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.