After the enormous success of Gone With The Wind producer extraordinaire David O. Selznick was looking for another epic melodrama to make. This was 1944. The world was at war and Hollywood loved to make movies about it just as much as audiences loved watching them. But war movies with their big sets and action sequences were expensive. Selznick came upon an idea – everybody was making movies about the boys overseas fighting, why not make a movie about those they left behind? He found a book by Margaret Buell Wilder in which a wife writes a series of letters to her husband who is away in the war, and Since You Went Away was born.
It runs 173 minutes long. It has a long overture and an even longer intermission, both with sweeping music behind them.. It’s got a great cast including Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, Hattie McDaniel, and Shirley Temple. It was produced by the larger-than-life David O. Selznick. Everything about the picture screams “epic”. In truth, it is an epic bore. I’ve never watched a movie so long and so dull in which so very little happens.
Claudette Colbert stars Anne Hilton as a Midwestern housewife with two teenaged daughters whose husband has gone off to war. Without her husband’s full paycheck, she struggles to keep her daughters in fine clothes, feed them fine meals, and keep the very fine roof over their heads. She has to take in a boarder, a grumpy Colonel (Monty Woolley) who dislikes the home and the girls, until he doesn’t and they become friends.
The oldest daughter, Jane (Jennifer Jones), falls for the Colonel’s grandson, Bill (Robert Walker). We see their courtship in painstaking detail. He’s in the Army, serving as a corporal but feels a failure because his entire family served as officers and he dropped out of West Point.
Shirley Temple plays the youngest daughter Brig. She’s no longer the curly haired cutie that made her a star but a a pretty cute teenager with very little to do. She might have become a great actress but you can’t tell it from this film as she mostly just wallpaper.
Hattie McDowell is playing basically the same part she played in Gone with the Wind. She won an Oscar for that role, but here she’s not given a single line that’s worth chewing on.
Periodically, an old friend of the family, Tony (Joseph Cotton) drops by to dote on the kids and flirt with Anna. There were moments when I thought they might fall for each other, but that wouldn’t be appropriate in a film like this. That wouldn’t be very patriotic of them.
This film gives melodrama a bad name. It squeezes every square ounce of plot for all the drama it can suck out of its limp, lifeless script. The maudlin strings play loudly every couple of minutes, the actors make anguished faces at each other. My god, it wants you to feel something all the time. It is melodrama that has very little actual drama.
There are two take-away lessons from the film. 1.) Life at home during wartime is hard and lonely. 2.) You simply must chip in. It hammers that second point hard in the last act. Suddenly, Jane is working in a factory helping with the war effort and after a snooty neighbor makes some ridiculous noises about how annoying the war has made her life, our dear Anna decides she must pitch in as well. I’d call it propaganda but by that point I’d lost all sense of time and all of my concern for the world’s problems except when was this stupid thing going to end.
It does look good, I’ll give it that. Kino Lorber has cleaned it up very nicely. I didn’t notice any debris or other problem with the transfer. The blacks are star and the whites crisp. The sound is good as well. The overdone score comes in loud, but doesn’t drown out the dialogue. There are no extras other than a handful of trailers from the time period.
There is an epic story one could tell about the lives left at home during the war. Many sacrifices were made. Many great dramas were had. Since You Went Away is not that movie, no matter how bad it wants to be.