Those looking for a little holiday melodrama could do a lot worse than I’ll Be Seeing You, a compelling 1944 motion picture directed by William Dieterle. Based on a radio play by Charles Martin, this movie features a Marion Parsonnet screenplay and takes its name from the Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain song from 1938.
Dieterle’s outing has one foot in domestic drama and one foot in the darkness, granting it some almost noir qualities. But I’ll Be Seeing You fluently moves from tone to tone and that’s in large part due to the excellence of the cast. Tony Gaudio’s cinematography is also up to par, especially as he blends the euphoria of the holidays with the ever-present streetlight.
Joseph Cotten stars as Sergeant Zachary Morgan. He’s on leave and suffering through anxiety and PTSD. He’s trying to acclimatize himself to civilization again. Morgan meets Mary Marshall (Ginger Rogers) on a train and is smitten. She’s on her way to spend Christmas with her aunt (Spring Byington), uncle (Tom Tully) and her teenaged niece Barbara (Shirley Temple).
Marshall is quite taken by the soldier, so she invites him over for dinner with the family. Later the two of them see a show and stop for coffee, where Morgan nearly has an anxiety attack. He explains his predicament, but Mary has her own secret: she’s a convict on holiday. She holds on to her story, but falls deeper in love with Zach.
I’ll Be Seeing You is compelling in its portrayal of two rejected souls. Neither is a bad person and their reasons for keeping their secrets make sense. Watching them attempt to “act normal” during the holidays becomes an interesting experiment because there are triggers everywhere. Even casual talk of a “cell” sets Mary off, while Zach doesn’t do well with loud noises.
Cotten’s Morgan goes through his fair share of psychological distress, with Parsonnet’s screenplay describing his predicament as “psychoneurotic.” He suffers an anxiety attack, has running internal dialogue, struggles with confidence, wonders about a return to typical existence. When he meets Mary, Zach finds hope.
Rogers’ character is also a pariah. Her prison sentence is a wound of fate and she explains the circumstances of the case to young and ignorant Barbara, who’s been cautious ever since Mary’s arrival. But being a woman in prison in the 1940s is no common thing, even if the reason for her sentence is more than warranted.
I’ll Be Seeing You juxtaposes the two “outsiders” against the comparative status quo of Marshall’s relatives. Setting Barbara up as the typical teenager, complete with a soldier for a New Year’s Eve date, is clever because it speaks to what might have been. Mary and Zach ache for the reverie of domestic harmony, but destiny has other ideas.
Dieterle astutely handles the psychology of the characters and that gives the romantic material more heft. Mary and Zach have considerable weight and the movie feels significant, giving judicious context to the issue of returning soldiers and the thorny art of rejoining society. There are timely questions about how “normal” one can expect to be after the experience of war and this picture does them justice.
The best moments of I’ll Be Seeing You come from the suppression Mary and Zach engage in. They are emotionally guarded and for good reason, which is why Barbara becomes such a powder keg of a character. Some (incorrectly) view her late-stage revelation as a mere plot device, but her teenaged impulsiveness serves a grander purpose.
Bolstered by top-rate performances and hemmed with an intricate psychological layer, I’ll Be Seeing You is a rather intrepid holiday film. Dieterle’s movie is not merely made of glitter and fluff. It keeps murky secrets, examines the suffering soul, and finds the path out of darkness with the light of love.