Monday, 14 December 2015

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

Theatrical release poster
Directed by William Dieterle, I'll Be Seeing You (1944) tells the story of two strangers, Mary Marshall (Ginger Rogers) and Sgt. Zachary Morgan (Joseph Cotten), who meet while seated across from each other on a train bound for 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.

Upon reaching their destination, 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 finds 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 boss when he made agressive and unwanted sexual advances. The following day, Zach invites Mary for a walk and opens up with her 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 that they are both scheduled to leave, Zach goes to the Marshall home to say goodbye to Mary. While alone with Zach, Barbara inadvertently tells him the details of Mary'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 returns to prison, Zach suddenly appears and embraces her, declaring his love and promising that he will wait for her to be released.

Zachary Morgan: 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.

After winning an Academy Award for his screenplay for Norman Traurog's Boys Town (1938), Dore Schary became one of the most important contract writers at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 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-products, which satisfied Mayer enough to raise Schary's salary twice in two years. By late 1943, however, Schary was eager to personally produce A-class pictures and, despite Mayer's assurances, he was not optimistic about that possibility at MGM.

Meanwhile, independent producer David O. Selznick was finally returning to active filmmaker 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 Vanguard Films to complement his own high-quality productions. 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 later, Selznick approved Schary's first project for Vanguard: a screen adaptation of an original radio drama called Double Furlough, the story two social outcasts on Christmas furlough who meet and fall in love over the holidays. Written by Charles Martin, the drama was broadcasted on Christmas 1943 and starred James Cagney and Gertrude Lawrence as Zachary Morgan and Mary Marshall.

Joseph Cotten and Ginger Rogers
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 withdrew 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), The Littlest Rebel (1935) and Wee Willie Winkie (1937). As she transitioned into her teens, however, 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. 

Cotten and Temple in a publicity still
After William Dieterle replaced original director John Cromwell, shooting commenced in late March 1944 at the Selznick Studios in Culver City, with exteriors 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.

Joseph Cotten and Ginger Rogers
At one point during production, Schary suggested that Selznick change to 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," be balked at the suggestion. When "I'll Be Seeing You" reached number-one in the American charts in early July 1944, however, 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 huge commercial success upon its release in December 1944, with total earning 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

Although a mood of uncertainty and anxiety over the future is inherent in the story, I'll Be Seeing You still looks forward to the post-war period and all its possibilities. Instead of referencing contemporary events or war issues, the film emphasizes "the home and the readjustment of both men and women from wartime lives beyond the home to peacetime lives within it." The rural Texas setting evokes a revered concept of the traditional lifestyle and the rituals of Christmas enhance the atmosphere of tradition and constancy. As Mary tells Zach during their walk alongside a nearby lake, the dry landscape and cool weather are reminiscent of "the country where they celebrated the first Christmas." In I'll Be Seeing You, the experience of Christmas proves to be a liberating and therapeutic one for both Mary and Zach. The feeling of "togetherness" found in the Marhsall household during the holidays reaffirms the values of home and family and reassures these two troubled individuals that one day they can enjoy a happy life together. 

Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s by Thomas Schatz (1997) | Christmas at the Movies: Images of Christmas in American, British and European Cinema edited by Mark Connelly (2000) | Ginger Rogers: A Bio-Bibliography by Jocelyn Farris (1994) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | Article on The Montreal Gazette | The New York Times review

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