Director: Alexander Korda
During the Second World War, few films with a contemporary setting were made that didn't deal in one way or another with the war and its effects. The main subject of the picture didn't even have to be military training or combat or even holding down the home front. Comedies, melodramas, crime dramas, musicals—virtually all genres were touched in some way by the war. In the last year of the war, a charming British film was made that showed how the war experience caused a fundamental change in the personalities and outlooks of its two main characters, a married couple named Robert and Cathy Wilson, played by two of the most endearing British actors of the time, Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr. The film, called Perfect Strangers in Britain and Vacation from Marriage in the U.S., isn't well known today but after its release in the U.S. in 1946 was well enough regarded to win its writer, Clemence Dane, an Oscar for best original story.
Vacation from Marriage opens in London in 1940 on the morning of the last day before Robert Wilson ships out for training as a seaman in the Royal Navy. Watching Cathy prepare Robert's breakfast and see him off to work—he works as a bookkeeper in an investment firm in the City—shows us two emotionally numb people living a life of astonishing dullness. Each day proceeds according to an unvarying routine. They rise at the same time every morning, eat the same things for breakfast, Robert catches the same bus for work, and so on right up to the time they go to bed. Every August they spend two weeks' holiday in the same place, the staid seaside resort where they spent their honeymoon. Has there ever been a screen couple more conventional and boring?
The war is about to change all this, though.
Right after Robert leaves to begin his training, Cathy decides to make her own contribution to the war effort by joining the Wrens (WRNS, Women's Royal Naval Service). As the film alternates between Robert's experiences in the Royal Navy and Cathy's in the Wrens, the experiences of each parallel those of the other. At first both find the training program dispiriting, and for a while it looks as if they won't make it. But in the end both do, in the course of their training undergoing a process of self-discovery and finding a strength of character and self-confidence that at the beginning of the film neither appeared to have.
Both Robert and Cathy also experience a brush with romance that awakens in them an emotional passion that was completely lacking in the repressed, lifeless couple we were first introduced to. Robert develops a close friendship with a young nurse named Elena (Ann Todd) when he spends several weeks in a military hospital in Tunis after his ship is sunk in the Mediterranean. Cathy has her own near-romantic relationship, with the cousin of her best friend in the Wrens, a naval architect with none of the timidity and limpness of Robert.
When after a separation of three and a half years the two are finally to be reunited on leave, Cathy can't face the prospect of returning to Robert and her former life and decides to demand a divorce. It's during this part of the film, about its last half hour, that everything comes together and the film really soars. When Robert and Cathy finally come face to face, each has undergone such a radical psychological and physical transformation that they literally don't recognize each other. The "helpless kitten" Robert saw in Cathy, and the "clockwork mouse" Cathy saw in Robert, no longer exist. Now that each is confronted with a radically altered spouse, will these strangers learn to accept the changes in each other, or will their newfound strength of will lead to incompatibility and divorce?
Vacation from Marriage was originally to have been directed by Michael Powell when he and Deborah Kerr were involved in a romantic relationship. When they split over career differences—she wanted to go to Hollywood, where MGM was anxious to develop her as their next big female star; he wanted to stay in England—Powell went on instead to make I Know Where I'm Going, which he initially had envisioned as a vehicle for Kerr. Vacation from Marriage then ended up being directed by Alexander Korda, the esteemed producer, director, and founder of London Films. Korda, his brother art director Vincent Korda, and cinematographer Georges Périnal were masters of the studio film, and that mastery shows in Vacation from Marriage, particularly in the scenes set in Tunis and, at the end of the picture, in bombed-out London.
Alexander Korda directed some of the biggest British stars of the time—Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier and Viven Leigh, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester—so it's not surprising that he gets exemplary work from the cast in this film. This was the last picture the lovely Ann Todd made before her breakout starring role in The Seventh Veil, and she brings a gentleness and wistful sadness to the small part of the nurse Elena, a war widow with whom Robert nearly has an affair. Roland Culver invests in Richard, the man who romances Cathy, the charm and refinement he was known for in his more than fifty years as a character actor in British films and television, where he appeared in everything from Dead of Night and Thunderball to Rumpole of the Bailey and The Avengers. The real standout in the supporting cast, though, is Glynis Johns (above) as Cathy's fellow Wren, the kooky Dizzy. She becomes not only Cathy's best friend but also her role model and mentor, encouraging Cathy to break out of her meek, drab prewar personality.
Still, it's undeniable that Vacation from Marriage is given that extra lift which makes it something special by its wonderful stars, Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr. In playing Robert and Cathy, each must portray a person who undergoes a metamorphosis, someone who starts out with a defined personality, whose personality gradually changes under the influence of their experiences in the film, and who emerges transformed into someone essentially different from the person they started out as. This kind of acting must be extraordinarily difficult to do in movies, which are typically filmed out of sequence. Donat, having played characters like Mr. Chips and the Count of Monte Cristo, was an old hand at this sort of thing, but at this point Kerr had made only a few movies and had never done anything quite like this before. Yet she matches Donat at making us really believe in the character, and at making the before, during, and after stages of the metamorphosis wholly convincing.
Technical skill aside, both Donat and Kerr, as always, have screen charisma to spare. Donat, who was nearly forty years old when the film was made, was more than fifteen years older than Kerr, but that actually works to the film's advantage. In the early scenes he looks prematurely middle-aged, which suits his stolid character perfectly. In later scenes he looks, and acts, positively rejuvenated. Kerr, in the early scenes playing without makeup and in frumpy outfits, seems almost like a rather plain schoolgirl. After her transformation she seems to have matured and ripened, with a femininity and sexuality that are unmistakable and a newly independent, assertive personality that makes it plain she won't be willing to go back to being the obedient "little woman" Robert is accustomed to.
When I say Vacation from Marriage really comes into its own during its last half hour, that's because Donat and Kerr finally get to play directly off each other as the film focuses on the battle of the sexes between Robert with his conservative view of a woman's place and Cathy with her war-liberated feminist outlook. To watch these two consummate performers act out the conflict this charming film has so cleverly and entertainingly set up is nothing short of pure pleasure.
Vacation from Marriage plays on Turner Classic Movies on Monday, August 13, as part of TCM's Summer Under the Stars salute to Deborah Kerr. Check local listings for times. This post is part of the TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, which runs the entire month of August. For details check the sites of co-hosts Sittin' on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film, or visit the blogathon's Facebook page.
R.D., I was completely unfamiliar with "Vacation From Marriage" but now have my DVR set for 3am PDT on the 13th. One of the things I most enjoy most about "Summer Under the Stars" is discovering films of admired actors and actresses that are new to me. This one sounds like an overlooked gem.ReplyDelete
I am hoping TCM might consider a SUTS day for Robert Donat next year - I don't think he's been given that honor yet. He certainly deserves it, with several fine films among the not very many that he made.
And, much as I absolutely adore Wendy Hiller in "I Know Where I'm Going!", the thought of Deborah Kerr in her role is intriguing.
Eve, I was just thinking the same thing about Robert Donat deserving a TCM salute. I have seen several of his movies on TCM (it's where I first saw this one a couple of years ago), most recently "The Count of Monte Cristo." Because of his chronic asthma he didn't make many movies, but I thought he was excellent in everything I've seen him in and had such a unique personality and way of delivering his lines. He was clearly a hugely talented actor but always projected an endearing sense of modesty that served him well in lighter roles and kept him from being ponderous in the more serious ones.Delete
Deborah Kerr replaced Wendy Hiller in "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" when Hiller got pregnant. So it's an interesting turnabout that Hiller played the part in "I Know Where I'm Going" that was originally conceived with Deborah Kerr in mind.
WOW - this looks terrific! I'm setting my DVR too.ReplyDelete
Silverscreenings, TCM is showing some great Deborah Kerr movies on the 13th including some of her best known films. I would say this one and the one called "Please Believe Me" (which I'd never heard of before) are surely the most obscure.Delete
Always a pleasure reading your insightful views on film. I must see this one and I'll have to set the DVR to do so!ReplyDelete
Filmboy, thank you. I think you'll be pleased with the fine British cast of this one. Maybe it's their stage training, but the British actors of this time seemed to excel at delivering well-written dialogue.Delete
R.D., I haven't seen this one (as usual, it's not available in the UK, though I hope it may turn up on TV here some time) but would be very interested to do so after reading your review. I've seen some of both Donat and Kerr's films recently and been very impressed. It's an added attraction that Clemence Dane wrote the screenplay, as she also wrote the original play for 'A Bill of Divorcement', which was filmed starring John Barrymore and a very young Katharine Hepburn, and which also includes a powerful portrayal of a couple who have been separated for years and grown apart. It seems to be a theme which she returned to.ReplyDelete
I have seen another good British film on a similar theme, 'The Years Between' (1946), based on a play by Daphne du Maurier, with Michael Redgrave as a husband returning from war and Valerie Hobson as the wife who doesn't want to go back to her old life - Hobson has taken over her husband's seat as an MP and isn't keen to give it up again and go back to being a housewife!
Judy, I've never seen either of the movies your mention--although I have seen a few clips from "Divorcement"--so will keep an eye out for them. Michael Redgrave is another one of the great British leading men of the time (just saw him in "The Captive Heart," a great movie and performance), along with John Mills and James Mason and of course Olivier. There are others I'm sure, but those are the first who come to mind and I adore every one of them.Delete
Totally unfamiliar with this film but like Eve and CFB I too will have my DVR set to record it. Other than THE 39 STEPS, I cannot think of another film I have seen with Robert Donate. He seems to be exceedingly charming and as for Kerr, well a talented actress for sure and in possession of an undetstated yet sophisticated sexiness.ReplyDelete
John, until a couple of years ago I knew Donat only from "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and "The 39 Steps" but then started catching up with him as TCM showed his movies. He was a unique actor whose talent seems to me all the more precious for being on display in so few films. I've liked him in everything I've seen him in. If you ever come across "The Winslow Boy" or "The Magic Box," try to catch Donat in those. Absolutely agree with you about the appeal of Kerr--ladylike and sensuous at the same time, and her best films exploit this quality.Delete
Count me as another who will tape tape it this month. Sounds marvelous, and Caftan Woman also recommended it. I remember William K. Everson devoted a chapter to this film in his "Love in the Film" book.ReplyDelete
Robert Donat was a very special, unique talent, somewhat bridging the gap between movie star charsima (and it's there believe me, though it's a quiet charisma) and the more "naturalistic" acting that would emerge in the 1950s. In a way, I've always thought he was rather ahead of his time.
His Mr. Chips is heartbreaking, and fully deserving of the Oscar that year (sorry Gable fans).
Kevin, I came late to an appreciation of Donat, but now I understand why he's so highly regarded even though he made so few movies. He was one of those actors who always seemed to be the character and himself at the same time, yet he was a very accomplished film performer. I've not only admired but liked every performance of his I've seen. He had a way of projecting inner conflict that never made it seem melodramatic.Delete
I've read that Hitchcock wanted him to play Maxim de Winter in "Rebecca" but his health wasn't up to it, probably because it meant traveling to Hollywood. I've always thought Olivier was a bit too surly in the role and can imagine that Donat might have brought a quieter torment to the character that would have suited it well.
R.D., like some others, I was only familiar with this film by title (and will be recording it). It's funny...as I was reading your description of the film, I thought it sounded like a Powell & Pressberger picture--so it was interesting to read that MP was almost the director. As you know, I love Deborah Kerr and am a Robert Donat fan as well (my favorite of his films isn't a typical choice because he has a small part in THE WINSLOW BOY). You know, I always get good movie recommendations at THE MOVIE PROJECTOR. Glad you don't charge a finder's fee.ReplyDelete
Rick, thanks. Michael Powell mentions in his autobiography that he was supposed to direct this film. It seems odd that he wasn't preparing a project for the Archers with Emeric Pressburger, but I do recall he wrote that they were working on "A Matter of Life and Death" but didn't want to start it until the war was over because there wouldn't be any Technicolor film stock available until then. So maybe he saw this as a stopgap. Of course, he had worked with and for Korda, who was already the film's producer, and he was involved with Deborah Kerr, so perhaps that explains why he was temporarily attached to the film. I've also read that the American director Wesley Ruggles was hired to direct it but Korda didn't like his ideas and took over direction himself.Delete
I'm afraid like several others on this thread that this is a film I have not yet seen, but after reading that it features Donat, Kerr, Gylnnis Johns, was directed by Korda and shot by Perinal, well, I am rather ashamed as these things go. I know of the film, but never was able to see it, what with its long-running absence on DVD and laserdisc before that. It's great news to hear it is making the rounds on TCM, though and better news still R.D. that you were able to negotiate it. Donat's work is so precious and relatively limited that only one his appearance alone the film with be worth it. Interesting background information too centering around the artistic split between Kerr and Powell. I will certainly keep my eyes open, and will at some later point revisit this superlative assessment and welcome feature.
Sam, if you haven't seen this film, then it is a rarity indeed. Actually, it was just released on DVD by Warner Home Video as part of the Warner Archive series last month. When I first thought of writing on it for the SUTS Blogathon, I was surprised to find it on DVD and available for rent from one of the DVD rental services I use. I'm always looking for films I haven't seen but that sound appealing at the sites of other bloggers and have found some gems this way. Probably the best example of this was the decade countdowns at Wonders in the Dark a couple of years ago! Anyway, I hope that those like you who've read about the film in this post enjoy it.Delete
What a fantastic film! I just reread your review and appreciate it even more. The film is divided into three acts as we watch this dull bored couple, separated by the war, grow and come to believe they cannot go back to each other after a three and half year separation not realizing that their other half has changed and grown also. As you say, the final half hour where we get to watch Donat and Kerr play off each other is a true highlight but just watching these two characters grow throughout the film is a treasure in itself. The film is both funny and touching and I am glad you brought it to our attention.
John, glad to hear you enjoyed it. It's impossible to predict how someone else will react to a movie, but I try to give enough of an idea that readers can judge whether it would appeal to them. Yes, there is a discernible three-act structure. The original British print apparently runs about ten minutes longer. I can't imagine that the cuts came from the last third, so if what came before that was reduced I think it was a good idea because it would have given that third act--to me the best part of the movie--more emphasis.Delete
Thanks for letting me know you liked the film!