“Since You Went Away,” a Culture’s Dreams, and the Agee-DOS Dosado

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

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“Since You Went Away” doesn’t have a great reputation among filmbuffs, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s broad, sentimental, and downright propagandistic in its treatment of small-town American life (at nearly three hours, it’s also looooonnnngggg). This is the sort of movie that often gives intellectuals the heebie jeebies; they tend to regard it with a derision normally reserved for Sunday church services or the paintings of Norman Rockwell. But when I caught up with it recently, via the excellent DVD put out by MGM, I had no trouble being impressed by it, my own set of smarty-pants hang-ups notwithstanding. Written and produced by David O. Selznick, from a book by Margaret Buell Wilder, and directed by a host of DOS lackeys, the movie deals with the female-centered home life of the Second World War. In making it one assumes Selznick intended to give a cozier, more contemporary spin to the Scarlett-preserves-Tara sections of “Gone With the Wind,” as well as to evoke the cloistered mood of “Little Women.” He was pretty successful on both counts: as emotionally pickled as the movie often is, it feels faithfully drawn from particulars, and it holds you tight within its frame of reference.

Claudette Colbert plays the family matron, Anne Hilton. Her husband, who has recently enlisted, communicates with her by letter on an almost daily basis. Though he never appears, we do see his photo, and his presence informs the picture in a way that’s perhaps too emphatic (this is one aspect of the movie which suffers from Selznick’s tendency towards heavy handedness). Anne presides over a host of boarders, among them Hattie McDaniel as her former housekeeper, Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple as her daughters, and a charming English bulldog whose nutsack steals just about every scene it dangles into. All of these players seem chosen for their cockeyed resemblance to Colbert — this must be the most moon-faced group of housemates ever to appear together in a movie. So it makes sense that their primary enemy is played by spindle-cheeked Agnes Moorehead; along with McDaniel, she’s one of my all-time favorite character actresses, and she plays the town harpy with a gusto which anticipates her great turn in the 1947 “Dark Passage.” The men whose lives overlap with the Hilton home are played by Joseph Cotten, Robert Walker, and Monty Woolley; each can be understood as embodying an aspect of the missing father. Come to think of it, so can the dog’s nutsack.

Released in 1944, “Since You Went Away” was made at the end of what I like to think of as Hollywood’s golden age. American movies were entering their post-war period, an era generally characterized by expressionistic lighting, relatively deep focus, and a somewhat edgy or self-conscious approach to subject matter (the noir style quickly became predominant). Of course, the inaugural movie of this phase was “Citizen Kane,” released in 1941, and there are shots in “Away” which seem to be reaching for “Kane’s” signature combination of exaggeration and hyper-realism. (One of the cinematographers on “Away,” Stanley Cortez, was Welles’ DP on “The Magnificent Ambersons.”) DOS is particularly fond of shots which highlight the disjunct between background and foreground, and he often uses them symbolically, as when he arrays several of Anne’s housemates in a diagonal behind Colbert, thereby visually bolstering her position vis-à-vis the corrosive Moorehead. Now that I think about it, the movie’s effectiveness may be partly attributable to its odd combination of naive, scrubbed-clean attitudes and moody, suggestive visuals. The entire thing speaks to an outward simplicity — of forms, surfaces, shapes, attitudes — which is informed by an underlying complexity, an anxiety even. DOS may have been making a more pertinent comment about American life circa 1945 than he realized at the time.

I don’t mean to portray the movie as a Frankenstein’s monster. For the most part it’s a model example of ’40s Hollywood product: it’s polished, manicured, and deeply satisfying in terms of craft and showmanship, even when you’re scoffing at it. I think it’s possible to enjoy a movie like this as one might a classic car or an art deco interior — as a product of an art-producing mode wholly devoted to giving expression to a culture’s most cherished self-image. It goes without saying that there’s a lot of hokey idealism in such an image — idealism is sort of what it’s all about — but there’s also something to be said for the act of dipping into a pool of shared values, for partaking of a collective cultural dream. And there are bits in “Away” that do suggest a dreamlike state of hyper-consciousness: one depicts a train ride to New York, its cars filled to overflowing with meaning-drenched exemplars of the American People, another shows a military dance in a cavernous airplane hangar. In these scenes and others, the camera roves about the sets, deftly picking details out of the larger whole, and always working working working towards an inventory of American life and customs. Watching some of these sequences, I was reminded of the large murals which sometimes decorate Depression-era banks and public buildings, the ones which seem to look back to the generalized shapes of American folk art even as they anticipate Cinemascope in their all-encompassing breadth of vision — a kind of Manifest Destiny presented in graphical terms. This sweet-spirited and sometimes gross and self-consciously noble gigantism is one of the qualities I find fascinating in early American art (the landscape paintings of Thomas Cole are a good example), all the more so since it’s often a gigantism which has been built up from the smallest of parts, compelled, perhaps, by a very 19th-century desire to describe all details and assign them to their proper place and order.

So how should we smart and edumacated people take a movie like this? Is it contemptible, schmaltzy junk or a savvy cultural emanation worthy of respect and admiration? I’m going to take the easy way out and say that it’s best taken as a mixture of both, though, truthfully, at this point in my life I feel more comfortable enjoying this sort of thing than I do deriding it. The attitude of superiority is such an easy one to assume, it seems to me, and it’s not a very fun one in any event.

This question of how to approach popular art has long vexed American intellectuals. The best — and, perhaps, the most honest — have managed to address their discomfort with the aims of such works while also communicating their begrudging admiration for what works in them. James Agee’s two reviews of “Since You Went Away” are a case in point. In them, we see a prominent intellectual of the ’40s struggling with his responses to a work of thoroughly populist intentions.

The longer (and, I think, better) review appeared in the July 29, 1944 edition of “The Nation.” It’s Agee doing what he did best: allowing his thinking about a film to sprawl out across the page in a way that provides a fascinating peek into the workings of his mental processes. An Agee review often avoids burdening a movie with a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” judgement, and I’ve known some filmbuffs to be annoyed by this aspect of his work — they simply want to know whether he thought the movie at hand was good or bad.  That’s a valid stance, but I see the self-arguing, hashing-it-all-out quality of Agee’s work as being essential to his style as a writer, as well as a vital part of his mode of performing. What’s more, I think his approach allowed him to get at  the complexities of popular art in a way that more straight-forward ones often don’t.

Right at the beginning of the review, Agee makes it clear that, on some level, “Since You Went Away” does not meet with his approval — that it’s not the sort of thing that appeals to his tastes, beliefs, or class. But he immediately turns that opinion inside out, admitting in the next sentence that he “enjoyed” and was “interested” in the movie. Here’s the quote:

“Since You Went Away” is not a good film, by any standards I care for, and I would not dare to recommend it to anyone who cares exclusively for good films. But I enjoyed it a good deal, even when I was most dissatisfied with it, and I was very much interested by it.

I think Agee is very aware that he comes close to contradicting himself here. I also think he intends the reader to ponder how exactly a movie that is “entertaining” and “interesting” might fail to qualify as “good.” Right off the bat he’s signalling that his review will deal with these sorts of conflicts. He’s also trying to tweak his readers’ preconceptions regarding what constitutes “good” and “bad” art.

Later on in the review, he starts to dig into the idealistic/propagandistic qualities that I appreciated in the movie. He tussles with them a bit, and he ends up deciding . . . Well, I’m not sure what he ends up deciding. But his descriptions are wonderfully evocative just the same: he nails the too-pat depiction of the Hiltons as well as its effectiveness as a piece of cultural idealism. He also repeatedly praises Selznick’s guile, though he makes sure to qualify it, lest you get the idea that he’s lauding DOS as an artiste.

[Selznick] is not what I would call perceptive, for he is obviously, and I think disarmingly, in love with his subject. Since his subject is also in love with itself, this creative attitude has its points. So far as conscious intention and perception last, it means a fidelity to detail — of properties, costumes, voices, gestures — which the most detached of artists could not hope to improve on. When consciousness blurs into love, it means a fidelity to dream, easy enough to scorn unless you realize that the Hiltons and their kind live as much in a dream of themselves as in anything one would venture to call “reality.”

* * *

It is hard to separate the conscious Hiltoniana from the semi-conscious and the unconscious. The handwritings of Mr. and Mrs. Hilton — as candid, efficient, soulless, and definitely proper to their class and country as the very best waterclosets — seem a typical and laudable piece of Selznick vigilance.

* * *

Mr Selznick’s attitude toward the Hiltons deprives him — like them — of any very clear psychological understanding, beyond fairly rudimentary and gracefully glossed-over stuff; yet now and then this innocence achieves remarkable things on its own.

He ends the review with some thoughts which, I think, come close to spoiling the rigorously sensible tenor of the rest of the review:

Since it seems possible that wives and children in England, and in Russia, and in China, and even, conceivably, in Germany and Japan, are missing their men and cherishing their homes very much as we are, I don’t like to see these phenomena presented as the peculiar glory of one particular country and its one true cause and justification and aim of war.

Is Agee really dinging the movie because it promotes a specifically American point of view?  I think he is, more or less. And in my opinion that’s kind of kooky — about as kooky as wanting to remake “Meet Me in St. Louis” as “Meet Me in Someplace Unspecific.” But he walks back from that assertion too, turning it inside out as he did his opening sentence. Then he returns to the idea of the movie as a dream capable of enveloping and informing our sense of reality:

But that, like much of “Since You Went Away,” is a law of dream life for which, I am afraid, neither Mr. Selznick nor anyone else can be blamed, and is so broad and deep that one’s sense of reality can, at best, only hope to stay afloat in it.

Agee’s other review of “Since You Went Away,” published in the July 17, 1944 edition of “Time,” is less conflicted, but it’s also much less interesting as a piece of writing. “Time,” of course, is aimed at general readers whereas “The Nation” styles itself as “the flagship of the left.” So Agee tailored his reviews accordingly. One result of this:  in “The Nation” piece Agee describes Temple as being “strapped in like a child prodigy with broken ribs” whereas in the “Time” review she’s merely “charming.”

Here are a couple of quotes from the “Time” piece:

What makes “Since You Went Away” sure-fire is in part its homely subject matter, which has never before been so earnestly tackled in a film, in part its all-star acting (everybody registers with all his might. . . ), most of all David Selznick’s extremely astute screen play and production.

* * *

Though idealized, the Selznick characterizations are authentic to a degree seldom achieved in Hollywood. When a high-school graduating class sings “America the Beautiful,” the voices are touchingly ichoate, the singers’ faces as stolidly reverent, and the shot of the Lincoln statue which begins the song and the meowing cat which ends it, are a deft, valid blend of showmanship, humor and yard-wide Americanism. The wounded men in “Since You Went Away” really look wounded, for almost the first time in a U.S. fiction war film. There are scores of such evidences of a smart showman’s eye, mind and heart. Added up, they give the picture taste, shrewdness, superiority, life. But by and large the blend of flesh and fantasy is pretty close to Hiltonesque life in the U.S. home.

All in all, it’s a pretty positive review. It might even qualify as a rave — not bad when you consider that Agee is on record twelve days later saying that “Since You Went” is “not a good film.”

Related:

  • David Bordwell discusses Selznick and “Since You Went Away,” and he demonstrates that DOS’s interest in unusual foreground-background juxtapositions went back to the ’30s. He also mentions that grizzled showbiz veteran Ben Hecht claimed to be moved to tears by the film.
  • The price of the DVD on Amazon is pretty steep, but it’s rentable on Netflix.
  • Agee’s collected criticism, an essential part of any decent movie library.
  • “Memo from David O. Selznick,” another essential movie book.
  • A fun Usenet discussion of the movie. I love how the original poster refers to the movie as “Shirley Temple with Tits.” I miss Usenet.
  • A documentary entitled “In the Streets,” co-directed by Agee, available in its entirety on YouTube. It’s an effective little movie, shot with hidden cameras to preserve authenticity, and I think it provides an instructive peek into Agee’s sensibilities.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Commercial art, Movies, Performers and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to “Since You Went Away,” a Culture’s Dreams, and the Agee-DOS Dosado

  1. Sax von Stroheim says:

    If I recall correctly, Manny Farber had a similarly mixed take on the movie. (Farber was also pretty big on reversing himself on occasion, as when he panned “Shane” but then went on to put it on his year end best list).

    Like

  2. Toddy Cat says:

    “The attitude of superiority is such an easy one to assume, it seems to me, and it’s not a very fun one in any event”

    Very well stated

    Like

  3. Nice writeup. I like the way you touch on the “at this point in my life” angle too. Tastes, preferences and temperaments sometimes do change as the years go by. Not enough has been made of this.

    Like

  4. Pingback: There’s A War On, Darling | Taking Up Room

  5. Pingback: Page To Screen: Since You Went Away – Taking Up Room

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