I'll Be Seeing You (1944)

To really age well, an old movie really needs to overcome two hurdles time throws at everything: it needs themes or ideas that hold up, and it needs to deliver those in a form that doesn't feel too dated. Plenty of movies fail both tests, but if a film is going to pass just one, it's usually the latter. It's more common for a movie to still be funny or touching than for it to feel relevant.

I'll Be Seeing You, directed by William Dieterle and starring Ginger Rogers, Joseph Cotten, and Shirley Temple, is an exception. The politics, themes, and ideas in the movie are astonishingly relevant. It's the experience that feels dated. Not too dated, mind you - there are several compelling moments and sequences - but as a whole, I found the film more impressive than enjoyable.

I'll get to the plot in a moment, but first I want to address the genre and tone. This is actually a little difficult, because the movie walks a tightrope between romantic drama and romantic comedy. Structurally, it's a romcom, but the humor is intentionally muted to the point it's barely present. There are a few too many over-the-top characters for me to discount the comedy angle entirely, but even these are rarely played for laughs. I don't think any of this is necessarily a problem, but it does make the film a little harder to connect with.

The movie starts with a chance encounter between a woman and a soldier taking a train at the start of the Christmas holiday. There's an obvious connection, and they exchange pleasantries and offer superficial details about their lives. Or at least they seem to. This is actually one of those compelling moments, because it's clear from their demeanor and body language that neither is being entirely truthful. The movie does a good job drawing you in with a promise of mysteries and secrets.

The soldier, Zach's, secret comes out first. He's suffering from what now would be identified as post-traumatic stress. And with the caveat that the condition wasn't entirely understood at the time, the movie does an admirable job exploring what he's going through in a sensitive and respectful way.

But let's talk about Mary's situation. Her holiday is a reward for good behavior: she's actually three years into a six-year prison sentence, the backstory of which packs a pretty hard punch. She'd been working as a secretary when her boss lured her to his apartment by pretending there was a party. When she arrived, she found him alone and drunk. He tried to assault her, and in the ensuing struggle, he fell out of a window and died. She was then unjustly convicted of manslaughter.

Basically, this is a love story between a soldier dealing with the emotional trauma of war and a woman who was blamed for surviving an attempted rape. Pretty heavy stuff for a 75-year-old movie.

The movie's at its best when it's dealing with these issues. Whenever Zach is overwhelmed by sensory input or something triggers a flashback, we feel it. When Mary struggles with self-doubt and internalizes the idea that it's somehow her fault for not avoiding the situation, the tragedy comes through. The content you'd expect them to fumble is managed eloquently.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is more hit-or-miss. The actual love story is far less interesting than the psychological journey, and the contrivance driving the tension (i.e.: Mary must keep the truth from Zach to keep him from relapsing into depression) doesn't ring true. In addition, the resolution feels both rushed and underdeveloped.

I haven't mentioned the other significant characters, namely Mary's uncle, aunt, and cousin. They all get quite a bit of screen time, but it's really her younger cousin, played by Shirley Temple, who's the most significant. Mary's backstory is initially provided through a conversation between the two of them. This sequence is fairly effective, if a tad forced. There's this whole thing where Temple's character has cordoned off elements of her room with labels, as if Mary were contagious, then she symbolically tears these down when she learns the truth, and... I appreciate the sentiment, but it's all a bit too melodramatic.

The real issue with Temple's character is at the end. Somehow having gotten through multiple dinners and interactions with Zach, she casually blurts out Mary's secret, not realizing this is supposed to be kept from him. When she realizes what she's done, she breaks down in tears and asks why her parents didn't tell her it was supposed to be a secret.

...Yeah. I was basically screaming the same question at the screen, and neither of us got an answer. I'd been under the impression she'd been asked to keep it quiet off-screen (I don't believe we saw Mary ask her aunt and uncle, but they somehow learned to keep their mouths shut). Having the information come from the cousin felt like an excuse to force more dramatic tension - now we need an apology scene where Mary can forgive her.

On top of that, the movie inexplicably set up another source for the information. Mary ran into an old friend, also in the military, at a dance with Zach, and had to pull him aside and ask for her past to remain secret. This occurred pretty close to the end of the movie and certainly felt significant while it was happening. It sort of felt like the movie loaded a Chekhov's gun, turned off the safety, then abruptly stepped onto a previously unmentioned landmine.

At any rate, Zach leaves quietly, and Mary heads back to prison, only to find him standing outside. They're reunited long enough for him to assure her he still loves her and to promise to wait for her. All in all, an anti-climatic resolution to a movie that showed a lot of promise.

This blog is, of course, Christmas themed, so I should probably say something about it being set at Christmas. As is common for the genre, this is really more a New Year's movie than a Christmas one. It starts before Christmas and wraps up on New Years, with New Year's Eve being particularly eventful. The idea that this period is sort of a time outside of time may have inspired the setting, though it could also have just been chosen to sell the notion of Mary being granted a holiday for good behavior. The movie was set in the southwest, which made for sparser imagery than you normally get in holiday movies. There's no snow, and the trees are barren, creating a bleak backdrop to mirror the characters' self-doubt.

I want to stress the stuff that works really works. Towards the end, Zach's attacked by a dog, which later triggers a flashback. The movie stays with him while he works through it, and it's a tense, believable sequence. There are several other moments where the movie commits to the darker aspects of its premise, and these are great.

I also want to make sure it's clear the rest isn't bad. Bits feel melodramatic or forced, but they're never awful. There's nothing in this movie that's truly painful to watch.

I was really impressed with the choices and ideas at the core of this movie, and I wanted to love it as a whole. But while the movie holds up in ways you wouldn't expect, it's less compelling as a whole than as a series of ideas. There's a great deal to respect and appreciate in this, but - unless you're viewing this for historical context - it falls just short of being entertaining or engaging enough to recommend in 2019, despite the fact its themes remain as relevant now as then.