Oscar winner Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten top a stellar cast in this tender wartime love story about two troubled strangers who meet by chance and try to crowd a lifetime of love and laughter into eight days. "Studded with brilliant performances" (Variety), I'll Be Seeing You "manages to ambush your emotions and hasten your heartbeats" (Hollywood Citizen-News).
After serving half of a prison sentence for accidental manslaughter, Mary Marshall (Rogers) is allowed a holiday furlough to visit her family. Keeping her history a secret, she falls in love with a kindhearted G.I. (Cotten) who's struggling to overcome shell shock. Both long for a normal life. But can they have it if he learns the truth about her?
Countless romantic weepies flooded movie theaters during World War II, and on its surface, the attractive, affecting I’ll Be Seeing You looks like a typical genre entry. This tender drama that's thankfully devoid of syrupy sentiment takes place over the holidays during the war’s waning months, yet beneath its primary love story and seasonal trimmings lie a couple of serious themes, one of which - quite coincidentally - is the hot topic of the moment, and it lends this well-made, 73-year-old film a surprising contemporary relevance. More on that below, but even without such a potent 21st century connection, director William Dieterle’s understated movie rises above standard wartime fare by telling its heartwarming story of two lonely, fractured people who lean on each other and ultimately find love with refreshing simplicity and grace.
Both Mary Marshall (Ginger Rogers) and Zachary Morgan (Joseph Cotten) harbor shameful secrets. He’s on leave from the military, recovering from the residual effects of battle fatigue. Back then, they called it a “neuro-psychiatric” disorder; today, it’s known as post-traumatic stress, and the effects are debilitating and frightening. Severe anxiety attacks and feelings of inadequacy and insecurity plague Zach and prevent him from connecting with other people. On a crowded train, he meets Mary, who’s on her way to the country to spend Christmas with her aunt (Spring Byington), uncle (Tom Tully), and teenage cousin Barbara (Shirley Temple). She seems normal enough, if a bit shy and reserved, but little does Zach know she’s on a 10-day, good-behavior furlough from prison.
Her crime? Well, that’s the issue du jour. Three years ago, the impressionable Mary was the victim of a sexual assault by her drunken boss, who lured her to his apartment under the pretense of an office cocktail party. Yet upon her arrival, Mary realizes she is the only guest, and must soon fight off his vigorous advances. A scuffle ensues and she accidentally kills the man in self-defense. Shockingly, at least by today’s standards, the law doesn’t see it that way and convicts Mary of manslaughter. Her sentence: six years behind bars. (The idea Mary brought this all upon herself by dressing up and voluntarily entering the apartment is not only ludicrous, but also, quite sadly, not as antiquated as this movie! Even worse, everyone in the film accepts the verdict and punishment as just. Mary admits maybe she should have known better and declined her boss’s invitation, but ignorance and naïveté are not crimes. As evidenced by the countless women now coming forward to share their own experiences of harassment and abuse at the hands of men who used their powerful positions to take advantage of them, times have not changed and society has not evolved as much as we might like to believe over the course of the seven decades since I’ll Be Seeing You was first released.)
But back to the story... The aimless Zach gets off the train at Mary’s stop in the hope of spending more time with her, and over the course of the holidays, they become close. Yet even as their relationship intensifies, their respective pasts threaten to sabotage their blossoming romance. Zach’s erratic behavior disturbs and puzzles Mary, and she’s deathly afraid Zach will be disillusioned and disgusted if he ever finds out the truth about her, which she keeps closely guarded. As the hour approaches when they both must return to their previous lives and commitments, can they map out a future together?
Rarely during Hollywood‘s glamorous Golden Age did screen romances focus on protagonists who were outsiders or misfits. Both Zach and Mary are damaged goods who don’t fit into a close-minded society’s well-oiled norms, and as a result, aren’t suitable romantic prospects for average Joes and Janes. Yet their difficult personal experiences instill in them greater empathy for the frailties of others, making them far more mature and admirable than the less dimensional heroes and heroines that populate most love stories of the period. And if that isn't enough, I’ll Be Seeing You also deals with discrimination, as Mary must combat the prejudice of her teenage cousin, who equates a prison inmate with someone with a contagious terminal disease.
Because of her long and legendary association with Fred Astaire and reputation as an iconic ballroom dancer, many of us forget just how good an actress Ginger Rogers could be. Four years prior to I’ll Be Seeing You, she won the Best Actress Oscar for Kitty Foyle, and at the time of this film’s production, she was the highest paid female star in America (quite a notable fact, considering Rogers was competing against the likes of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck). Here she files a totally captivating portrayal that’s wonderfully muted, nuanced, and natural. She also creates palpable chemistry with Cotten, who wisely keeps a lid on his character’s symptoms. Cotten plays Zach more like a ticking time bomb than an explosive grenade, and with great sensitivity shows us how difficult it is - and how much energy and control it takes - for men like Zach to keep themselves functioning and on an even keel.
Temple, mired at the time in a difficult adolescent phase, does what she can with a sketchily-drawn role, which was reportedly beefed up to better showcase her. The tinkering, though, doesn’t really help. With her days as a darling moppet long behind her, the once number-one box office star was struggling to transition into adult roles, and within five years would retire from the screen. Yet her sincere performance suits the material well, as does the thoughtful work of the always reliable Spring Byington, who brings wisdom and warmth to her matronly part.
I’ll Be Seeing You, titled after the popular song that remains a standard today, was a big hit with audiences of the era, and its appeal hasn’t waned, thanks to a well-written script, engaging performances, and Dieterle’s perceptive direction. Simplicity and tenderness are the film’s greatest assets, along with a depth of spirit that makes this touching romance perennially watchable any time of year, but especially around the holidays.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
I’ll Be Seeing You arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Though it looks slightly faded in places, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer accurately renders Tony Gaudio’s warm, inviting cinematography. Contrast could be a bit stronger in places, but clarity is quite good, and a consistent grain structure adds necessary texture that heightens the film’s period flavor while preserving the feel of celluloid. Black levels are sufficiently deep, whites are bright, and excellent gray scale variance enhances background details and promotes a greater feeling of depth. Close-ups, especially some extreme ones of Cotten, are brilliantly sharp, highlighting sweat droplets and even fine facial hairs around his nose, while superior shadow delineation keeps crush at bay. Some print damage is evident, with errant nicks and marks occasionally dotting the source material, but the incidents are minor and don’t detract much from the viewing experience. Of course, a full restoration would be welcome, but until that occurs, this solid transfer more than suffices and should please fans of this classic love story.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound that nicely balances quiet moments with bombastic effects. Sonic accents like a pounding heartbeat, growling attack dog, bombs and gunfire, and the cha-ching of a cash register are distinctly rendered, while the romantic music of Daniele Amfitheatrof underscores the action without overwhelming it. A wide dynamic scale handles all the level fluctuations without a hint of distortion, all the dialogue is easy to comprehend, and no age-related imperfections like hiss, pops, and crackles intrude. Unobtrusive most of the time, but pleasantly potent when it needs to be, this fine track serves this delicate love story quite well.
Just a couple of supplements are included on the disc.
Audio Commentary - Film historians Kat Elinger and Samm Deighan sit down for an informative and interesting commentary that focuses more on the period’s social and cinema themes than the movie itself. Topics addressed include the changing roles of women in society, the growing awareness of the effects of war on servicemen, contention and anxiety in wartime America, and how Hollywood depicted the homefront during World War II. The two also talk about the film‘s downbeat tone, the life and career of director William Dieterle, the evolution of actresses Ginger Rogers and Shirley Temple, and the clash between Selznick studio chief David O. Selznick and producer Dore Schary over various aspects of the picture. The scholarly tone and lack of interplay between Elinger and Deighan lend this track an air of formality, but it’s a solid, commendable effort and well worth a listen.
Trailer Gallery (HD, 8 minutes) - In addition to the original preview for I’ll Be Seeing You, trailers for four other Joseph Cotten films - Since You Went Away, Portrait of Jennie, The Farmer’s Daughter, and Duel in the Sun - are also included.
World War II romances are a dime a dozen, but thanks to a tender, substantive script, sensitive performances, and understated direction, I’ll Be Seeing You eclipses many other films in its class. The story of two tortured outsiders who find love and understanding over the Christmas holiday still tugs the heartstrings more than 70 years after its initial release, and remains relevant by examining several timeless issues. Supplements are slim, but solid video and audio transfers distinguish Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray presentation. Though it resonates a bit more strongly during the holiday season, I’ll Be Seeing You plays well any time of year and earns a hearty seal of approval. Recommended.