Skip to main content

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

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 maid, Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel), who is still willing to keep on working for free, and taking in a boarder, the retired Colonel William G. Smollett (Monty Woolley). In contrast, their cynical socialite neighbour, Emily Hawkins (Agnes Moorehead), complains about the inconveniences caused by the war and criticizes the Hiltons' efforts and patriotism.

Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple in Since You Went Away.
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 to reunite with his family.

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. (Anne Hilton)

The extraordinary success of Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940) turned David O. Selznick into the most important independent producer in Hollywood. However, in the three years after winning two consecutive Academy Awards for Best Picture, he struggled to find a project that would match the triumph of his two previous productions.

The popularity of MGM's Mrs. Miniver (1942), set in rural England in the early days of World War II, 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 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 and the difficulties of raising two daughters without the influence of a father.
LEFT: Producer David O. Selznick c. 1935. MIDDLE: Original book cover of Since You Went Away. RIGHT: Jennifer Jones reading Since You Went Away.
Seeing potential in the material, Selznick purchased the rights to Since You Went Away in early 1943, just before it was published 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 wider spectrum of American society and introducing new characters. Selznick also raised the social class of the Hiltons 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 brought in to polish Selznick's script with a broader development of the youngest daughter. Wilder tried to get a writing credit, but she was rejected by the Screen Writers Guild; Selznick ultimately took lone credit for the screenplay as «the producer.»

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 and decided against her casting. He then considered Ann Harding, Irene Dunne, Helen Hayes and Rosalind Russell, before settling 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.
Joseph Cotten and Claudette Colbert in Since You Went Away.
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, in which he starred opposite 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 Oscar 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 Woolley as the retired Colonel Smollett, Bill's grandfather; and Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel as the Hiltons' loyal maid.
LEFT: Jennifer Jones and Robert Walker. RIGHT: Shirley Temple and Claudette Colbert.
Production on Since You Went Away began on September 8, 1943. Early in the filming process, Walker was returning home from the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 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.» The young couple ended up divorcing in 1945 and Jones married Selznick in 1949.
LEFT: Jennifer Jones and Claudette Colbert during a break from filming. RIGHT: Claudette Colbert and Joseph Cotten on the set of Since You Went Away.
According to director John Cromwell, 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 immensely, describing her as «one of the most complete, humorous, hard-working, and delightfully, almost shockingly, honest creatures I have ever worked with

To lend an air of authenticity to his drama, Selznick sent five different units to film background shots of hospitalized soldiers, labourers at the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California, as well as the Red Cross workers. In addition, he hired twenty female steel-burners and nine tons of welding tools from the Wilmington Shipyard in North Carolina 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 MGM's Stage 13, complete with solid walls and ceilings, and even its own street. Art director Mark-Lee Kirk designed the traditional interior décor.
Original release posters for Since You Went Away.
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 initial 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 queues 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 (Woolley) 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 Hollywood by Nathan Platte (Oxford University Press, 2018)
The Films of Agnes Moorehead by Axel Nissen (Scarecrow Press, 2013)
Vanity Will Get You Nowhere: An Autobiography by Joseph Cotten (toExcel Press, 2000)
Since You Went Away at the American Film Institute Catalog


  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.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Golden Couples: Gary Cooper & Patricia Neal

It was April 1948 when director King Vidor spotted 22-year-old Patricia Neal on the Warner Bros. studio lot. A drama graduate from Northwestern University, she had just arrived in Hollywood following a Tony Award-winning performance in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest . Impressed by Patricia's looks, Vidor approached the young actress and asked if she would be interested in doing a screen test for the female lead in his newest film, The Fountainhead (1949). Gary Cooper had already signed as the male protagonist, and the studio was then considering Lauren Bacall and Barbara Stanwyck to play his love interest.          Neal liked the script and about two months later, she met with the director for sound and photographic tests. Vidor was enthusiastic about Patricia, but her first audition was a complete disaster. Cooper was apparently watching her from off the set and he was so unimpressed by her performance that he commented, « What's that!? » He tried to con

Golden Couples: Henry Fonda & Barbara Stanwyck

In the mid- and late 1930s, screwball comedy was in vogue and practically every actress in Hollywood tried her hand at it. Barbara Stanwyck never considered herself a naturally funny person or a comedienne per se , but after delivering a heart-wrenching performance in King Vidor's Stella Dallas (1937), she decided she needed a « vacation » from emotional dramas. In her search for a role, she stumbled upon a « champagne comedy » called The Mad Miss Manton (1938), originally intended as a Katharine Hepburn vehicle. Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda as Melsa and Peter in The Mad Miss Manton .   Directed by Leigh Jason from a script by Philip G. Epstein, The Mad Miss Manton begins when vivacious Park Avenue socialite Melsa Manton finds a corpse while walking her dogs in the early hours of the morning. She calls the police, but they dismiss the incident — not only because Melsa is a notorious prankster, but also because the body disappears in the meantime. Sarcastic newspaper editor

Films I Saw in 2020

For the past four years, I have shared with you a list of all the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 and 2019 , so I thought I would continue the «tradition» and do it again in 2020. This list includes both classic and «modern» films, which make up a total of 161 titles. About three or four of these were re-watches, but I decided to include them anyway. Let me know how many from these you have seen. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favorites. Sherlock Jr. (1924) | Starring Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire and Joe Keaton The Crowd (1928) | Starring James Murray, Eleanor Boardman and Bert Roach Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) | Starring Henry Fonda, Alice Brady and Marjorie Weaver Brief Encounter (1945) | Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard and Stanley Holloway The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) | Starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman The Girl He Left Behind (1956) | Starring Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood Gidget (1959) | Starring Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson an

Wings of Change: The Story of the First Ever Best Picture Winner

Wings was the first ever film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Since then, it has become one of the most influential war dramas, noted for its technical realism and spectacular air-combat sequences. This is the story of how it came to be made.   A man and his story The concept for Wings originated from a writer trying to sell one of his stories. In September 1924, Byron Morgan approached Jesse L. Lasky, vice-president of Famous Players-Lasky, a component of Paramount Pictures, proposing that the studio do an aviation film. Morgan suggested an «incident and plot» focused on the failure of the American aerial effort in World War I and the effect that the country's «aviation unpreparedness» would have in upcoming conflicts. Lasky liked the idea, and approved the project under the working title «The Menace.»   LEFT: Byron Morgan (1889-1963). RIGHT: Jesse L. Lasky (1880-1958).   During his development of the scenario with William Shepherd, a former war correspondent, Morga

80 Reasons Why I Love Classic Films (Part II)

I started this blog six years ago as a way to share my passion for classic films and Old Hollywood. I used to watch dozens of classic films every month, and every time I discovered a new star I liked I would go and watch their entire filmography. But somewhere along the way, that passion dimmed down. For instance, I watched 73 classic films in 2016, and only 10 in 2020. The other day, I found this film with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. that I had never heard of — the film is Mimi (1935), by the way — and for some reason it made me really excited about Old Hollywood again. It made me really miss the magic of that era and all the wonderful actors and actresses. And it also made me think of all the reasons why I fell in love with classic films in the first place. I came with 80 reasons, which I thought would be fun to share with you. Most of them are just random little scenes or quirky little quotes, but put them together and they spell Old Hollywood to me. Yesterday I posted part one ; here i

Top 10 Favourite Christmas Films

Christmas has always been a source of inspiration to many artists and writers. Over the years, filmmakers have adapted various Christmas stories into both movies and TV specials, which have become staples during the holiday season all around the world. Even though Christmas is my favourite holiday, I haven't watched a lot of Christmas films. Still, I thought it would be fun to rank my top 10 favourites, based on the ones that I have indeed seen. Here they are.  10. Holiday Affair (1949) Directed by Don Hartman, Holiday Affair tells the story of a young widow (Janet Leigh) torn between a boring attorney (Wendell Corey) and a romantic drifter (Robert Mitchum). She's engaged to marry the boring attorney, but her son (Gordon Gebert) likes the romantic drifter better. Who will she choose? Well, we all know who she will choose.   Holiday Affair is not by any means the greatest Christmas film of all time, but it's still a very enjoyable Yule-tide comedy to watch over the holi

The Gotta Dance! Blogathon: Gene Kelly & Judy Garland

In 1940, up-and-coming Broadway star Gene Kelly was offered the lead role in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's new musical Pal Joey , based on the eponymous novel by John O'Hara about an ambitious and manipulative small-time nightclub performer. Opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Christmas Day of that year, the show brought Gene his best reviews up to that date. For instance, John Martin of The New York Times wrote of him: «A tap-dancer who can characterize his routines and turn them into an integral element of an imaginative theatrical whole would seem to be pretty close, indeed, to unique .»   One of Gene's performances in Pal Joey was attended by established Hollywood star Judy Garland , who requested to meet him after the show. Gene agreed and then accompanied Judy and her entourage, which included her mother Ethel and several press agents, to dinner at the newly-opened Copacabana nightclub, at 10 East 60th Street. They sang and danced until 3 a.m., after whi

Films I Saw in July & August

In the past five years, I shared a year-end list of the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 , 2019 and 2020 . For 2021, I decided to do this monthly and share a list of the films I saw during each month of the year. These are the films I saw in July and August, which make up a total of 18 titles. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favourites.   Resistance (2011) | Starring Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wlaschiha and Michael Sheen Siberian Education [Educazione siberiana] (2013) | Starring Arnas Fedaravi čius The Last of Robin Hood (2013) | Starring Kevin Kline and Dakota Fanning The Water Diviner (2014) | Starring Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko and Yılmaz Erdoğan Holding the Man (2015) | Starring Ryan Corr, Craig Stott and Anthony LaPaglia The Last King [Birkebeinerne] (2016) | Starring Jakob Oftebro and Kristofer Hivju The Pass (2016) | Starring Russell Tovey and Arinzé Kene Access All Areas (2017) | Starring Ella Purnell, Edward Bluemel and Georgie Henle

The Sinatra Centennial Blogathon: Frank Sinatra & Gene Kelly

  In January 1944, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer happened to see a young crooner by the name of Frank Sinatra perform at a benefit concert for The Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles. According to Nancy Sinatra, Frank's eldest daughter, Mayer was so moved by her father's soulful rendition of « Ol' Man River » that he made the decision right then and there to sign Frank to his studio. Sinatra had been on the MGM payroll once before, singing with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in the Eleanor Powell vehicle Ship Ahoy (1942), although it is very likely that Mayer never bothered to see that film. Now that Frank was «hot,» however, Metro made arrangements to buy half of his contract from RKO, with the final deal being signed in February of that year. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in  Anchors Aweigh Being a contract player at the studio that boasted «more stars than there are in the heavens» gave Frank a sudden perspective regarding his own talents as a film performer. The «g

Films I Saw in May & June

In the past five years, I shared a year-end list of the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 , 2019 and 2020 . For 2021, I decided to do this monthly and share a list of the films I saw during each month of the year. These are the films I saw in May and June, which make up a total of 16 titles. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favourites.   Pelle the Conqueror [Pelle Erobreren] (1987) | Starring Pelle Hvenegaard The Elementary School [ Obecná škola] (1991) | Starring Václav Jakoubek Female Agents [Les Femmes de l'ombre] (2008) | Starring Sophie Marceau Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe [Vor der Morgenröte] (2016) | Starring Josef Hader ❤ Cold War [Zimna wojna] (2018) | Starring Tomasz Kot, Joanna Kulig and Borys Szyc Dreamland (2019) | Starring Finn Cole, Margot Robbie, Travis Fimmel and Garrett Hedlund Mr Jones (2019) | Starring James Norton, Vanessa Kirby and Peter Sarsgaard Official Secrets (2019) | Starring Keira Knightley, Matt Smith an