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November 21, 2017

Since You Went Away


John Cromwell - 1944
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The new blu-ray of Since You Went Away is the full roadshow version, complete with an Overture, an intermission and an Entr'acte. Almost three hours long, I'm pretty sure David O. Selznick was hoping to have another Gone with the Wind, albeit one about the civilians at home during World War II. The film, based on a novel published the year before, is epic length. Being topical, there are aspects that are dated, some painfully so, but there are also moments of astonishing visual beauty.

Like Gone with the Wind, the credits don't tell the whole story of who was responsible for making the film. If IMDb is to be believed, John Cromwell wasn't the only one calling the shots, and Stanley Cortez and Lee Garmes weren't the only ones behind the camera. There is no commentary track, nor have I come across any writing that identified the guiding hand(s) on certain scenes, but there are a series of shots that stand out. One of the first shots of several couples on the dance floor, in an airplane hangar, is filmed from a distance with the dancers seen in silhouette, with long shadows. A later scene with Jennifer Jones in conversation with Robert Walker has to the two virtually in the dark, seen in silhouette or with faces partially lit. In the latter part of the film when Jones chases after the train carrying Walker off to war, Jones is seen alone in the train station, lit primarily from behind, with a very long shadow in front of her. I'm guessing that the shots in question, and they do stand out conspicuously here, were the work of Stanley Cortez. Again, I am making a guess here because there seems to the influence of Orson Welles in the composition of some of the shots, with an emphasis of the depth of field. David Bordwell also discusses some of the visual style of Since You Went Away.

Selznick, who also took credit for writing the screenplay, intended the film as a morale booster. Jingoism is kept to a minimum with a motorcycle cop doing a slant-eye gesture, a time when the Japanese seemed a bigger threat than Nazi Germany. Those less familiar with this era may be stumped by the reference to "V-Girls", or why someone would want to name their child after Dwight Eisenhower. By the standards of that time, Hattie McDaniel is treated respectfully, although having her dialogue filled with malapropisms was a stereotype that should have been avoided. What may have been considered humorous at the time could well be considered borderline racist. Perhaps well-intended, but heavy handed, is the presumably Jewish psychiatrist named Sigmund Gottlieb Golden.

While the casting includes the expected actors in a Selznick production - Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Hattie McDaniel and Lionel Barrymore, what wasn't expected were comic cameos from Doodles Weaver, W.C. Fields' foil Grady Sutton, and personal favorite, Warren Hymer. There is also a recurring bit as part of some of the traveling shots where the microphone seems to pick up bits of dialogue from the extras, such as the scene in the train station. The effect almost anticipates the seemingly random conversations that weave in and out in something like Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

Where the film as some contemporary meaning is with the brief appearance by Alla Nazimova in her final film appearance. As Sofia Koslowska, a refugee from an unidentified eastern European country, Nazimova recites the Emma Lazarus poem that is engraved on the Statue of Liberty. Clearly identified Jewish characters are incidental to the narrative, with the film ending on Christmas to the tune of "Adeste Fidelis". Nazimova describes America as a fairyland. Over-idealized? Perhaps. But I think the scene may have have had personal importance for Selznick, a first generation child of immigrants, anticipating a more culturally diverse country.

since you went away trio.jpg

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 21, 2017 07:26 AM