Since You Went Away focuses on the Hilton family’s struggles after the man of the house has enlisted in the military for WWII. The suburban family consists of the mother, Anne (Claudette Colbert), two teenage daughters, older Jane (Jennifer Jones), younger whinier Bridget (Shirley Temple) and a bulldog who seems to have his own bassoon theme music. The ladies have a friendly black housemaid, Fedilia (Hattie McDaniel) and are regularly visited by their longtime friend Tony (Joseph Cotten), a naval officer. The daughters want to do what they can to help in this time of war, so Bridget suggests renting out a room to an officer in need. Jane, being seventeen full of girlish fantasies about older military men likes the idea, until old Colonel William G. Smollett (Monty Woolley) arrives as the new tenant. He quickly becomes the cranky old man of the household. When his grandson, Bill (Robert Walker), comes to visit to tell his grandfather that he’s in the army, we see a struggling relationship between grandfather and grandson. Bill and Jane become friends and eventually fall in love, but as most WWII home front dramas do, they are pulled apart by war just as their love is at its fullest. And to make sure the whole family is hurting, they are informed that Mr. Hilton is missing in action.
I’m sure back in 1944 this was a great film that touched the hearts of so many people living the struggles and tragedies these characters depict. There’s a great sense of pride in the military men and the younger women back home are willing to do their part to help the war efforts. Later in the film, Jane decides to put college off so she can help by being a nurse. She’s willing to sacrifice some of her upper-middle class lifestyle to help those in need and it makes Anne question what she can do. Surely she shouldn’t be like that snooty lady at church, Mrs. Hawkins (Agnes Moorehead), who acts like she is too good to help with any war aid or become a lady welder.
While this film is a great representation of the struggles and sacrifices families made, its sappy melodramatic style is very old and dated and may be very hard for today’s viewer to get into. Honestly, it feels like an episode of Leave it to Beaver at times, only with teenage girls and they can make petty drama out of anything. From Jane’s silly girl crush on Tony to Bridget’s fourteen going on nine demeanor, I could not take either of the daughters seriously. And Bill becomes little more than the sweet, shy boy who uses words like gee and swell too much.
Many will recognize the iconic train departure scene, not because of this film, but because of it’s parody in Airplane!. The parody does a great job playing off the dialogue and only replaces pillars with runway equipment. It’s cheesy enough to be a perfect gag in one of the greatest spoofs ever. If you can take the rest of the film seriously after that scene, you’re a stronger person than I am.
The film did win the Oscar for best music and I can see why. There is a lot of music and it all goes with the scenes very well, it swells and wanes with the rising and falling dramatics perfectly. It provides a great background for the trite small talk that we only need to half listen to. Then it strikes up perfectly on cue with the dramatic slam of a door. My absolute favorite moment was early in the film when Anne is to spend the first night with her husband gone. She’s in her bed looking worried and suddenly with a swipe of the harp and a quick swell of music she hops across the room into her husbands twin bed and cries.
Off the top of my head, I can think of two films of the forties that focus on families dealing with WWII on the home front that are much better than Since You Went Away: The Human Comedy and Mrs. Miniver. These films have both better quality acting and a more intriguing storyline. Unless you really want to kick back for three hours with some melodramatics that teeter on the edge of extra-cheesy, skip this and go with one of the other two.
“Cry, darling. Cry your heart out.”