Friday, March 13, 2009

The war made us really hot: Vacation from Marriage (1946)

Deborah Kerr and Robert Donat look amazing in their naval uniforms.

One thing you can say about the second world war, it really did wonders for the sex lives of the English. For some reason the line from Hope and Glory, comes to mind, "Thank you, Adolf."

In Vacation from Marriage (or Perfect Strangers as it was billed in England) the Wilsons are a nice quiet couple who are feeling middle age closing in fast while they are stuck in a cramped flat with no view and the prospect of another day of uninspiring work ahead of them. Kathy Wilson (Deborah Kerr) has a perpetual head cold and an even more perpetual look of glazed dispair. She eschews dancing and makeup to humor her stuffy, mustachioed husband (Robert Donat) who is a clerk in some sort of soul-crushing British business enterprise. Even their vacations at the requisite Clacton-on-sea have grown stale. You could set a watch by their movements until Mr. Wilson is sent off to the war in the service of the Navy. His wife, bored keeping up with her taxing nose-blowing and clock winding duties joins the The Wrens, a female service corps of the Navy. Their physical health improves with regular exercise and their personalities are spruced up a bit with danger, independence and a change of scene. Kerr especially blossoms before the camera, moving from an almost flat blank face to the pin up girl with a brain we see her as at the end of the film. She pilots a boat up the Themes in an air raid, and I would say it worth the danger for the effect that it has on her hairdo and the amazingly cute sailor's uniform she gets to wear. I would have joined the Wrens just for the duds!

Both of the Wilsons have wartime romances with partners far more dashing than the spouses they left behind, meanwhile they describe the other to their friends in a mixture of affection and loathing that is really unique to the film. The war scenes are short, but well-filmed and effective. There is a feeling of genuine danger, perhaps owing to the fact that they were filmed in authentically blitzkreiged London. After three years apart, the couple are reunited on a ten day leave. Each plans to ask the other for a divorce. What I expected was a quick denoument, the equivalent of the Pina Colada Song with air raid helmets, but the actual ending was more fulfilling than that. After fighting all night long, the couple who never had so much as a harsh word before the war, are reunited as the sun comes up and it is suddenly clear that German bombs have taken out the high wall that encloses their suburban neighborhood from a spectacular view of the city below.

Though the film is billed as a comedy it is pretty short on laughs. Vacation from Marriage is still an absorbing romance with excellent acting and production values. Director Alexander Korda makes war-torn London seem beautiful and exotic.


kda0121 said...

I see your point about having labeled this movie a comedy. But, we must remember that British humor, especially in that era, was far more subtle. Sometimes a wink, glance, or guffaw constituted big yuks. I did find it good example of English wit and an interesting take on mores and manners. It was quite innovative at the time to show that sometimes for a marriage to thrive that there needs to be growth apart. I always enjoy Robert Donat and what a pity he made so few films. And this gives us a wonderful glimpse at a young Deborah Kerr, who even at this early stage showed she had great acting chops. A wonderful, little movie.

kittenbiscuits said...

I watched this movie the other night and I really enjoyed it.

Jennythenipper said...

Glad you guys like this. I'm not sure I buy your British humor of that era was more subtle argument, KDA. Look at the Korda-directed Private lives of Henry VII which is really quite comically broad. There are some laughs in Vacation from marriage, but the overall tone seemed far more sober to me.

I'm really starting to get into Robert Donat. It occurred to me watching this movie that he reminds me of Jeremy Northam quite a bit. They both played Robert Morton in the Winslow Boy and I can't wait to get a hold of the older version of that film so I can compare them.

kda0121 said...

I see your point about Henry VIII, to a point. First of all, Korda was a Hungarian immigrant and by default his humor was broader than any native Brit. Secondly, the broad humor in Henry is meant to be broad in the context of a biography. I don't think most Brits would consider Henry VIII a comedy, whereas I'd wager many would consider that of Vacation.

SteveQ said...

You undoubtedly knew this, but I just heard that Wm. Wyler's pre-code works are now in a boxed set. Can't wait to get at 'em!

surtini said...
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