Saturday, 8 September 2018

The Joseph Cotten Blogathon: «Since You Went Away» (1944)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Cromwell, Since You Went Away (1944) is set in 1943 and tells the story of Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert), an upper-middle-class housewife with two teenage daughters, Jane (Jennifer Jones) and Bridget «Brig» (Shirley Temple). After Anne's husband, Tim, enlists in the U.S. Army, the family must make sacrifices for the war effort, including food rationing; giving up the services of their loyal maid, Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel), who nevertheless is willing to keep on working for the Hiltons for free; and taking in a boarder, the retired Colonel William G. Smollett (Monty Wolley). In contrast, their cynical socialite neighbor, Emily Hawkins (Agnes Moorhead), complains about the inconveniences caused by the war and has no qualms in criticizing the Hiltons' efforts and patriotism.

In the meantime, an old friend of the Hiltons, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Tony Willett (Joseph Cotten), visits the family while awaiting his orders. Jane soon develops a crush on him, but he does not succumb to her flirting, as he as long been attracted to Anne. After Tony leaves, Jane begins a relationship with Colonel Smollett's grandson, Bill (Robert Walker), a corporal in the U.S. Army. They fall in love and he proposes to her right before being sent overseas. Following her graduation, Jane begins volunteering as a nurse's aide at the nearby military hospital, just as the Hiltons learn that Tim is missing in action. Some time later, they also receive word that Bill has been killed in Salerno, which leaves both Jane and Colonel Smollett devastated. Meanwhile, Anne herself decides to do more to serve her country and begins working as a welder in a shipyard. As the family, including Colonel Smollett, Tony and Fidelia, gather at the Hilton home on Christmas Eve, Anne is moved to tears after opening a gift Tim had left for her before his disappearance. She begins to sob, but then receives a cablegram by telephone informing her that Tim is safe and coming home.

Anne Hilton: Cry, darling. Cry your heart out. I won't try to tell you that you'll get over it soon, because it will take time  maybe a long time.

The extraordinary success of Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940) turned David O. Selznick into the most important independent producer in Hollywood. Over the next three years, however, he struggled to find a project that would match the triumph of his two Best Picture winners. The popularity of MGM's Mrs. Miniver (1942), set in rural England in the early days of World War II, finally inspired Selznick to look for a story about the American home front. Paramount story editor William Dozier suggested he consider Margaret Buell Wilder's wartime memoir Since You Went Away  Letters to a Soldier from His Wife, which had been published first in the Dayton Herald Journal and then in Ladies' Home Journal. The popular series of letters were based on those written by Wilder to her husband, serving overseas, and explored the loneliness and frustrations of women in the home front, as well as the difficulties of raising two teenage daughters without the influence of a father.

Seeing potential in the material, Selznick purchased the rights to Since You Went Away in early 1943, while it was awaiting publication as a book. He then brought Wilder to Hollywood to work on the adaptation, but ended up writing the screenplay himself, expanding the original outline to include a boarder spectrum of American society and introducing new characters. Selznick also raised the social class of the Hilton family to one of relative financial stability, despite the inclusion of a storyline where they take in a boarder to supplement their income. Veteran screenwriter F. Hugh Herbert was then brought in to polish Selznick's script with a broader development of the youngest daughter, Bridget «Brig» Hilton. Wilder tried to obtain a writing credit, but she was rejected by the Screen Writers Guild; Selznick ultimately took lone credit for the screenplay as «the producer.»

Joseph Cotten and Claudette Colbert
as Tony Willett and Anne Hilton
In the spring of 1943, stage actress Katharine Cornell wrote to Selznick expressing her enthusiasm over Wilder's book and her desire to play the role of the mother, Anne Hilton. While Selznick was flattered to have such a renowned performer interested in his project, he felt that she was not right for the role. He then considered Ann Harding, Irene Dunne, Helen Hayes and Rosalind Russell, before deciding on Claudette Colbert. About to turn forty, Colbert was initially uneasy about the assignment, feeling that she was too young to be playing the mother of two teenage daughters. After gossip columnist Hedda Hopper persuaded her to take the job, arguing that it would be a «good career move», she made an agreement with Selznick that allowed her total freedom to interpret the part as she saw fit.

For the role of Tony Willett, Selznick cast newcomer Joseph Cotten, known at the time for playing the reporter in Orson Welles's groundbreaking Citizen Kane (1941) and the murderous Uncle Charlie in Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943). A former drama critic, Cotten began his acting career on Broadway in the early 1930s, often working as part of Welles's Mercury Theatre company. Before Welles brought him to Hollywood, he achieved great success creating the role of C. K. Dexter Haven in the original stage production of Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story, starring Katharine Hepburn.

To play the eldest Hilton sister, Jane, Selznick selected newcomer Jennifer Jones, whose acclaimed performance in The Song of Bernadette (1943) would soon win her an Academy Award for Best Actress. The role of the younger sister, Brig, was given to former child star Shirley Temple, whom Selznick had recently brought out of «retirement» and signed to a seven-year contract. The supporting cast included Jones's husband, Robert Walker, as the ill-fated Corporal Bill Smollett; Cotten's Citizen Kane co-star Agnes Moorehead as the cynical Emily Hawkins, a role originally intended for actress and screenwriter Ruth Gordon; Monty Wolley as the curmudgeonly retired Colonel Smollett, Bill's grandfather; and Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel as the Hiltons' loyal maid, Fidelia.

Jennifer Jones and Robert Walker
Since You Went Away
Production on Since You Went Away began on September 8, 1943. Early in the filming, Walker was returning home from the MGM studios in Culver City when a car made a left turn in front of his motorcycle. He smashed into the car broadside and was thrown headlong into the road, landing on his head. Walker's safety helmet saved him from sustaining serious head injuries, but he was told by doctors that he would have to rest for a month while he recovered. The accident only added to Walker's unhappiness during the making of Since You Went Away, as his marriage to Jones was on the brink of collapse.

Walker and Jones married in January 1939, before either of them became a movie star. Two years later, Jones was «discovered» and signed by Selznick and the couple moved to Hollywood, with Walker securing a contract with MGM. Jones and Selznick soon began a secret love affair, which became evident on the set of Since You Went Away. Love scenes between the two actors were understandably torturous, as Selznick insisted that Walker perform take after take of each scene with Jones. Temple recalled working with an emotionally fragile Jones: «She always seemed to be suffering acutely, and her love scenes with Walker continued painful to witness, until Selznick mercifully rewrote him off to war and got him killed.» Jones and Walker divorced in 1945 and she married Selznick in 1949.

Director John Cromwell stated that Colbert posed no problems during filming, despite her initial reluctance to play Anne Hilton. However, both Selznick and Temple expressed their displeasure with the actress. Apparently, her demands included dictating camera angles and lighting on her face with an emphasis on the left side, so as to hide a scar that resulted from a childhood accident; three days vacation every month; and a refusal to work late on detailed scenes or close-ups. Cotten, on the other hand, enjoyed Colbert's company, calling her «one of the most complete, humorous, hard-working, and delightfully, almost shockingly, honest creatures I have ever worked with.»

Jennifer Jones, Claudette Colbert and Shirley Temple
To lend an air of authenticity to his drama, Selznick sent five different units to film background shots of hospitalized soldiers, laborers at the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California, as well as the Red Cross workers. In addition, he hired twenty female steelburners and nine tons of welding tools from the Wilmington Shipyard in order to lend verisimilitude to the shipyard scene in the film. The Hilton home, central to the story, was designed by William Pereira and built on Stage 13 complete with solid walls and ceilings and its own street. Art director Mark-Lee Kirk designed the traditional interior décor.

Filming finally wrapped on February 9, 1944, after 137 days. After its initial editing the film ran four and a half hours long. By early March 1944, Selznick had trimmed the picture to three hours twenty-eight minutes, but later that month he cut the film to three hours, ten minutes. After its intitial engagement, Selznick trimmed the film by another twenty-five minutes.

Since You Went Away premiered on July 20, 1944 and became the fourth most popular film of the year by the National Board of Review. Apparently, the lines at the film's New York opening were so long that the police ordered that the theater must open an hour-and-a-half before show time to prevent traffic jams. The film won Max Steiner an Academy Award for Best Original Score and earned nine addition nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Colbert), Best Supporting Actor (Wooley) and Best Supporting Actress (Jones).

This post is my contribution to The Joseph Cotten Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Maddy Loves Her Classic Films.
To view all entries to the blogathon, click HERE and HERE.

Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s by Thomas Schatz (University of California Press, 1999)
Jennifer Jones: The Life and Films by Paul Green (McFarland & Company Inc., 2011)
Making Music in Selznick's Hollywod by Nathan Platte (Oxford University Press, 2018)
The Films of Agnes Moorehead by Axel Nissen (Scarecrow Press, 2013)
Vanity Will Get You Nowerhere: An Autobiography by Joseph Cotten (toExcel Press, 2000)

1 comment:

  1. My grandmother loves this movie. In fact, she was the one who made me watch a lot of old motion pictures. When I was a child, whenever I spent the holidays at her place, we would enjoy these films regularly.