David O. Selznick’s classic American home front film is lovingly detailed in the mementos preserved by wife and mother Anne, played by Claudette Colbert. We see a year in the life of the wife and daughters left behind by Tim, a forty-something professional whom we never see except through snapshots, and come to know only through the devotion of his family.
Joseph Cotten plays the family friend Tony, whose unrelenting boyish flirtation with Colbert is either returned or squashed by her sassy and sensible replies. A nice touch to the film is the way the seasons are used to move the story and reflect the mood. It rains when Colbert returns, empty and depressed, from bringing her husband to the railroad station when he reports for Army duty. The gentle spring is a cruelly poignant backdrop to the news they receive of Tim’s being missing in action. A bright summer sky and a sudden thunderstorm are the backdrop of the first flush of romance between the elder daughter Jane, played by Jennifer Jones, and visiting soldier Bill, played by Robert Walker. A gray autumn day brings news of his death in battle. A gentle Christmas snow brings the good news of the missing Tim’s being found safe.
The story flows along in a natural progression of small moments, with the only fireworks being displayed by irascible boarder Colonel Smollett, Bill’s estranged grandfather, played by Monty Woolley. Shirley Temple is warm and natural as the younger daughter. Hattie McDaniel is their caring, and reliably funny maid, and Agnes Moorehead gets a nice role as a snippy and selfish friend. Lionel Barrymore has a cameo as the minister who delivers a sermon, not unlike Henry Wilcoxon in Mrs. Miniver (1942) which we covered here. Where Wilcoxon’s speech was a wholly original definition of “the people’s war,” Barrymore staidly quotes from “The Star Spangled Banner.”
This is Selznick’s earnest attempt at conjuring an American Mrs. Miniver, but the problem is that though these are all likeable actors playing likeable roles, the angst for the American home front was the waiting. Unlike the civilian populations of Europe and Asia, most of the American home front experience on the mainland (beyond a few isolated attacks) consisted of the anxiety of waiting.
Not to downplay that anxiety, for surely Americans at home suffered a dreadful period during the war, but waiting for someone to return does not always make for dynamic cinema.
Back to the questions mentioned above. If Bill had not died in action, would his romance with daughter Jane pass beyond the puppy love stage? Her train-chase (“I love you Bill! I love you, Darling!”) was parodied in Airplane (1980). Walker’s sweet and sad character represents a lot of young boys, green and inexperienced, who did not come back. But because Jane is young, we expect she will get over it, and because we expect that, the impact is not as great as if her father Tim had died. Tim’s death would have brought war home for this family far more than ration points and V-mail. Or, if Anne had started her job at the war plant at the beginning of the film, rather than at the end as she finally finds a place for herself in the war effort, the war would have been brought home to them sooner.
One of the most poignant, devastating, and true scenes of the film is when Anne and her daughters watch a newsreel in a darkened movie theater. Their neighbor and grocer, Mr. Mahoney, passes them up the aisle, wearing a black armband for his flyer son who was just killed. We see the newsreel’s cheerleading message of victory behind his shoulder as he trudges, heartbroken and his future destroyed, towards the camera.
Most of the war is experienced by the secondary characters in this film, for Anne and her daughters are in the safe cocoon the absent Tim has put them in. Even though the film isn’t half over, we already know Tim is coming back, because bad things happen to other people, not to nice people like Anne and her girls.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.