For the rest of his career, David O. Selznik tried and failed to recapture the tremendous success he enjoyed with Gone With the Wind, but even he took a breather and made smaller movies now and then. Not many, but he made them, and probably the most winsomely strange of the bunch was 1945’s I’ll Be Seeing You. Co-produced with Dore Schary and starring Joseph Cotten and Ginger Rogers, it may be one of the most unusual Christmas movies ever.
Mary Marshall (Ginger Rogers) is on furlough from prison, where she is serving time for accidental manslaughter. It’s not as if she’s a hardened criminal or anything, though. When she was twenty, Mary’s boss invited her to a party, but when Mary got to the guy’s fourteenth floor apartment and sees the empty room, she realized it was a ploy to get her alone. Her boss was drunk, and grabbed her by the ankle when she tried to leave. In the struggle, she accidentally pushed him out of the living room window, and her boss fell to his death. When the movie opens, she’s halfway through her six-year sentence, and walks through the train station looking at all the servicemen and women as if she’s from another planet.
Meanwhile, Zach Morgan (Joseph Cotten) moves through the station as if he’s walking underwater. He is listless, gets mixed up and forgets things, like the magazine he buys at the concession stand. Zach is a PTSD case who’s on leave from the Army hospital where he’s been recovering. Zach has endured the typical treatments of the time, which included sodium pentothol injections and suggestive therapy, and his doctors want him to get out into the world a bit and learn how to function again.
Zach and Mary end up sitting across from each other on the crowded train out of Dallas, and each of them steal glances at the other over their magazines until a cheerful soldier and sailor take the other two seats in their section. These two guys play Rock, Paper, Scissors before going off to buy sandwiches for themselves and their two seatmates. Mary and Zach start talking, both of them tentative about sharing all that much. Zach asks Mary what she does for a living, and she fumbles out that she’s a traveling saleslady. Mary also tells him she’s getting off at a town called Pinehill, and, funny coincidence, Zach’s going there too, to visit his sister.
At the Pinehill train station, Mary gets into a cab, and tells Zach goodbye, but not before she introduces herself and vice versa. Zach promises to call, and Mary rides off happily.
Zach checks himself into the local YMCA, where he has a nice little room, complete with a picture of Abraham Lincoln on the wall. He’s still very unsteady, and his train trip took a lot out of him–Zach stumbles against the dresser and accidentally drops a couple of cigarettes. His voice and manner drip with fatigue, but in his thoughts he reminds himself that he’ll get well.
At the same time, Mary arrives at her uncle’s house, where she’s greeted warmly by her aunt Sarah (Spring Byington) and her cousin, Barbara (Shirley Temple). Barbara is seventeen and unsure how to act around Mary, as she doesn’t know why Mary is in prison. The two of them share Barbara’s room, and Barbara has divided and labeled everything they share, from the closet to the towel rack to the soap dish, and the whole thing makes Mary uncomfortable, because it reminds her of being back in prison.
Mary confides to Aunt Sarah that she feels out of place in a world at war, that she doesn’t know what to do with herself, and she thinks her dreams are out of her reach. She’s fearful that no one will accept her because she’s been in prison. Aunt Sarah reassures Mary that she just has to learn how to compromise, and she’ll find out she’s really where she wants to be after all. Mary is skeptical, but before she can get too morose, Zach calls and Aunt Sarah tells Mary to ask him over there for dinner.
When Zach arrives, he confesses to Mary that he made up having a sister so as to have an excuse to get off at Pinehill. Mary is opening her mouth to reply when Uncle Henry (Tom Tully) comes down and welcomes Zach to their home. After a jovial dinner, Mary and Zach go to a movie (a fake title called Make Way For Glory), and Zach reveals more about himself. Zach found fighting in the war to be all mixed up and nothing like the movie they just saw. A meeting in a coffee shop with the proprietor and shell shock victim (Chill Wills) makes Zach bolt. For some reason, maybe out of frustration, Zach tries to hit a lamp post by throwing a rock and when he can’t make it he just walks off without any explanation.
Mary is bewildered, but she goes back to her uncle’s house and up to Barbara’s room, where she finds Barbara writing to soldiers. Barbara is still uncomfortable with Mary, and Mary ends up pouring out her story. She’s very matter-of-fact about the whole thing, but it makes her young cousin so remorseful that she rushes to tear down all the labels she put up.
Zach gets confessional himself the next morning. He calls Mary and they take a bus out to a lake, where Zach tells Mary about his PTSD. Zach used to be an athlete, but his psychological problems have thrown everything off. Understandably, Zach is afraid he’ll end up like the guy in the coffee shop.
As Zach tells more of his story and gets more confident, Mary reveals less, even though she feels more comfortable with herself and others. She sticks to her traveling saleslady story, and even adds to it–she works for a dress manufacturer, and after New Year’s she’s bound for New Orleans and Palm Beach. Problem is, Zach and Mary fall in love over the course of the week, so Mary’s deception weighs more and more heavily on her. She’s not keeping up appearances to puff herself up or to take advantage of Zach, but because she’s worried that if she tells him the truth he’ll lose all his confidence.
Stories like these tend to build and wind up very quickly, drawing out the suspense until the last possible second, and since this isn’t a cookie-cutter romance, it doesn’t have a cookie-cutter ending, either. It’s not a downer, but Zach and Mary don’t exactly run through fields of daisies, either. The story might be unconventional, but I have to root for them because I like the characters and want them to succeed. Plus, I like seeing its portrayal of wartime life, and it has some great kitsch moments. Uncle Henry, for instance, has a habit of saying “Fine, fine,” in this movie, and once I watched it just to count how many times he said it (Eleven, in case you were wondering.).
Released to the general public in January of 1945, I’ll Be Seeing You was based on a radio broadcast called Double Furlough. While the film was a hit, it only made a small profit of $97,000, which isn’t surprising, as soldiers readjusting to daily life wasn’t a comfortable topic for a lot of people, but it was a fact of the post-war world. Shirley Temple said later that the public and the media were too quick to forget about the war–when she would go on victory bond tours, there wasn’t nearly the same enthusiasm as before peace returned. No doubt movies like I’ll Be Seeing You reminded them that completely forgetting wouldn’t be simple or possible.
Thanks for reading, and see you tomorrow–a certain special day is approaching…