Originally published December 16th, 2014
Merry Christmas to all my awesome readers (or whichever holiday you choose to celebrate around this time). I always close out my 25 Days of Christmas with a new movie for Christmas Day and this year I had two newly introduced movies up for review, this and It Happened on Fifth Avenue. I’ll Be Seeing You’s off-beat premise involves a jail-bird and a mentally damaged person coming together at Christmas, but the genders might not correspond to who you think. A paint-by-numbers romance subverting the genre at various points and guided by the tender duo of Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten, I’ll Be Seeing You is one to see (buh-dun-bah).
Mary Marshall (Rogers) is visiting her family on a “Christmas vacation” from prison where she’s serving six years for manslaughter. Zachary Morgan (Cotten) is a soldier on furlough suffering from PTSD. The two meet on a train and eventually fall in love. Unfortunately, Mary is at a crossroads wondering whether she should tell Zach of her past.
Expect the unexpected with I’ll Be Seeing You. If you picked a thousand movies with this same premise the genders would be swapped and a whole slew of preconceived notions and conventions would play out within 90 minutes. The movie is steeped in 1940s conventions of romance, but gives the audience something new to digest through gender swapping the plot. Mary is in prison for accidentally killing her boss, who tries to rape her, which is eye-roll inducing if it doesn’t continue to happen today. Mary endures her prison sentence with humility and solemnity even though the court system condemning her proves misogynist; the great thing is you don’t need a moral sermon on this fact because the audience is left to feel for Mary’s plight. Conversely, the movie shines a light on PTSD, something war veterans were also suffering silently with. Zachary never devolves into a gun-wielding maniac or countless other tropes associated with war injuries. The high point is when he suffers a panic attack and his conscious starts inserting doubt and fear into his mind.
The love story dampens the harsh lessons, elevating the movie if miring it in sentimentality. Rogers was a last-minute replacement for Joan Fontaine and works better than I’d assume Fontaine would have. Fontaine had a tendency to be cold and more formal in her work, and worked opposite Cotten in Gaslight. Rogers isn’t her usual gregarious self overcoming the odds as in films past. She’s quiet, fearful of her past and who it affects, and is continually judged – particularly by her cousin Barbara (Shirley Temple) – as unclean; Barbara separates her bathroom stuff from Mary. Cotten acts in a similar reserved manner, leaving this couple as one in perpetual fear of their secrets spilling out. Ending up together by story’s end is contrived, but necessary to prove they’re not alone in the universe. The weakest link in the chain is a burgeoning Shirley Temple, segueing into adult acting. Temple is fun in frothy roles like The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, but here she’s plain annoying. Barbara is judgmental, nosy, and a typical teen one minute, melodramatically spouting platitudes about love and morale the next. Her character is the typical teenager, but Temple goes too far with her acting as an adult, spitting out lines with the belief they’re carrying dramatic weight.
Overall, I’ll Be Seeing You is a fine movie. Expect the title song to embed itself into your ears, considering it’s played in almost every scene. Rogers and Cotten’s subdued performances entice the viewer through their battling of personal demons as opposed to the actual romance, although that element pays off in the conclusion. A quirky tale which shouldn’t charm as much as it does, if it plays again on TCM it’s worth watching for a rare exploration of gender swapping issues.