Since You Went Away
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Producer David O. Selznick waged war on the home front, with two offscreen marriages 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 the first of his great obsessive epics, proving that sometimes the producer can be a film's auteur.
Selznick was looking for a project to follow his two-in-a-row Best Picture Oscars® for Gone With the Wind and Rebecca (1940) when he came across Margaret Buell Wilder's novel, a series of letters written by a wife to her husband off serving in the war. He brought Wilder to Hollywood to write the screenplay, then sent her home when he decided he could do it better himself, leading her to appeal unsuccessfully to the Writer's Guild for credit. On his own, Selznick had turned her series of incidents, in which the wife was the only fully defined character, into a contemporary version of a Dickens novel, filled with compelling characters and incidents that re-created the day-to-day life of a family keeping the home fires burning.
Stage star Katharine Cornell, who had only previously appeared on screen as herself in Stage Door Canteen (1943), campaigned for the leading role, but Selznick tactfully advised her that some of the day-to-day details might seem too mundane for an actress of her stature. Instead, he chose Claudette Colbert, a proven fan favorite who wasn't afraid to play her own age (38) as the mother of a 16-year-old. To add to the film's box-office appeal and importance, he set out to assemble an all-name cast, calling it the strongest since his own Dinner at Eight in 1933. In addition to his own contract players Joseph Cotten (as Colbert's lifelong admirer) and Shirley Temple (as her younger daughter), he cast Monty Woolley as a boarder they take in, Agnes Moorehead as Colbert's catty friend, Lionel Barrymore as a minister and Hattie McDaniel as the family maid. He even found room for another stage legend, Russian diva Nazimova, who played a factory worker. In small roles, he cast two of his younger contract players, Guy Madison, in his film debut, and Rhonda Fleming. Former silent screen heartthrob Neil Hamilton (later Commissioner Gordon on the TV series Batman) filmed scenes as Colbert's husband, but eventually they were cut, so that all that remained of him were photographs.
For the older daughter, who loses her first love to the war, he cast his protegee Jennifer Jones. She had just played her first important part on loan to 20th Century-Fox for The Song of Bernadette (1943), and Selznick wanted her to follow that spiritual role with a more down-to-earth character. Thinking it would be good publicity, he cast Jones' husband, Robert Walker, as the serviceman she loves and loses. But though they worked together well on-screen, offscreen it caused major problems. Selznick had been infatuated with Jones since he'd discovered her two years earlier during a New York talent search. For a while, they stayed on opposite coasts, as he kept her in New York to continue her acting lessons. When she came west for The Song of Bernadette, however, they started getting closer. He moved from mentor to lover during the filming of Since You Went Away. At the same time, she and Walker decided to separate, though they kept it out of the press for fear of tarnishing her image as St. Bernadette. By the time they shot their big love scenes, he had already moved out of their home. They didn't announce their divorce until the day after Jones won the Oscar® for The Song of Bernadette. Selznick would try to keep his own marriage together until 1947.
Selznick hadn't started on the screenplay until August 1943, a month before shooting was due to start. For a while he even considered directing the film himself, but his advisors convinced him that he would be over-extending himself, so he hired John Cromwell; the latter was an expert at directing women who had worked for Selznick on The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and In Name Only (1939). Still, everybody knew that Selznick was the real power on the picture. For the first time, he insisted that no scene be shot until he had seen it rehearsed. Of course, that kept him busy when he could have been writing. As a result, he was finishing scenes barely in time to film them. And as he wrote, he added more characters and incidents so that the cast was never exactly sure what the plot was. He also took the opportunity to build Jones' role into a miniature showpiece, though he never took the focus entirely from Colbert. Selznick's meticulous attention to detail -- which included using his son's baby shoes as part of the set dressing and handwriting notes from the absent husband -- extended shooting to an amazing five months.
What emerged was an epic soap opera (almost three hours in length) that hit home for wartime audiences to the tune of more than $7 million at the box office on a cost of $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 Max Steiner's score. This was a disappointment for Selznick, who had hoped it would be the highest-grossing film released since Gone With the Wind. But he could take consolation in the quality on screen and a particularly glowing personal notice from writer and frequent collaborator Ben Hecht: "The film rings out like a song of America. It's a panorama with a heartbreak that will reach the theaters. You have wrangled on to the screen the amiable and indestructible face of democracy." (In Showman: 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 (Jane Hilton), Joseph Cotten (Anthony Willett), Shirley Temple (Bridget "Brig" Hilton), Monty Woolley (Colonel Smollett), Lionel Barrymore (The Clergyman), 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