24 November 2014

The War At Home, take 2: "Perfect Strangers" a.k.a. "Vacation From Marriage"

(A little gem for Deborah Kerr fans.)

This lovely little movie takes a fresh look at Great Britain’s experience of World War 2. I think it’s not better known because it was released in the U.S. at the end of the war, when the mass audience wanted to forget the privations of the past few years. (This also explains the silly alternate title, which is really sort of insulting.)

It stars Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr as a mild-mannered (both of them) middle class couple, Robert and Cathy Wilson. They live in a small, dim flat in London; he’s a 9-to-5 accountant, and she’s a conventional housewife. Their daily existence is fraught with endless, nagging problems like head colds and too little coal for the fire.

Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr
This all changes when the war begins, and Robert is called up to join the Navy. She worries that sea duty will aggravate his delicate digestion; he worries that she will be lost without him. “Poor little Cathy,” he says, “she’s as helpless as a kitten.”

We follow both Robert and Cathy as their war experience changes them. She is so lonely she joins the WRENs, the Women’s Royal Naval Service. Both find themselves — rather to their own surprise — able to cope with the demands of their new duties. Both experience action, danger, and even romantic entanglements. And both think of their absent spouse as being just as they were the last time they were together.

Glynis Johns and Deborah Kerr: WRENs 

Finally, after three years separation, both get leave to return home at the same time. You might think each of them would be delighted to find that the dull, colorless spouse they left behind had blossomed into a dashing officer, or a glamorous girl in uniform — but no! The shock is considerable — and considerably aggravating. The script, which won an Oscar, does a wonderful job of showing how two people react when their preconceptions are upset, and Donat and Kerr are delightful, as is Glynis Johns as Cathy’s supportive friend. 
Robert and Cathy: Who is this person"

The whole movie is a very positive, hopeful metaphor — Robert and Cathy represent Western Civilization, which these two skilled actors manage to do while being funny, thoughtful, charming, and romantic. They show us how we, the Allied Forces in general, had become conventional and unimaginative, too busy with inessentials to pay attention to the larger problems that affect everyone. The shock of the war, of being asked to do what they never imagined they could do, frightened and angered and disconcerted them. But when they found at last that they were up to the challenge, and more, it changed their ideas about themselves, and about life. 
Cathy and Robert face a new day