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12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS FILMS | Day 1: «I'll Be Seeing You» (1944)

Directed by William Dieterle, I'll Be Seeing You (1944) tells the story of two strangers, Mary Marshall (Ginger Rogers) and Sergeant Zachary Morgan (Joseph Cotten), who meet while seated across from each other on a train bound for a town called Pine Hill. Mary is serving a six-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter and has been given a special eight-day furlough to spend the Christmas holidays with her closest relatives, Uncle Henry (Tom Tully), Aunt Sarah (Spring Byington) and free-spirited cousin Barbara (Shirley Temple). Zachary, a shell-shocked soldier, is on a ten-day leave from a psychiatric hospital to try to readjust to normal daily life. Naturally, neither one shares their secret with the other: Mary pretends that she is a travelling saleslady, while Zach claims he is going to visit his sister.
After the train pulls into the station, they exchange names and Mary takes a taxi to the Marshall home. Meanwhile, Zach checks into the local YMCA and telephones Mary, who then invites him to her family's house for dinner. Later that night, Mary discovers that Barbara has labeled all her possessions. Realizing that her cousin distrusts her, Mary reveals the reason for her imprisonment: while working as a secretary, she accidentally killed her drunken boss when he made aggressive and unwanted sexual advances towards her.
Mary, I know I'm going to get well. I've got plans, too, lots of them. I know I'm going to stay well, too, because you figure in all my plans. You've got to figure in them because, without you, I'm back where I started. I'm sunk. (Zachary Morgan)
The following day, Zach invites Mary for a walk and opens up about his traumatic war experiences. They spend the next few days together and begin to fall in love, though Mary is still reluctant to tell him about her past. On the day they are both scheduled to leave, Zach goes to the Marshall home to say goodbye to Mary and learns from Barbara (not knowing the soldier is unaware of the truth) the details of her cousin's prison sentence. Mary senses that something is wrong when Zach suddenly becomes distant and silently boards the train. Upon returning home from the station, Mary discovers that Barbara has revealed her secret and collapses, weeping. But that night, as Mary approaches the gates of the state prison, Zach suddenly appears and embraces her, declaring his love and promising that he will wait for her to be released.

After winning an Oscar with his screenplay for Boys Town (1938), Dore Schary became one of the most important contract writers at MGM in the early 1940s. Impressed with his ideas about improving their low-budget output, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer decided to sign Schary to a one-year contract as executive producer and put him in charge of the studio's B-picture unit. With the success of Journey for Margaret (1942), Lassie Come Home (1943) and Bataan (1943), the unit began making more money than Metro's A-films, which satisfied Mayer enough to raise Schary's salary twice in two years. By late 1943, Schary was eager to personally produce A-class pictures, but, despite Mayer's assurances, he was not optimistic about that possibility at MGM.
Dore Schary with Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten during production of I'll Be Seeing You
Meanwhile, independent producer David O. Selznick was finally returning to active filmmaking after three years of absence. Selznick already had two prestige-level projects in the works, Since You Went Away (1944) and Spellbound (1945), and he wanted Schary to produce modest A-class pictures through his production company, Vanguard Films, to complement his own high-quality features. Schary promptly agreed, signing on in November 1943 for $2,500 per week plus 15 percent of the net profits on all his Vanguard releases.

A few weeks after closing the deal, Selznick approved Schary's first project for Vanguard: a screen adaptation of an original radio drama called Double Furlough. Written by Charles Martin, the story centered on a shell-shock victim who, while home for Christmas, falls in love with a woman on holiday furlough from prison. The drama was broadcasted some time in late 1943 and starred James Cagney and Gertrude Lawrence as the two lovers, Zachary Morgan and Mary Marshall.
Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten in I'll Be Seeing You
In December 1943, it was announced that Joan Fontaine and Joseph Cotten, both under exclusive contract to Selznick, would play Zach and Mary in the film. Two months later, however, Fontaine was forced to withdraw from the project due to previous commitments and Schary then convinced Selznick to bring in freelancer Ginger Rogers to replace her. After the completion of Tom, Dick and Harry (1941), directed by Garson Kanin for RKO, Rogers had decided to freelance between the various studios, a risky undertaking before the 1950s. Luckily, the gamble paid off and she became the highest-paid film actress in the mid-1940s. 
Completing the trio of lead actors was 16-year-old Shirley Temple, who was also appearing with Cotten in Since You Went Away. Temple had been Hollywood's biggest child star of the 1930s, appearing in such hits as Curly Top (1935) and Wee Willie Winkie (1937). However, as she transitioned into her teens, she struggled to find suitable roles and her films began to lose money, leading to her being named «Box-Office Poison» by the Independent Theatre Owners Association. In mid-1943, following almost two years of being away from the screen and a failed comeback attempt at MGM, Temple was signed by Selznick to a personal four-year contract, but he quickly lost interest in developing her career. Instead, he loaned her out to other studios and the quality of her pictures, as well as her popularity, dropped considerably. In December 1950, at the age of 22, Temple announced her retirement from films to dedicate herself to her growing family.

Joseph Cotten and Shirley Temple in a publicity still for I'll Be Seeing You
After William Dieterle replaced original director John Cromwell, shooting commenced in late March 1944 at the Selznick Studios in Culver City. Exteriors scenes were shot at Big Bear Lake, the RKO Ranch and the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, California.
Selznick was displeased with Dieterle's direction of a pivotal scene in the picture, in which Barbara confesses to Mary that she told Zach about her past. Reportedly, Selznick wrote a replacement scene and hired George Cukor to direct it. The original sequence, as shot by Dieterle, had apparently been overly melodramatic and Cukor was envisioning something more restrained. When Temple first attempted to rework the scene, Cukor called her performance «awful.» She begged Cukor to give her a few minutes so she could deliver him «a good cry,» but the director shouted, «I want emotion, not tears.» After twelve takes, Cukor got what he wanted and put his arm around Temple, telling her she had finally given him what he was looking for. 
Ginger Rogers and Shirley Temple on the set of I'll Be Seeing You

At one point during production, Schary suggested that Selznick change the title of the picture to «I'll Be Seeing You,» after hearing Bing Crosby's rendition of the Sammy Frain-Irving Kahal popular song of the same name. Although Selznick was apprehensive of the original war-related title «Double Furlough,» he still balked at the suggestion. However, when «I'll Be Seeing You» reached number-one in the American charts in early July 1944, Selznick decided to assign George Gallup's Audience Research Institute (ARI) to market-test the title. ARI's research supported the change and so the film was released just before the Christmas holidays under the title I'll Be Seeing You. By then, the song had become a wartime standard and its use as both a title and a musical theme undoubtedly enhanced the film's popularity.
Distributed by United Artists, I'll Be Seeing You was a huge commercial success upon release in December 1944, with total earnings reaching $3.8 million. Reviews were generally favorable as well. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, for instance, praised to film for dealing with the «most urgent» drama of the returning war veteran in a «sane and affecting way.» He was particularly impressed 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.» In addition, Crowther commented that Ginger Rogers was «altogether moving as the girl likewise injured by fate,» but lamented that her role was «plainly fashioned for reflection and counterpoint

Joseph Cotten and Ginger Rogers as Zachary and Mary

Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s by Thomas Schatz (University of California Press, 1997)
Christmas at the Movies: Images of Christmas in American, British and European Cinema edited by Mark Connelly (Bloomsbury Academic, 2000)
Ginger Rogers: A Bio-Bibliography by Jocelyn Farris (Greenwood Press, 1994)
TCM's articles on I'll Be Seeing You
TCM's notes on I'll Be Seeing You
Article on The Montreal Gazette (December 25, 1943)
The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther


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