Thursday, December 9, 2010

War Stories - Part 3 - "Love Letters" - 1945

“Love Letters” (1945) is our third and last in the series of “war stories”. It’s a love story, and a mystery that doesn’t really need The War as a backdrop, but this was a time when so many letters were written, and relationships begun on the strength of a chance meeting.

In many families, the wife said goodbye to the husband (or sweetheart) at the train station. She said welcome home to him (if she was lucky), three or four years later.  The only way to communicate in the years between were by letters. They might meet again -- to resume their lives and their relationship -- as near strangers, unless the letters were particularly heartfelt, and the communication between them was open and honest.

I doubt in our age of instant, but often weak and meaningless, communication does the power of language ever come close to matching the importance it had during World War II.

Note: Ayn Rand co-wrote the script with the writer of the novel on this story is based, Christopher Massie.

Joseph Cotten, again here in his trademark role of the troubled, romantic loner, is an officer with the British Army in Italy. He pens the letters that his fellow officer, Roger Moreland, sends to his girlfriend. Roger, played by Robert Sully, is a boorish, self-centered cad, who, though unfaithful to this woman, is amused by the idea of winning her through Mr. Cotten’s tender prose.

Cotten is sick of the idea, and disgusted with himself for doing the chore, partly because he knows Roger is an ass, and partly because he fears he is falling in love with the woman who writes sensitive replies to his letters. He has a fiancée of his own, and he is growing apart from her. He seldom writes her, saving his deepest thoughts for Roger’s friend, Victoria.

“I was able to write to her all the things I was never able to say to any woman I know.” He says, and felt the ruse was innocent as long as the girl didn’t care. “But Victoria cared, understood.” He realizes Victoria has fallen in love, not with Roger as she believes, but with his letters.

“She’s in love with a man who doesn’t exist.”

Mr. Cotten demands the charade stop. He won’t write anymore, wants to know nothing more about her. When Cotten is seriously wounded and placed in a military hospital in Italy, he gets a letter from Roger, who has returned to England for training. Roger has married Victoria.

When Cotten is sent back to England to convalesce he learns from another pal that Roger is dead, not in the war but from an accident at home. This news nags at Mr. Cotten, because it means this Victoria is now a widow, and free, and a temptation in spite of himself. He also feels guilt for making possible what he suspects must have been a bad marriage.  In a way, though it is never couched in these terms, it's as if he prostituted this earnest, romantic woman to a callous stranger.

He still wants no part of the charade he committed, and wants to distance himself from what he has done.  But when his brother takes him to a party at a friend’s flat, Cotten meets Victoria even though he is not aware of it, mainly because she is not aware she is Victoria.

Victoria is played by Jennifer Jones in their second pairing after last year’s “Since You Went Away.” She goes by another name, because she has lost her memory. There is more intrigue to come, and we get bits and pieces a little at a time. I won’t give a play-by-play on the plot, that would ruin it, but we do learn that Roger was murdered, and Mr. Cotten discovers his letters played a part in a tragedy and the great mystery of Miss Jones’ amnesia.

Jennifer Jones is by turns ethereal, and also teasing and free spirited. This is also something of a trademark role for her, the fey innocent, but she appears more at ease in this film and less fragile than in some of her other work.

Ann Richards plays her friend, a woman who took Jones into her flat and cared for her when she was unable to take care of herself. Ann Richards also had minor roles in “Random Harvest” (see this post) and in “Sorry Wrong Number” (see this post here and here), but her film career ended in the early 1950s.

It’s difficult to believe she could not have been given better promotion by a studio in Hollywood and enjoyed a longer film career, as she has an engaging presence in this film. Her role is minor, but she shows a range of emotion and great chemistry with Joseph Cotten. Until Cotten falls in love with Jennifer Jones, one might suspect, and even wish, that she would get together with Cotten.

Notice the scene where, when Ann Richards wants to discuss the tragedy/mystery privately with Cotten, she sends Jennifer Jones to the store to get some porridge. She hands her their ration book. Since the UK imported most of their cereals (and a lot of other products), rationing was more severe there and lasted well beyond the war. Though the US had its own rationing program, I don’t think we rationed oatmeal (porridge). Maybe somebody can set me straight on that. Being the so-called “bread basket of the world” had its compensations.

We don’t see too many ration books of the day in the movies, and I’m not sure why. Possibly the government requested the cooperation of the film industry not to make too big a joke of them so that people would follow the rules and take their use seriously. Possibly they did not want to harp on (though an English setting in this movie, this was still an American-made movie for an American audience), shortages to an audience weary of them and doing its utmost to sacrifice.

Mr. Cotten takes up residence in a country cottage left to him by his deceased aunt, where he is looked after by rustic family retainer Cecil Kellaway (whom we saw in “Portrait of Jennie”, see here). Ian Wolfe plays a vicar, and Harry Allen a local farmer, both character actors who you might remember from “Mrs. Miniver”, which we reviewed in the second post on this series.

Gladys Cooper, who also teamed up with Jennifer Jones in “Song of Bernadette” (1943), see this previous post, plays Miss Jones’ guardian. She plays prominently in the tragedy/mystery, and she’s a shadowy figure for most of the film. It’s not until the very end we get her story and the truth about Victoria. It’s a good scene between Jones and Cooper, where they both reach back into their memories and describe a particular pivotal event, each finishing the other’s sentences.

The war in this movie, unlike in “Mrs. Miniver” and “The More the Merrier” is less on the surface of everyday life for these country dwellers and more in the fog-shrouded background, though there is one scene where Cotten, driving with Jones on winding lanes, does mention the gas rationing, “Since you love motoring so much, we’ll travel to the end of our coupons.”

Also, there is a scene with a wedding in what appear to be the bombed-out ruins of a church, evocative of the end of “Mrs. Miniver.” The war is still present in this movie, but it seems to be sliding into the background.

And I think that portrait of the little boy which figures in a couple of scenes that Joseph Cotten says is him as a child really was him. There is a similar photo in his autobiography, “Vanity Will Get You Somewhere” (Mercury House, Inc., San Francisco, 1987). In that book, he states that the photo was also used in “Shadow of a Doubt”.

The war is mostly represented in the letters he has written to her, and in his depression on coming home. He tells her, “Ever since I came back from the war, I’ve wanted to be alone. I’ve been miserable with other people. You’re the first one with whom I feel at peace.”

She replies, “That’s because you’re broken up inside almost the same as I am. You’ve been through the war and you can’t bear to look back.”

In this movie, and as World War II drifted into the past (the film was released in August 1945, after the Japanese surrender but before the formal surrender ceremonies in September), the generation that fought the war seemed to decide in large measure not to talk about it anymore. Many servicemen, like Joseph Cotten in the film, preferred not to look back.

Much of that war is documented in letters, and the intriguing notion that two people can fall in love without ever meeting each other…I would not hazard a guess as to how many times that actually happened. I don’t doubt that it did.

This is the end of our series on “war stories”. The all-clear has been sounded. Now get out of my cellar.  I'd better not be missing any cans of SPAM.


Gordon Pasha said...

Jacqueline. Very detailed and knowledgeable job on the three films. Fair on “Miniver,” thorough on “Merrier” and nicely done on the most neglected film of the three. You are correct about Ann Richards, both the character and the actress -- very compelling. She stayed with me in a film that had the capable Jennifer Jones and the great Gladys Cooper.

I, too, remember the stoop scene from “Merrier” being discussed in the Stevens documentary. And if memory serves, the bombed out church scene in “Miniver” and “Love Letters” was preceded by that in Hathaway’s “Sundown.” An evocative image which is difficult not to use to good effect.

I have to think Dieterle had something going right with Cotten, probably my favorite actor. I have mentioned earlier “I’ll be Seeing You” and “September Affair” and “Jennie” but the latter, of course, was likely as much attributable to Selznick. I will track down the Cotten book for my library.

Your are also on the mark about the reticence of the veterans to discuss the war, virtually always the case. An occasional anecdote sparked by a daily incident might evoke a memory and a remark. But rarely sustained. (When I was in the peacetime service, those above us who had served did speak often of the War and Korea, but that was mostly in the nature of imparting knowledge.)

I remember rationing and ration books. Meat and butter stay mostly in mind. My mother sent me once to two stores: the butcher and a grocery store. The butcher, as a kindness to my mother, but unbeknownst to me, had added a package of butter to the order, and placed it in the paper bag. (No plastic then.) When I reached the grocery store, I asked (as my mother had instructed) if they had any butter. The woman behind the counter said “yes” and something like “I will put it in the bag you have with you.” She did so, only to find the butter that the butcher had already placed there. Can a nine or ten year old be mortified? I still remember it more than a half century later.

I will just touch on the decline of language and letter writing, alas, but I believe my sentiments are akin to your own. I have often received missives (electronic) from one member of my family comprising birthday wishes or similar content. The text (at best suspect) usually ends in anywhere from six to seven exclamation points, some quote from a profound source considered attuned to the sender’s current beliefs, a note to be sure to read the sender’s blog , and other random keyboard characters, the nature of which are foreign to me. Best and thank you. Gerald.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you Gerald. I really enjoy your comments. You are eloquent, and certainly do not suffer from the decline of language, and I am always pleased when you stop by to visit.

I agree with you about Ann Richards, and also Joseph Cotten. Cotten has always been a favorite, and I do wish Ann Richards could have been in more films.

Now that you have unburdened your soul about "the butter incident", I hope you can find peace.

I shall add no exclamation points or smiley faces. I think we understand each other.

JavaBeanRush said...

What an intriguing premise for a film. Will definitely watch "Love Letters" when I get the chance.

Thanks, Jacqueline.

-- Java

JavaBeanRush said...

By the way, the handwriting in that letter is very similar to that in the seminal missive in A LETTER TO THREE WIVES. These two films were made by two separate studios. Was there some kind of freelance scribe who would handle props like this for any film?

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Java Bean. I'm going to have to dig out "A Letter to Three Wives". What an interesting thing to catch. I've often wondered who wrote the letters in these old movies. Maybe some little guy in a green eyeshade trudging from studio to studio with his pen and ink.

Gordon Pasha said...

Jacqueline. I no longer eat meat or butter, but that has to do with people wearing surgical masks and pushing gurneys. Best. Gerald

Pam said...

Jacqueline, I'm a first time visitor to your blog and can see that I will be back often. I'm a big fan of old movies and look forward to using this site as a resource. Thanks!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Pam, and I hope we have the pleasure of your company again. Always good to hear from another old movie fan. Our kind has to stick together.

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