Almost all reviews of Since you went Away compare Selznick’s American home front sage to the Best Picture winner of 1942, the British home front saga Mrs. Miniver. And why not? Both movies take a look at families during World War II and both feature a strong mother-figure who must hold her family together. The big difference are the circumstances that these families and women have to endure – Mrs. Miniver had her husband by her side but she had to worry about her oldest son who had joined the Royal Air Force and she also had to capture a German pilot in her kitchen and suffer through various air-rids before the movie is over. Claudette Colbert’s Anne Hilton on the other hand benefits from an ocean between her home and the European battlefields so there need to be no worries about Nazis in her kitchen or bombs above her head. But unlike Mrs. Miniver, Anne Hilton has to mourn the absence of her husband who has gone to fight in the war and left her with her two daughters. For a movie, the story of Mrs. Miniver certainly offers much more interesting aspects and plots since war is a much more real and tangible presence. Since you went Away focuses on the day-to-day life of a family without a husband and father and had to include various subplots that feel rather unnecessary very often but without them the movie could never have achieved the running time of 172 minutes – which probably would have upset David O. Selznick very much since a long running time can only mean epic and epic can only mean Oscar. But in 1944, Academy voters were looking for in another direction and instead of war they voted for singing priests and instead of a strong and caring mother they voted for a wife slowly driven insane by her husband.
Since you went Away is certainly an interesting movie that serves as a time capsule for the time it was made in and therefore is presented with a lot of honesty and realism while also adding an expected amount of sentimentality and patriotism. But even though, the story mostly lacks focus when it comes to what it wants to present and very often the movie shifts from a story about a family during war time to a teenage romance or a comedy and it mostly guides its character and cast through overly constructed plots and situations. There is also a reason why Since you went Away is not called 'Mrs. Hilton' – it is a much stronger ensemble movie than Mrs. Miniver and does not present the character of Anne Hilton as its true center. Rather, Since you went Away focuses on Jennifer Jones as the oldest daughter of the family and it also never gives Claudette Colbert the same dramatic opportunities and moments as Mrs. Miniver did for Greer Garson. This lack of true depth or character development made it necessary to cast an actress in the role of Anne Hilton with enough earthy charm and personality to prevent the character from dropping too far into the background. And Claudette Colbert was certainly the right kind of actress for this kind of part.
Ten years after she won an Oscar for her role in the legendary comedy It happened one Night, Claudette Colbert received her third and final Oscar nomination for the much more conventional part of Anne Hilton. This character certainly benefited from Claudette Colbert’s screen personality even though it did not allow her any truly grand steps as an actress. In her part, Claudette Colbert is mostly reduced to re-acting, very seldom is she allowed to anchor any moments of the story and whenever she does find herself in the center of attention it is mostly for obligatory dramatic scenes. She does handle those scenes well, no question about it, but they never help her to make a bigger impact on the overall storyline. But all this does not mean that Claudette Colbert is invisible in Since you went Away – her strong screen presence and talent as an actress certainly prevent this but as the movie goes on, she does became a more and more fleeting presence even though she uses every bit of her screen time wisely. Claudette Colbert’s biggest misfortune is that the part of Anne Hilton not only offers no true challenge for her but the structure of Since you went Away also works in a way that makes her absence never truly noticeable – Anne Hilton is not the kind of character one misses when she not onscreen, rather she comes and goes without any changes in the overall tone of the movie.
Still, Claudette Colbert is a lovely and strong presence in Since you went Away and even though she may not be its emotional centre she still was able to craft a strong, loveable, caring and three-dimensional human being while gliding through the story with undeniable elegance and charm that helped her to add that little extra spark to Anne Hilton which also was visible in so many other of the characters she played. The husband of Anne Hilton, who is so sorely missed during the entire movie, is already gone when Since you went Away begins. In the movie’s first scene, Claudette Colbert shows Anne sorrows, worries and pains as she comes home after she said goodbye to her husband and has to face her house and her life without him. Claudette Colbert’s facial work in this moment is certainly excellent as she projects all the different emotions that Anne Hilton is experiencing at this moment but her voice-over during this scene is just a tad too melodramatic and sometimes rather distracts from the seriousness of the scene instead of emphasizing it. A crying scene when she is alone in her bedroom also does not truly work in the dramatic context it is supposed to do because her crying feels rather exaggerated, as if Claudette Colbert was still the spoiled Ellie Andrews, and the musical score also underlines the scene with a rather cheery melody as if the movie wants the audience to laugh about this woman because she is basically helpless without a man at her side.
Claudette Colbert improves her performance as the movie goes on, especially after Joseph Cotton entered it as a close friend who openly admits that he has more feelings than friendship. The plot itself may seem rather forced but Claudette Colbert and Joseph Cotton have a wonderful chemistry together and never exaggerate the drama in their scenes – instead, both actors treat their relationship with humor and dignity and the storyline allows Claudette Colbert to shine in what she does so well: be earthy, elegant, charming and real at the same time. She also works nicely with Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple as her daughters, playing the kind of mother a lot of children can only dream of – understanding, loving, guiding and full of joy and life. Especially her scenes with Jennifer Jones provide Claudette Colbert with various dramatic moments that contrast nicely with her otherwise charming and humorous work – when she has to tell her daughter some terrible news, Claudette Colbert manages to be just as moving as Jennifer Jones, showing a mother experiencing all the pain of her daughter at this moment.
So, Claudette Colbert is always strong whenever she is on the screen and actually asked to do something with her character but overall the part suffers from the conventional storytelling that does not see in Anne Hilton anything more than a wise and caring mother (even though the storyline with Joseph Cotton adds some welcome ‘pep’ to the proceedings) and presents her only with limited opportunities and challenges. Claudette Colbert knows how to craft her character and how to show a woman who is simultaneously missing her husband, organizing her family, charming an old friend, worrying about money and the future and must keep up a façade of strength and courage for the sake of her children. But all this happens mostly scene by scene, always depending on what the screenplay actually asks of her. Claudette Colbert does leave the movie on a high note, so – the scene when she discovers a Christmas present from her husband and is overcome with emotions, joy and sadness, is a wonderful example of old Hollywood melodrama done completely right.
Overall, Claudette Colbert gives an effective, charming, sometimes moving, sometimes humorous performance that isn’t necessarily a great achievement in acting but still a delightful and memorable pierce of work, especially considering how underwritten and underused Anne Hilton actually is. For all this, Claudette Colbert receives