There were a lot of films made about the American home front during the Second World War, but few are as sprawling or epic as David O. Selznik’s 1944 movie, Since You Went Away. The story of a Midwestern family, the Hiltons, the film is based on a book of the same name by journalist Margaret Buell Wilder, consisting of letters she wrote to her husband.
So. Let’s talk about the similiarities between the book and the film: Tim and Anne Hilton have two daughters and a bulldog named Soda. They have a housekeeper named Fidelia. After Tim goes into the Army, Anne takes a boarder named Colonel Smollett, who has a nephew named Bill. The Hiltons have a family friend, Tony Willett, who provides a platonic diversion for Anne while her husband’s away. Finally, Anne, the girls, and Fidelia wait on pins and needles when Tim goes missing.
That’s it. No, really. From this point on, the movie and the book are pretty much like apples and oranges. When David O. Selznik adapted the book for the screen, he gave the story a major overhaul and added heavy shots of wartime messages.
Just for clarity’s sake, and because more people are familiar with it, let’s look at the film first. At least some of it, anyway, since it’s a three-hour movie.
After the overture, the film’s credits are superimposed over a homey, comforting fireplace, and then fade in to an exterior shot of the Hilton house. The caption reads, “This is a story of the Unconquerable Fortress: the American Home…1943.”
Next, the camera pans over the study, where we see everything we need to know about the family’s current situation. They’re comfortably well-off and loving people who cherish each other and their home. We see photos and mementos, including a pair of bronzed baby shoes and a fish Anne and Tim caught on their honeymoon in 1925. Then the camera lights on a telegram for Captain Timothy Hilton to report for duty in Louisiana, and on some packaging for a rush order of military raincoats. The movement finally stops at the window, where a brand-new service star hangs. Soda, the family bulldog, has propped himself on the window ledge, watching the rain and waiting for someone to come.
Eventually, a car does pull up, and a woman in a fur coat gets out. It’s Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert) who has just dropped her husband, Tim (Neil Hamilton, seen only in photos) off at the train station. Anne is already missing her husband intensely, but she tries to cling to something Tim said the night before he left: “Years from now, this will seem the greatest adventure we ever had, even though we had it separately.” Still, she can’t help but almost give in to tears when she hears her two daughters, Jane (Jennifer Jones) and Brig (Shirley Temple) arrive home from school. Anne wipes her eyes and pastes on a smile as her girls look at her curiously. She can’t break down now; Jane and Brig need her to be brave.
The Hiltons aren’t only losing Tim. The faithful Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel), has to go to work for some people uptown. It’s not that Anne, Jane, and Brig want to see her go, but with Tim in the Army, he isn’t pulling in his regular wages from the advertising company he works for. Ends have to be met. Fidelia is one of the family, though–she’ll be back.
Fidelia’s new job doesn’t mean the Hiltons are now solvent, though. Brig, who’s a great one for schemes, thinks they should take in a roomer. Anne’s not too keen on the idea, but she finally relents, and they end up renting Anne and Tim’s room to Colonel Smollett (Monty Wooley), who’s a very particular sort. Like he wants his eggs cooked at “two-and-a-half minutes. Under no circumstances, more than three” kind of particular. He’s not exactly a mean guy, but he’s very set in his ways.
The Hiltons’ family friend, Tony Willett, also comes into town while he’s on leave from the Navy. He finds Anne out for a drink with her friend, Emily Hawkins (Agnes Moorehead), who is snobbish and thoughtless to a fault, but more on her later. Tony’s always carried a torch for Anne, which she treats with kindly good nature. Jane carries a torch for Tony, which he also treats with kindly good nature.
The parade of new faces isn’t finished. Colonel Smollett’s grandson, Bill (Robert Walker) comes to see his grandfather after being transferred to the local Army Air Force base, Chamberlain Field. Bill and the colonel have a pretty dysfunctional relationship, but it’s a case of their having trouble communicating. Bill is also close to Jane’s age, and it doesn’t take long for him to be smitten with her. Jane has higher aspirations because she has a thing for officers like Tony, but as she spends more and more time with Bill, the two of them fall in love and get engaged.
Meanwhile, Brig’s not exactly on the fringes. She’s running scrap drives, rolling bandages, selling war stamps and making deals. She finagles Colonel Smollett into paying three dollars a week for his two-and-a-half minute eggs, which might sound funny, but it’s almost fifty dollars a week in today’s money. Brig is a simple soul in the best way, and she just wants to help win the war so “Pop” can come home.
Since You Went Away is a simple movie as well, which is what Selznik was going for. The film doesn’t have any overall plot, except for the thread of the Hilton women missing their father and husband. Selznik wanted the film to be realistic, and it is, except that most people didn’t have immaculate, spacious houses like the Hilton family. Still, the film deftly portrays the ins and outs of the home front, such as shortages and crowds, not to mention the hardest parts for civilians–saying goodbye to loved ones and then waiting and worrying about the news.
The film doesn’t let up on its message of doing one’s part. There are Red Cross and propaganda posters everywhere, plus signs that say “Buy War Bonds.” A placard over Anne’s head at a coffee shop reads, “Every Minute Counts” in giant block letters. It wasn’t just a matter of helping, either, but doing so for the right reasons. Enlisting was good. Putting on dances to entertain the soldiers was good. Getting a war job was good. The question that the film poses, though, is: Were Americans doing things like these because they were out for a good time, or did they really want to help their country? Emily Hawkins shows the former (Read my review of her character here.). She hoards, scoffs at patriotism, and trivializes what the Hilton women are going through. Good people like Anne aren’t let off the hook, either, as she comes to realize sending a husband off to war may not be enough.
The film was received well by the public, and was seen mostly favorably by critics such as Bosley Crowther. Today, however, the film is dismissed as tripe by some, and certain cases rather ignorantly, although Rotten Tomatoes has given it an 80% favorable rating. Sure, it’s a long film, but the characters are likeable and the performances are excellent. It’s dated and it’s meant to be, because it’s about the home front during World War Two. It’s also not meant to be especially deep. In fact, Life Magazine‘s July 24, 1944 write-up of the film said this:
Using the documentary technique of the newsreel camera, Since You Went Away manages to capture the panoramic feeling of what has happened to America at war. It examines the cocktail lounges, the crowded trains, the shipyards, the confusion of food shortages, the sorrow of death, and the comfort of religion with an amazing fidelity to ordinary American thinking on those subjects. The result: a genuinely heart-warming picture that will deeply move those who are personally involved. It will displease only those who profess to see in the war deeper intellectual meanings than are recorded in the picture.
Margaret Buell Wilder’s book is on the same order as the film, although, obviously, on a smaller scale. There’s not a whole lot of biographical information about her out there, so it’s hard to say what went into the writing of the book or what happened to her later. The book is clearly fictionalized, as the names were changed, so it’s doubtful the letters in the book were the actual ones sent to Mr. Wilder. Its tone is cheerful and hopeful, with lots of funny stories about Jan (Jane in the film) baby-sitting and Brig being a one-woman powerhouse who speeds home on her bike with the dry-cleaning hooked to her jacket collar.
Other characters seen in the film are presented differently in Wilder’s book. Fidelia has a short-lived career in Washington, D.C. as a government worker, and then puts in for a transfer to “The Field” because she prefers managing the Hiltons. Tony also works at the same base, and is a purely platonic friend for Anne. Bill only shows up once, so there’s no romance between he and Jane (Jan). Emily is still a pain in the neck, but she’s more annoying than caustic, and she comes off as being a kind of barnacle. Anne’s eye-rolling in her letters is evident. Other than that, Anne’s letters reflect her and the girls’ dreams about after the war, and what it would mean to have Tim back. Overall, the book is delightful and poignant; I highly recommend it. Those who remember the movie may want to read it with a clear mind, because, again, there won’t be much they recognize from the screen.
Shirley Temple Black could attest to this. She was able to befriend both of the Wilder girls, as they were enrolled at the Westlake School with her during filming, and she remembered they had dog hair on their carpet at home.
Since You Went Away is an interesting snapshot of the World War Two era. The film may be long, but it allows the audience to live in the setting, particularly today’s viewers who have no personal connection to that time. Wilder’s book is the same way, as it allows readers to escape their everyday reality, and really get to know the Hilton family and their colorful array of friends. For my part, I always enjoy revisiting each version of the story.
Thanks for reading, everyone, and come back tomorrow because this will be happening:
See you then!
Black, Shirley Temple. Child Star: An Autobiography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.
Hansen, Marie. “Since You Went Away.” Life. July 24, 1944. 53-55. Print.
Wilder, Margaret Buell. Since You Went Away. Garden City, New York: The Sun Dial Press, 1943.