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Without looking beneath the surface, it's easy to see the 1944 wartime melodrama I'll Be Seeing You as implausible and needlessly corny. Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten star as two people who meet on a train and embark on what may or may not be a temporary romance. Cotten's Zachary is a shell-shocked soldier taking a leave of absence in the hopes of repairing his mental state. Rogers' Mary is a "traveling saleslady" - or so she tells Zachary when they meet on that train. In reality, she's serving a six-year prison sentence; the institution has given her a 10-day Christmas leave, during which she will visit her aunt and uncle (Spring Byington and Tom Tully) and their high-spirited teenage daughter, Barbara (Shirley Temple). Zachary contacts Mary after she's reached her destination, and she invites him to the family's home for dinner. They spend time together and quickly fall in love, though Mary knows more about Zachary than he knows about her.
I'll Be Seeing You, directed by William Dieterle, was the first production of David O. Selznick's Vanguard Films, and he had hired Dore Schary to oversee the operation. Selznick gave Schary the go-ahead to make I'll Be Seeing You -- which had begun life as a radio play, Double Furlough, written by Charles Martin -- but in his autobiography, Schary claimed that the two men argued over various aspects of the picture's production. Schary claimed, for example, that originally Selznick didn't want Cotten to play the male lead, though he later relented. (For a time, Joan Fontaine was also being considered for the role of Mary.)
According to the film critic and historian Emmanuel Levy, there were other problems as well. Selznick was unhappy with a pivotal scene in the picture, in which Mary learns that Barbara has tattled to Zachary about her past. According to Levy, Selznick went to George Cukor, who was at that point working on Winged Victory, and asked him to direct a replacement scene, which Selznick himself had written. The original scene, as shot by Dieterle, had apparently involved tears and histrionics. Cukor was going for something more restrained, and when Temple first attempted the reworked scene, Cukor stopped her, shouting, "Where did you learn this business?" Oblivious, willfully or otherwise, to Temple's distress, he went further: "That's awful!"
Temple, Levy notes, begged Cukor to give her a few minutes so she could produce some real tears. "Give me five minutes and you'll get a good cry." "Cry, nothing," Cukor shot back. "I want emotion, not tears." After twelve takes, Cukor got what he wanted and put his arm around the actress, telling her she'd finally given him what he was looking for. But the experience rattled Temple, and she never forgot it.
It's easy to see why. Temple had been the biggest child star of the 1930s and at that point was making an awkward transition into more adult roles. (She would continue to work in films through the 1940s, before leaving acting altogether and becoming more active in politics, in the late 1960s.) But then, I'll Be Seeing You is a picture that's all about transitions. For one thing, it's an early example of the way Hollywood was attempting to grapple with the possible after-effects of World War II, looking ahead to the point at which the nation's servicemen would return home, many of them facing difficult transitions. The finest and most sensitive of these pictures may be William Wyler's 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives. But I'll Be Seeing You, made two years earlier, deserves credit for taking those first steps into the thorny territory of postwar adjustment. If the picture is a little awkward in places, there's also something heartfelt and earnest about the way it treats these two lonely characters, both of them hoping to reclaim their lives after suffering very different kinds of trauma.
The notoriously stuffy New York Times critic Bosley Crowther loved the picture, urging his readers to see it immediately: "This is a pressing recommendation that as many of you see it as can." He was particularly struck by Cotten's performance, writing, "He plays the shell-shocked veteran with supreme restraint and with a calm and determined independence that beautifully reveals his pain and pride."
Weighing in years later, Pauline Kael wasn't nearly as keen on the picture's merits: "This Selznick project originated in a radio play (by Charles Martin), and it may have sounded like a good movie idea. But oh, my!" She went on to cite certain details that bothered her, chiefly that Mary's aunt, uncle and cousin seem so fixated on her status as a convict "that one imagines that she'd have preferred to remain in the jug."
Well, maybe. But Rogers' performance equals the one given by Cotten, though it's very different. Her character is more reactive than proactive. But when Cotten suffers, she feels it - her face shows a kind of unforced empathy, as if she were reaching out to all the pain in him, finally giving an outlet to feelings that she'd never allow for herself.
Rogers, at this point, was also in a time of transition. She'd spent the 1930s as a breezy, fleet-footed wisecracker (and, of course, as Fred Astaire's perfect partner), but by the 1940s she was showing a gift for tougher, weightier roles as well. She knew how to keep melodramatic material from going comically over the top; in pictures like the 1940 Kitty Foyle (for which she won an Oscar®), she could be intensely moving without ever succumbing to sentimentality. That's a gift she also brings to I'll Be Seeing You. The picture may overstretch its boundaries in some ways. But it's also brushed with shadows of melancholy, a story about people facing radical personal challenges, even as their country is changing radically, if quietly, around them.
Producer: Dore Schary, David O. Selznick (uncredited)
Director: William Dieterle, George Cukor (uncredtied)
Screenplay: Marion Parsonnet, Charles Martin (play)
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Film Editing: William H. Ziegler, Holbrook N. Todd (uncredited)
Cast: Ginger Rogers (Mary Marshall), Joseph Cotten (Zachary Morgan), Shirley Temple (Barbara Marshall), Spring Byington (Mrs. Marshall), Tom Tully (Mr. Marshall), John Derek (Lt. Bruce), Chill Wills (Swanson).
The New York Times
Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982
Emmanuel Levy, www.emanuellevy.com/comment/ill-be-seeing-you-cukor-directs-shirley-temple-6/
Patricia King Hanson, Amy Dunkleberger, American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States; Feature Films 1941-1950 Indexes, Volume 2, University of California Press, 1999