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Since You Went Away

Since You Went Away(1944)

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teaser Since You Went Away (1944)

Producer David O. Selznick waged war on the home front, with two offscreenmarriages as the casualties, in Since You Went Away (1944), his sprawling canvas of American life during wartime. He set out to outdo the grandeur of his classic Gone With the Wind (1939), and though he didn't quite succeed in that, he created a memorable view of life among the wives and children left behind during World War II. He also created thefirst of his great obsessive epics, proving that sometimes the producer canbe a film's auteur.

Selznick was looking for a project to follow his two-in-a-row Best PictureOscars® for Gone With the Wind and Rebecca (1940) when he cameacross Margaret Buell Wilder's novel, a series of letters written by a wifeto her husband off serving in the war. He brought Wilder to Hollywood towrite the screenplay, then sent her home when he decided he could do itbetter himself, leading her to appeal unsuccessfully to the Writer's Guildfor credit. On his own, Selznick had turned her series of incidents, inwhich the wife was the only fully defined character, into a contemporaryversion of a Dickens novel, filled with compelling characters and incidentsthat re-created the day-to-day life of a family keeping the home firesburning.

Stage star Katharine Cornell, who had only previously appeared on screen asherself in Stage Door Canteen (1943), campaigned for the leading role, butSelznick tactfully advised her that some of the day-to-day details mightseem too mundane for an actress of her stature. Instead, he choseClaudette Colbert, a proven fan favorite who wasn't afraid to play her ownage (38) as the mother of a 16-year-old. To add to the film's box-officeappeal and importance, he set out to assemble an all-name cast, calling itthe strongest since his own Dinner at Eight in 1933. In addition tohis own contract players Joseph Cotten (as Colbert's lifelong admirer) andShirley Temple (as her younger daughter), he cast Monty Woolley as aboarder they take in, Agnes Moorehead as Colbert's catty friend, LionelBarrymore as a minister and Hattie McDaniel as the family maid. He evenfound room for another stage legend, Russian diva Nazimova, who played afactory worker. In small roles, he cast two of his younger contractplayers, Guy Madison, in his film debut, and Rhonda Fleming. Former silentscreen heartthrob Neil Hamilton (later Commissioner Gordon on the TV seriesBatman) filmed scenes as Colbert's husband, but eventually they werecut, so that all that remained of him were photographs.

For the older daughter, who loses her first love to the war, he cast hisprotegee Jennifer Jones. She had just played her first important part onloan to 20th Century-Fox for The Song of Bernadette (1943), and Selznickwanted her to follow that spiritual role with a more down-to-earthcharacter. Thinking it would be good publicity, he cast Jones' husband,Robert Walker, as the serviceman she loves and loses. But though theyworked together well on-screen, offscreen it caused major problems.Selznick had been infatuated with Jones since he'd discovered her two yearsearlier during a New York talent search. For a while, they stayed onopposite coasts, as he kept her in New York to continue her acting lessons.When she came west for The Song of Bernadette, however, theystarted getting closer. He moved from mentor to lover during the filmingof Since You Went Away. At the same time, she and Walker decided toseparate, though they kept it out of the press for fear of tarnishing herimage as St. Bernadette. By the time they shot their big love scenes, hehad already moved out of their home. They didn't announce their divorceuntil the day after Jones won the Oscar® for The Song ofBernadette. Selznick would try to keep his own marriage together until1947.

Selznick hadn't started on the screenplay until August 1943, a month beforeshooting was due to start. For a while he even considered directing thefilm himself, but his advisors convinced him that he would beover-extending himself, so he hired John Cromwell; the latter was an expert at directingwomen who had worked for Selznick on The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and InName Only (1939). Still, everybody knew that Selznick was the real power onthe picture. For the first time, he insisted that no scene be shot untilhe had seen it rehearsed. Of course, that kept him busy when he could havebeen writing. As a result, he was finishing scenes barely in time to filmthem. And as he wrote, he added more characters and incidents so that thecast was never exactly sure what the plot was. He also took theopportunity to build Jones' role into a miniature showpiece, though henever took the focus entirely from Colbert. Selznick's meticulousattention to detail -- which included using his son's baby shoes as part ofthe set dressing and handwriting notes from the absent husband -- extendedshooting to an amazing five months.

What emerged was an epic soap opera (almost three hours in length) that hit home for wartimeaudiences to the tune of more than $7 million at the box office on a costof $3.257 million. The film scored nine Oscar® nominations --including Best Picture, Best Actress (Colbert), Best Supporting Actress(Jones) and Best Supporting Actor (Woolley) -- but only won for MaxSteiner's score. This was a disappointment for Selznick, who had hoped itwould be the highest-grossing film released since Gone With theWind. But he could take consolation in the quality on screen and aparticularly glowing personal notice from writer and frequent collaboratorBen Hecht: "The film rings out like a song of America. It's a panoramawith a heartbreak that will reach the theaters. You have wrangled on tothe screen the amiable and indestructible face of democracy." (InShowman: The Life of David O. Selznick by David Thomson, New York:Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).

Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: John Cromwell
Screenplay: David O. Selznick
Based on the novel by Margaret Buell Wilder
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez, Lee Garmes
Art Direction: William L. Pereira
Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Claudette Colbert (Anne Hilton), Jennifer Jones (JaneHilton), Joseph Cotten (Anthony Willett), Shirley Temple (Bridget "Brig"Hilton), Monty Woolley (Colonel Smollett), Lionel Barrymore (TheClergyman), Robert Walker (William G. Smollett II), Hattie McDaniel(Fidelia), Agnes Moorehead (Emily Hawkins), Guy Madison (Harold Smith),Keenan Wynn (Lt. Solomon), Nazimova (Zosia Koslowska), Dorothy Dandridge(Officer's Wife), Florence Bates (Dowager), Doodles Weaver (Convalescent),Albert Basserman (Dr. Sigmund Gottlieb Golden), Craig Stevens (Danny Williams),Ruth Roman (Envious Girl), Rhonda Fleming (Girl at Dance), John Derek(Extra), Neil Hamilton (Tim Hilton-Photograph).
BW-177m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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