' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: I'll Be Seeing You (1944)

Friday, May 03, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: I'll Be Seeing You (1944)

If a movie set at Yuletide stars Ginger Rogers and Shirley Temple our cinematic instincts are wont to tell us this will be a cheery extravaganza filled with singing and dancing, a merry Christmas to us all and to all a good night. But “I’ll Be Seeing You” was released into theaters in the very earliest days of 1945, in the midst of a World War, a few months in advance of Germany’s surrender, and, thus, it adds quotients of darkness amidst the poured bubbly before being undermined by an ending with too many forced devices. (An ending with too many forced devices. I feel like that’s a recurring issue with movies I’ve been watching lately except the movies I’ve been watching lately are a mix of new and old.)

The film opens with that old standby, a Meet Cute On The Train. (If I hop an Amtrak bound for the Pacific will I Meet Cute with a comely Californian who enjoys whiskey and electronica?) Sgt. Zach Morgan (Joseph Cotton) winds up sitting across from Mary Marshall (Rogers). Unfortunately a couple soldiers wind up sitting next to them – a couple of talkative soldiers, a couple of really, really talkative soldiers. Like, thanks, truly, for serving this country, but, seriously, can you SHUT UP?! Eventually the two Talkative Tonys depart for the dining car so Zach and Mary can properly Meet. She is a traveling saleswoman on the way to see her family for Christmas. He is on the way to see his sister for Christmas who lives in the same town as her family. Ah, but as cute as it is, secrets lurk just beneath.

She is not actually a traveling saleswoman – on the contrary, she is on an eight day furlough from prison where she has been sentenced to six years for killing her boss. He is not actually on his way to see his sister. In fact, he is an orphan and, in fact, he is really on the way to nowhere, a victim of shellshock from the war and he has just been granted a ten day leave from military hospital to see if he might be able to re-acclimate with society. Meeting Mary, he decides to concoct a yarn ago see where things might go. This might make the film sound as if it’s taking a turn toward negative town – the Ron Kovic/Aileen Wuornos romance. But that’s not quite right either. After all, it’s Christmas time!

So while Mary may have killed her boss, she killed her boss out of self-defense, you see, when he attacks her in his own home and she pushes him out a window. And while he may be shell shocked, well, the shock is primarily registered in voiceovers that may or may not be what real life vets experience (I cannot say) but are distracting here and laziness subbing in for filmmaking. These two are just, you know, misunderstood.

I award “I’ll Be Seeing You” points for attempting to add edge but the truth is that the film works best in its sweetest and most beatific moments. Matter of fact, I’d reckon Shirley Temple, playing Mary’s cousin Barbara who sort of develops a schoolgirl crush on Sgt. Morgan, gives the film’s most memorable performance, sort of pulling a Shailene-Woodley-In-“The-Descendants” in the way she projects a person attempting to act beyond her age both out of immaturity and necessity. (Yes, I know I’m claiming Shirley Temple is mimicking a performance that would not actually come into being for another 70 years but that’s how good Shailene Woodley was in “The Descendants.”) As Mary’s Uncle Tom Tully, too, submits a stellar performance, one exuding immeasurable warmth as he opens his home to a stranger while refusing to cast dispersions on his niece. You watch this quintet interact around the dinner table and the Christmas tree and, hells bells, you just feel good.

Alas, a movie cannot simply make due by being sweet and blissful, it needs “conflict” and “stakes.” But do the “stakes” have to come via “conflict”? Mary’s decision of when to tell Zach of her real reason for being home provides a perfect set-up and a potentially endearing payoff. The screenplay, however, chooses to take the revelation out of Mary’s hands by – sigh – having Zach overhear it from another character. Personally speaking, the Overheard Confession drives me crazy, and it drives me crazy because I don’t like characters having their hand forced by the movie itself. And let’s not even discuss Zach re-finding his intestinal fortitude via the angry dog sent to attack him by an off screen god of the machine. Ugh.

Without naming names I will state for the record that I have friends who like to accuse me of straying too often toward the unsunny side of the street when it comes to my moviewatching. And hey, quite often a gloom and doom film exposing the world for the cruel mistress she is does my mood just right. But then there is "I'll Be Seeing You." A movie should do what it does best, and what this movie does best is just be happy.

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