheated out of her acting life, isn’t it?  What might she have done had she been given the opportunity?

This is a beautiful film – full of grace and goodness and a joy to watch.  If you have not seen it – please find it and watch it.  Among other things, you will be proud to be an American – a lost pleasure these days.

As to the second film – I’ll write a second diary.  

6 comments

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    • Xanthe on January 26, 2011 at 2:09 am
      Author

    but I think I’ll leave it for a bit and finish up later tonight.

    I don’t want to watch the “speech” so I’ll have a cup of tea and return….

    Hope you guys don’t mind.

  1. Are you secretly Roger Ebert’s alter-ego? Just wondering!

    The detail — not to be forgotten!  Tres bien!!!!  

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