July 27, 2006

Since You Went Away (1944)
Grade: 45/100

Director: John Cromwell
Stars: Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten

What it's about. Set in America circa 1942. Classy beauty Claudette Colbert's unseen husband goes off to fight the Nazis/Japs, leaving her alone to raise her two beautiful and charming teenage daughters, Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple. To make ends meet, they take in a roomer, Monty Wooley, a blustering curmudgeon with the inevitable heart of gold. Hattie McDaniel is the grammar-impaired but amusing and loyal maid. Agnes Moorehead practices her future "Bewitched" Endora role by playing a preposterously rude 'friend' of Colbert. Lionel Barrymore, alas, has but one scene, as an elequent minister.

Colbert is romanced by family friend Joseph Cotten, who slathers on the compliments but never goes too far. Ravishing Jennifer Jones has a more serious boyfriend in golly-gosh soldier Robert Walker, her real-life husband, whom she would soon divorce in favor of the film's producer, David O. Selznick, whom she married after he dispensed with his own spouse in 1949. Selznick, who wrote the screenplay, gives Jones a generous slice of the story despite the remarkable cast competing for screen time.

Jones would go on to make more movies for the admiring Selznick, usually pairing her with Cotten, who for the most part continued to play the perfect gentleman. Jones' gain is Temple's loss, since the famous former child actress is restricted to only minor subplots, such as a mentally disturbed best friend, and grandfather-like bonding with biteless barker Wooley. By 1944, Temple still hadn't outgrown the mannerisms from her Fox studio glory days, such as pouting, baby talk, and posing with wide-eyed innocence.

How others will see it. It's a splendid cast. Veteran classic film fans have a banquet of fine actors to relish. My favorite is Wooley, followed by McDaniel, Cotten, and boiling hot Jennifer Jones. Yes, Shirley Temple is fun as well, and Moorehead is a hissable if exaggerated villainess.

The film also has the welcome sheen of an "A" Hollywood movie. It does move slowly, however, and it's overlong, two factors that may try the patience of those who prefer mystery or action. The film is also geared toward women, with the ups and downs of our heroines Colbert and Jones receiving the focus of attention. The other characters only exist where their worlds overlap with the two leads.

How I felt about it. The cast is terrific, but their characters are less so. Jones and Temple are too old for their roles, and both are perfect angels. The unseen husband/father is also perfect, even remembering to buy Christmas gifts for his family months before they were needed. This act is intended to bring tears, similar to the graduation present in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and indeed, Since You Went Away does try to be a tearjerker in addition to its intended heartwarming scenes, such as wry Cotten burdened under a mattress, naive Jones caught in a farm haystacking machine, a cop pulling over Cotten because he's lonely, and hapless Walker knocking himself unconscious in a bowling alley.

The problem is, we don't cry when we are supposed to, or laugh when we're supposed to. Instead of becoming involved in the story, we admire the formidable cast. Since You Went Away succeeds as a study in acting, but doesn't work as well as a movie. Melikes The Human Comedy better. Or The Best Years of Our Lives.