David Selznick and Since You Went Away”I have a different concept of producing thanother producers. Some producers are money men,and others are just lieutenants. For me toproduce is to make a picture. As a producer,I can maintain an editorial perspective thatI wouldn’t have as a director. I considermyself first a creative producer, then a showmanand then a businessman.
You need all three thingsto succeed in the business today.” -David O. SelznickThe film Since You Went Away was released in 1944. This epic film attempted torelate to the American audience that was dealing with the war foreclosing andthe flux of soldiers coming home at the time. The Hollywood studios wereconstantly trying to do their part for the war buy making films about the war ina fairy tale “Hollywood” style. Since You Went Away crossed these boundaries,and the movie audience at the time, positively responded for this reason. Theproducer and screenwriter of the film knew America craved this portrayal.
Critics of the film from this period, applauded it’s “realism”, but in hindsightstudies of the film in the seventies and eighties were a little more critical ofthe film. David O. Selznick was the man behind the vision of this film andSelznick is best known for film classic’s like; Gone With the Wind, (from whichthe formula of this movie draws heavily from) Rebecca, and King Kong. Thisfilm was a special project for Selznick at the time, and it was seen as hiscontribution to the war effort. The academy awards recognized Selznick’s effortand nominated his film for best picture of 1944.David Selznick was known as a one of the great creative producers- along sideWalt Disney. A creative producer is usually “a powerful mogul who supervisesthe production of a film in such exacting detail that he was virtually itsartistic creator.
” (Eyman p. 121)In this period, Selznick’s style wasremembered best by his epic length movies in which he paid special attention todetail. His films catered to the female market but also had potential to crossover to the male segment. Selznick was “increasingly becoming aware of thecommercial value of his name.
” (Fenster p.36) He decided to repeat the formulathat worked well in Gone With the Wind and made a decision to purchase a warnovel/diary from Margaret Wilder. Since You Went Away spawned from Wilder’snovel, after Selznick spent many hours on developing the screenplay and hiringthe right cast. The war film was a popular genre to produce during the waryears in North America. Also, it was seen as a noble effort to make a filmabout the war. Most of the skilled directors or producers of these films,stylized their own vision of the war with their special trademarks throughoutthe film.
Films that did this, usually did will well at the box office as wellas at the Academy Awards Ceremony. David Selznick was looking for a hit movieto follow the success of Gone With The Wind and he hoped Since You Went Awaywould be a blockbuster. Selznick spent nearly “$3,000,000 on this film”,(Thomas p. 220) which meant glossy and detailed scenes throughout the film.
This was an unusual amount of money for a film from this period, but DavidSelznick was known in Hollywood for his elaborate budgets.The films length allowed Selznick to allow it to take place over a year. Thestory begins in January 12, 1943 which is immediately after Mr. Hilton departsfor the war. The Hiltons are a middle/upper class family who are now faced withdealing with dealing with the trials and tribulations of everyday life withoutthe support of a male authority figure.
A lot of emphasis is placed on thefemale audience’s familiarity with “the details of day to day living and plentyof humorous sentimental reportage of housekeeping: rationing, the problems oftwo growing daughters and the business of getting jobs to help the family’sreduced budget.”(Hartung p 374) Selznick increased the original ages of the twodaughters so Shirley Temple (Bridget) and Jennifer Jones (Jane) could play theroles and romance could be introduced. Nineteen forty-four was quite theturbulent year for the American populous. The war was coming to a close, andAmerica saw the return of their heroes after a glorious battle. But, there wasalso a feeling of nervous uncertainty and anxiety regarding the heroes return.The reviewers and reviews of Since You Went Away were very much in tune withthis feeling.
In the press, critics viewed this film in either of two ways.First, it seen as a triumphant return of Selznick and secondly, the criticsthought the movie attempted at a realistic portrayal. An article in VarietyMagazine boasted “it’s a box office mop-up” and the article also listed thecomplete list of about ninety actors involved. The critic constantly mentionedDavid Selznick’s name throughout the review and thus, set the tone for themagnitude of this film. Similarly, in a Newsweek article, there was constantenforcement of how much money was spent on this film and how much Selznick madeon his last film. This worked as a quality control mechanism for Hollywood andthe viewing audience. People knew what to expect when they went out to see aDavid Selznick film.
The second type of review paid particular attention to the “realism” of thisfilm. A review in Time Magazine stated: “this is the most human, factualpicture to date”. It mentioned the film dealing with things like the sorrow ofdeath, and the comfort of religion, food shortages, and being away from lovedones. For example, a scene where a telegram is sent to Mrs.
Hilton, informingher that her husband is missing in action. This scene takes place after thehousekeeper receives the telegram and yells for Mrs. Hilton who was sleeping.Upon reading the letter, Mrs. Hilton insists that there is still hope and he isstill alive. The American public at the time of this release, were caught up inthese “everyday” feelings and it was apparent that Selznick deal with theseissues with as much love and heart as Selznick could fit on-screen.
In anotherreview they mentioned that the film is “always authentic, endearing and true tolife as death and taxes” (Abel p 13) This “realism” was constantlyreinforcedwith sequences like the scenes in the rehabilitation’s rooms,psychiatrist’s office and recovery wards. In these scenes, the film maker useslighting to cast shadows in these rooms.This is especially prevalent in the scene where Jane Hilton says good-bye to herboyfriend Billy at the train station. The long shadows are used to show theshadow that is cast over America at this point in history and to enhance thison-screen realism.
Indeed, this issue was the case for many Americans andpeople from other countries as well. Overall, it was the message that appealedto the audience the most and the modern day press agreed with this films message.But, this wasn’t the absolute case. A famous film critic, at the time was veryharsh on this film. He downplayed Selznick’s attempt at portraying a typicalAmerican Family.
In The Nation, James Agee writes about the home that theHiltons reside in: “They live in an American home that seven out of tenAmericans would sell their souls for”. This review addressed the issue of class,which is the main bone of contention that most of the more recent articles deathwith.It is quite easy to look back at older films and sneer at them as inferior. Butthese films from the forties and fifties are cultural products that were apartof the social fabric at this time. One must look at the politics that were inplace at the time, and see how that effected a medium such as film.
Since You Went Away was shown to the people of America to increase support andmotivate people to get involved. It was also shown to troops because it thefilm was also saying: “they’ll be there when you get back”. (Jarvie Lecture Jan19) Since You Went Away was one of the first films to deal with the Americanhome front and the issue of the soldiers return. Selznick’s past experiencesled him to understand “not of what Americans were, but what Americans wanted tobe.
” (Koppes p 157) Today, this film looked upon as a model of how Americanswere expected to behave. This film could be seen as a teaching tool for theaverage American. Seeing a family such as the “Hiltons” on-screen, pinchingfrom their usual weekly budgets and bringing a boarder into their home for extraincome- is a lesson to be learned.
The Hilton family is thrusted into newsituations they might never have dealt with prior to the war.Since this film was projected towards the female market, the film gave a strongmessage about empowering women. In the period in which this film was made, theclimate for gender equality wasn’t really an issue. With all the men off at war,women started to take up male roles and jobs to fill the temporary gap.
Janewho wanted a job before her father left, eventually got one as a nurse’s aid.After Mrs. Hilton agrees with Jane, a cut to the capping ceremony where Jane,”with shining face and sun glinting off her white cap, recites the Red Crosspledge.
” (Koppes p 157) Bridget is the young eager citizen who can’t do enoughfor her country.She constantly complains that she is only doing “kid’s stuff”for the war. Anne Hilton is also set up as a model citizen. For example, sheis portrayed as unhappy and lonely.
Many scenes feature a “slick” LieutenantTony Willet making subtle hints for his unquestioning love for Anne. Theaudience is usually left wondering if Anne will give up hope and marry Tony.Anne sticks it out and her and Tony remain close throughout the troubled war andthey stay strictly “friends.”Another point more current literature on this film investigates, is the issue ofreality. Various articles I read, that were dated after the war- said that thisfilm was full of propaganda. An example of this was when the Hilton’s were onthe train to meet up with their father. A boy with an amputated arm yells tothe conductor: “Can’t this train get moving? I’ll miss my pop!” The conductorreplies: “Your pop will have a lot better chance if these supply trains getthrough” This scene is reinforcing a sense of teamwork, and a the American dutyto work together.
Propaganda aside, did this film bring the real issues to thesilver screen? Perhaps, Selznick’s desire for perfection got in the way of thereal story of the American home in war time. Paying “too much attention to lovescenes, costumes, gestures” (Agee p 137) possibly made the film look tooartificial. In order to present the Hilton’s house as a fun and happy home- theSelznick’s portrayal of the Hilton cook (Fidelia) is a little skewed. TheHilton’s were forced to let Fidelia go because Anne could no longer afford topay her.
After the first 30 minutes of the film, the cook has already movedback into the home to work for free. There is also the issue of the Hilton home.This docile is a modest place of an advertising executive which was supposedly a”typical” American home. The home was very elaborate and had plenty of extraspace for 2 other house guests. Some of these images that are prevalent in thisfilm are not exactly the same as the average American’s.
The scenes mentionedabove and many more, presented a classless society which was definitely not thecase in nineteen forty-four.Most critics enjoyed this picture. After all these were troubled times andAmericans weren’t sure what to think. It’s safe to say that the movie goingaudience did want to laugh but they also wanted to cry- and that’s what thisfilm allowed the audience to do. Since You Went Away, also points at manyinteresting aspects of nineteen forties post-war society. Selznick’s particularattention to style and form brought this film to it’s highest level.
Selznickonce said:”Since You Went Away would remain thedefinitive home-front movie until arealist comes along to show us whatlife is really like in America duringWorld War II.”I think Clayton Koppes describes the film andDavid Selznick best when he answers Selznick’scomments about the film:”Yet there lay Selznick’s brilliance. The film triumphed preciselybecause it was not realistic. With Hollywood’s slickest touchhe wove together the sacred and the sentimental symbols ofAmerican life and set them n the national shrine: the middleclass home.”I believe the film was a bit too long and a lot of scenes should have beenomitted. In my opinion, a long movie doesn’t necessarily make a good movie.
Nevertheless, it was quite interesting to investigate old films and see thedifferences in opinion four decades can make.Sources CitedAbel. Brian. “Since You Went Away.” Variety July 19, 1944 p13Agee, James. “Films” The Nation July 29, 1944 p137.
Allen, Robert and Gomery, Douglas “Film History – Theory and Practice” NewYork: N. Award Records 1985.Crowther, Bosley. “Since You Went Away,” A Film of Wartime Domestic Life, WithClaudette Colbert and Others, Opens at the Capitol.” New York Times July 21,1944.Eyman, Giannetti “Flashback – A Brief History of Film” New Jersey: PrenticeHall 1991.Fenster, Mark.
“Constructing the image of authorial presence: David O. Selznickand the marketing of since you sent away” Journal of Film and Video 4.1 Spring1989: p36-55.Fearing, Franklin “Warrior Return: Normal or Neurotic?” Hollywood QuarterlyVol. 1, 1945-1946: p96-107.Hartung, Philip. “The Screen: While You Are Gone, Dear.
” The Commonweal August4, 1944 p374-375.Koppes, Clayton “Hollywood Goes to War” New York: Free Press 1987. p154-162.Newsweek “First GWTW, Now SYWA” July 10, 1944 p85-6.Thomas, Bob. “Selznick” New York: Doubleday ; Company, 1970.