This unusually sensitive, overlooked WW2 romance skips the morale-boosting baloney of the day. Two people meet on a train, each with a personal shame they dare not speak of. Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten are excellent under William Dieterle’s direction, and Shirley Temple doesn’t do half the damage you’d think she might.
I’ll Be Seeing You
KL Studio Classics
1944 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 85 min. / Street Date November 21, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Ginger Rogers, Joseph Cotten, Shirley Temple, Spring Byington, John Derek, Tom Tully, Chill Wills, Kenny Bowers.
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Film Editor: William H. Zeigler
Special Effects: Jack Cosgrove
Original Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Stunt Double: Cliff Lyons
Written by Marion Parsonette from a play by Charles Martin
Produced by Dore Schary
Directed by William Dieterle
Aha! A little research explains why several late-’40s melodramas from David O. Selznick come off as smart productions, unencumbered by the heavy Selznick Touch: the master showman co-produced them with Dore Schary, a writer and uncredited producer fresh from MGM. Selznick profited from multiple productions that employed his contractees — he wanted a producer in his stable, to go with his lucrative string of actors and directors.
In his published memos Selznick claims that he was happy with the collaboration, after being warned that Schary was ‘one of those social issue guys.’ Their first project together began as a radio play called Double Furlough. When Selznick’s creative notes became longer than the script, the partnership almost broke up. Selznick micromanaged many of his projects to death, and held the idea that anybody who rejects his sacred production notes must be a heretic. But Schary must have been quite a negotiator — Selznick reported that the junior partner made such an excellent impression that the kingpin producer left him alone. Just the same, when Schary finished Selznick re-edited the film. He claimed that Schary was enthusiastic about the changes, which demonstrated David O.’s supposed superior judgment and taste. Whatever the truth was, the collaboration produced some good picture: The Spiral Staircase, Till the End of Time, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and The Farmer’s Daughter.
Double Furlough became I’ll Be Seeing You when Selznick bought the 1938 song and appropriated its title. With its theme of sentimental separation, the song pegs the movie as an emotional memento of the wartime years. A more typical wartime home front saga is the Eleanor Parker picture The Very Thought of You, which also borrowed an emotional pop song (from 1934) as its title. The Ginger Rogers/Joseph Cotten romance has an atypical ‘dark’ aspect that gives it superficial similarities to two Barbara Stanwyck films. 1940’s Remember the Night is a fine sentimental romance about a lady thief who ends up spending Christmas with a rustic family. The much later No Man of Her Own sees Stanwyck becoming part of a family under false pretenses. I’ll Be Seeing You has one angle that is indeed novel — it’s a ‘Dore Schary tolerance special,’ dramatizing social issue elements of the kind that would later become Stanley Kramer’s speciality.
Mary Marshall and Sgt. Zachary Morgan (Ginger Rogers & Joseph Cotten) meet on a train and seem compatible; when Mary gets off at the small town of Pine Hill, she’s happy that it is his destination as well. Mary has come for a Christmas visit with the Marshalls, her aunt (Spring Byington), uncle (Tom Tully) and niece Barbara (Shirley Temple). As he promised, Zach phones and is invited to dinner. But each has withheld important personal information. Mary is a convicted felon on a ten-day prison leave for Christmas, earned with good behavior. Zach is also on a ten-day furlough. Although he looks normal, he’s a new kind of walking wounded, recovered from his combat injuries yet confined to a hospital for shell shock and battle fatigue. She’s afraid he’ll be repulsed by her legal status, as she has three more years to serve. He’s aware of the stigma that comes with his condition, and is worried that he’ll suffer one of his debilitating anxiety attacks. The two lonely people fall very much in love. But how will each break the news, and what will be the consequences?
A somewhat downbeat wartime romance, I’ll Be Seeing You hasn’t much of a reputation yet is quite an accomplished picture. The story plays on an intimate scale, and does its best to avoid high dramatics. Instead we have two wounded people that want to be positive about their lives, but have grave doubts that they will be accepted in society. If Mary’s status became known to everyone in town, she’d surely run away. Zach is fearful that some upset will cause him to have an anxiety fit. An ex-athlete, he now feels un-coordinated, uncomfortable in his own body. If he hadn’t found Mary, he might have spent his furlough riding on trains and feeling more lonely.
Considering that I’ll Be Seeing You is a glossy romance with big stars, its concentration on ordinary things is impressive. Mary and the Marshalls are shown cleaning house, not the usual thing for a Selznick picture. The sensitive script is given careful direction by William Dieterle, who lets us discover things for ourselves. We don’t know Mary’s exact status until she’s greeted by her aunt. When Zach comes to dinner, he immediately confesses that his only reason to get off the train was to be with Mary. No words are exchanged, but Mary registers a definite discomfort. Was her first impression of Zach a big mistake? He might be a stalker, or a slick character that thinks she’s an easy conquest. We can almost see Mary thinking, ‘but I’m certainly hiding the truth from him as well.’ She goes with her initial instinct to trust him.
By 1944 stardom had finally come to Joseph Cotten at the ripe age of 39. He had scored in impressive roles for Alfred Hitchcock and George Cukor, not to mention in David O. Selznick’s own Since You Went Away. Ginger Rogers was reportedly a last-second replacement for actress Joan Fontaine; I don’t know the details on that. At the peak of her powers, Rogers was said to be Hollywood’s highest-paid actress. She had moved from one success to another, expanding her range far beyond her musical comedy roots with Fred Astaire. Although they are obviously two of the Beautiful People, both Cotten and Rogers were highly convincing when playing ordinary citizens. They’re individually likable, and make a interesting and hopeful couple.
Third-billed Shirley Temple fills out the picture’s power marquee. In his memos Selznick is impressed by Temple’s drawing power and publicity footprint, and barely mentions the other stars. Temple has a pleasant personality yet always seems to be performing. Her part has been built up to make her a precocious wartime teen anxious for adult romance, while the adults want her to remain a child. Her Barbara is likely an inspiration for some of the comedy in 1941, much of which was researched directly from Hollywood pictures. Barbara considers flirting to be patriotic because it’s showing the soldiers a good time. At one point she refers to a low neckline as a ‘morale builder,’ which sounds very Zemeckis & Gale.
Barbara is believably immature in that she can’t disguise her discomfort with the fact that her cousin is a jailbird. One of the film’s best details shows Mary discovering that Barbara has separated and labeled all of their personal space, so they won’t have to share a hand towel or closet slot. Barbara figures strongly in the third act, and credibly so — the adults should have expected this girl to blab out the wrong thing at the wrong time. To the film’s credit this isn’t made into a character flaw, even though non-Temple fans might think the proper reaction would be to clobber the idiot Barbara with a shovel.
The story’s twin ‘Dore Schary’ issues are illuminated through special sequences. Mary’s back story is a little awkward. As she explains to Barbara how she became a criminal, we see a narrated flashback in which a younger Mary is tricked by her boss into a compromising situation in his apartment. She fends off his rape attempt, she pushes him away and he falls fourteen floors. Although she’s a thousand percent innocent, her guilty verdict for manslaughter seems to have been a foregone conclusion. The movie takes place in 1944, not in 2017 when the daily news has been dominated by a backlash against sexual harassment and abuse. Mary would have likely been tried before a mostly male jury, in a climate that assumed that attractive women are asking to be assaulted, and are therefore guilty of whatever happens.
This is all okay except that Mary and even the Marshalls seem to have accepted her guilt. I suppose that if Mary spent the first three years of her sentence proclaiming her innocence, she’d not have received a good conduct furlough. If I were unjustly convicted, I might soon come ’round to accepting the lie, so as not to live in a state of constant rage. I’ll Be Seeing You is perhaps too much like real life on this score — in movies we don’t like it when people have no recourse to injustice. This isn’t a film noir, but this psychological anxiety does push the film’s outlook further toward the dark.
An extraneous sidebar? It’s curious to me that the particulars of Mary’s crazy crime flashback perfectly match a sleazy scene in a 1950s experimental horror picture, Dementia. Both scenes are stylized without dialogue. A similar rich guy escorts a woman to his ritzy apartment, tries to rape her, and ends up taking a multi-story plunge to the street. The woman is presumed to be at fault in the horror movie as well: “Guilty, guilty, guilty!”
The presentation of Sgt. Zach’s malady is beautifully done. Joseph Cotten deftly suggests the nagging worry and discomfort behind Zach’s good looks and gentle manners. His character arc is therapeutic in that continued contact with Mary encourages him to speak about the things that bother him. Zach’s expression of the claustrophobia of combat definitely helps him open up. But he’s so jumpy that, after a faux pas on the street, he just leaves Mary in the dark, without explaining why. He bails out of a coffee shop the moment that the proprietor (a skinny Chill Wills) corners him with his own noisy combat stories from WW1. Mary doesn’t reject Zach out of hand because she intuits that he’s a fellow outcast.
These scenes may seem mechanical but they really aren’t. Adults are often seeking a mate who can understand their problems and personal histories, and when the need is mutual and feelings sincere, the door opens to a closer relationship. Mary and Zach’s conflicts are internal, and more credible than the usual melodramatics that bring screen lovers together.
Some WW2 dramas showed soldiers cracking up under stress, but the verdict is usually that they didn’t have The Right Stuff. I’ll Be Seeing You is a very early example of the liberal understand-the-veteran’s-plight drama, a theme that came unto its own in such big pictures as The Best Years of Our Lives and Schary’s own Till the End of Time. But here we share one of Zach’s psychotic episodes, in a way that foretells John Huston’s documentary Let There Be Light. Zach successfully fends off a dog attack — even Mary remarks on how well he does this, after he claims he’s lost all ability to act under pressure. But he suffers a violent delayed reaction, which Schary and Dieterle express by cinematic means, image and sound. The POV becomes alienating and distorted as Zach tries to talk himself out of his anxiety attack, sweating and shivering. He’s likely happy that he’s alone, as if an episode like this happened in public the stigma would be overpowering. Cotten’s radio expertise really helps — the stream of consciousness narration is excellent.
Although Dore Schary isn’t a salt of the earth type, his instincts are more proletarian than those of David O. Selznick, whose personal production Since You Went Away places its lonely war wife in a veritable mansion. The attitudes are egalitarian, but wartime shortages don’t seem to be a problem. That housewife even has a maid, who all but offers to work for free. The Marshalls aren’t really suffering either, but they live in much less tony surroundings. Yet Pop Marshall must have a good job, for his wife can splurge on expensive holiday party dresses for Barbara, and even Mary. Is this nod to glamour a Selznick contribution? Schary’s usual vision of average America was much lower on the social scale than that of Selznick. But that openminded attitude could be condescending as well, as seen in Schary’s later ‘ordinary Joe’ fantasy The Next Voice You Hear.
The ‘ordinary’ Spring Byington does a lot of the hard work making the setting credible; Mrs. Marshall’s matter of fact reaction to Mary’s legal status is simple and sane. Likewise, Tom Tully’s Uncle has full acceptance of Mary’s criminal status. Neither supporting character seems harmed by the Selzick / Schary ‘little people’ condescension factor.
We’re told that when Schary turned in his cut, Selznick wasn’t satisfied that Shirley Temple’s scenes were big enough. When he re-edited the picture he brought in George Cukor to redo some of her shots. The slight imbalance with the Shirley Temple material and the partial disconnect with the issue of Mary’s guilt still stick out slightly, but overall I think the movie works. The final scene is, I think, perfectly representative of what happens to people in real life. Any of us can get bonked between the eyes by information we can’t process, that leads us to make a bad decision. But with a little thought, most of us know how to make amends. It goes without saying that if you like the stars I’ll Be Seeing You is going to be a good experience. It engenders a good feeling about people, and by my definition that puts it far in positive territory.
For a differing opinion on I’ll Be Seeing You, here’s an older Stuart Galbraith review.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of I’ll Be Seeing You is a good, if not stellar encoding of this interesting romance, a muted mystery and social issue thriller that’s quite advanced for its era. The show seems in fine shape and the HD transfer is stable and clear, if not tuned to optimum sharpness — like the other Selznick releases hitting BD this fall, it appears that new transfers were done of un-optimized film elements.
A selection of trailers is included, along with a commentary from writers Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan, who dispense filmography facts along with thoughts and opinions about the social and artistic intent and meaning in the picture, some of which is good. The track treats the movie as something of a study item, which is valid.
The pop romantic ballad I’ll Be Seeing You is now a novelty, as the generation of adults that encountered the movie new are now all but faded from the scene. It’s yet another example of the lost world of melodic beauty in pop music. Now we’re left mostly with power vocals and rap aggression, and melody seems to be extinct. It’s not difficult to become nostalgic for my parents’ generation, despite its completely different set of problems and injustices.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I’ll Be Seeing You
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very good
Supplements:Audio commentary by Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan, trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 2, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson