Beyond the Classics is a recurring column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she celebrates the 1944 melancholy holiday film I’ll Be Seeing You.
Several Christmas movies from classic Hollywood are perfect rewatches for this time of year, but they are hidden in the shadows of films like It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas. One of these gems is I’ll Be Seeing You from 1944. Not only does it tell a heartwarming Christmas story, but it has a rare early depiction of the trauma resulting from World War II combat. Like other great holiday classics, I’ll Be Seeing You puts the Christmas spirit into a sordid atmosphere, making it a rewarding watch years later.
In October 1943, Hollywood stars James Cagney and Gertrude Lawrence performed Double Furlough on the radio. It was similar to other radio dramas, which peaked their popularity during the 1940s, and it was the only way people could enjoy popular entertainment in their homes. The performance caught the attention of one Hollywood executive, who planned on taking the love story of a WWII soldier and a furloughed prison inmate to the big screen. This story went perfectly with David O. Selznick’s string of wartime dramas at his new production company for 1944. He and producer Dore Schary renamed the story I’ll Be Seeing You after the hit jazz song that would only get more popular after the movie was released.
Selznick’s movie version kept the same general ideas as Charles Martin’s original radio play. It follows Sgt. Zachary Morgan (Joseph Cotton) and Mary Marshall (Ginger Rogers) as they meet on a train home for the holidays and eventually fall in love. Though they both try to hide the actual details of their lives when they first meet, the two end up connecting over their experiences as outcasts.
Mary heads to her Aunt Sarah, cousin Barbara (Shirley Temple), and Uncle Henry’s house while on a Christmas furlough, thanks to good behavior. She’s been serving six years for an involuntary manslaughter crime she eventually reveals she did not commit. When he meets Mary, Zach is also on leave, but from a military hospital where he was recovering from PTSD, or what was known then as “shell-shock.” The two are both trying to seem like they belong in the world they haven’t been a part of for years, but the only people they fool are each other at first.
After learning Zach has no family to see for Christmas, Mary invites him to join dinner at her Aunt’s house, and soon the two are spending the holidays together. However, the end of their vacation looms near, and Mary wonders if she should be honest with Zach or just enjoy their tryst, pretending not to have the burden of prison on her shoulders. At the same time, Zach’s PTSD is becoming very apparent, and the voice in his head is getting hard to ignore. Everywhere he and Mary go, there seems to be something to remind him of his traumatic time overseas. The war has permeated every facet of American society, and the only solace he’s found has been with Mary. But what happens when they have to part?
Just as the two are about to head their separate ways, Mary’s cousin Barbara accidentally spills the details of Mary’s prison sentence to Zach without knowing Mary was hiding it from him. She returns home convinced that Zach will never love her for who she is. She heads back to prison to serve the rest of her time and try to forget Zach. However, once she reaches the prison gates, he’s there waiting to confess his love for her.
While cheesy and very sentimental at times, I’ll Be Seeing You should make for a solid Christmas classic. It’s heartwarming, a little emotional, and extremely romantic. Everything that makes Hallmark Christmas movies so popular is at work in this film: romance, a trip home for the holidays, a little secret, and of course, a happy ending. Yet, this film is largely underseen. Perhaps it is because it gets a little darker than most holiday movies, except maybe for It’s a Wonderful Life. However, that’s why we adore that movie, and the same should go for I’ll Be Seeing You.
Zach’s struggle with assimilating into wartime American life while battling trauma makes the comfort he does find in Mary and her family for the holidays worthwhile. If he weren’t going through so much, it would not feel so good to watch him feel at home for the first time in years. After all, what we love most about holiday movies is that they make us believe no matter how hard life may be every other day of the year, Christmas is a magical day of happy escape from reality.
Not only is Zach’s story surprising to see in a holiday film, but it is uncommon for any Hollywood movie made in 1944. Portraying the adverse effects combat had on soldiers who didn’t die overseas was not commonplace for Hollywood films while the war was still raging on and Americans needed to still believe in the chance we would win the war. Hollywood was very much a propaganda machine for the United States, even if not in the entirely evil way we associate with German propaganda from the same time.
Hollywood mostly made movies about stories that boosted morale and encouraged people to believe the war was worth all they were suffering for at the time. This was what drove people to the movies so much during World War II, despite fewer movies being released each year than the years before the war. These positive stories helped keep the US government happy to support moviemaking and kept citizens paying for tickets. This is why Selznick’s decision to have an honest portrayal of a traumatized soldier in his movie was such a risk. It paid off, though, and the movie was a box office success.
I’ll Be Seeing You was an emotional holiday movie during the war, and it remains poignant today. Each year there seems to be a new reason why people may be spending the holidays alone and struggling, and this film unravels the story behind someone’s sad holiday plans. The historical portrayal of a traumatized soldier predated The Best Years of Our Lives, the movie many people associate with the beginning of reconciling with the effects of the war with the help of movies, all while telling a love story only classic Hollywood could make so beautiful.