Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Went Thataway

A recent TCM showing of Since You Went Away (1944) starring Claudette Colbert and Joseph Cotton, caught and held my attention. The movie assuredly is wartime propaganda, but this is not a fault. Displaying a very 1940s mix of sophistication and innocence, the film centers on Anne Hilton (Colbert) and her two daughters getting on with life on the home front while Anne's husband is in the service. The strains intensify when he is reported MIA. This is a family as we would like it to be, made up of flawed but fundamentally decent individuals who are as we ourselves would like to be. It all seems so very much worth fighting for. The movie is another example of that special 40s knack for portraying common nobility without coming off as Pollyanna or preachy.

There is a long standing argument over whether drama should reflect an audience or elevate it. Very long standing. Aristotle complained about Euripides, saying, “Sophocles presents men as they ought to be, while Euripides portrays them as they are.” In truth, there was room for both dramatists in the Theater of Dionysus, and there is room in the multiplex for both sorts of movies today. There is even a place for other types of movies altogether, such as those that portray us as we're glad we're not (Hannibal Lector) or as we fantasize being (Spiderman).

Any type of portrayal, of course, is incidental to the real purpose of movie-making: selling tickets, DVDs, and downloads. Sam Goldwyn's dictum is still largely heeded in Hollywood: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." Since You Went Away sold tickets in 1944 because virtually every household had someone who went away. Our soldiers still go away, though not in such overwhelming numbers, so would a modern remake find a commercial audience? I don't know, but I suspect not. Audiences have changed a lot since 1944. To ensure ticket sales, the homebodies might need to be sexy martial artists with secret identities.

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