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12 October 2017

Perfect Strangers: Love and Victory (A.K.A. Vacation From Marriage)

This little gem is a delightful but unfortunately little known British film from 1944, Vacation From Marriage. (I can't help feeling that one reason it's little known is the stupid title, which has absolutely nothing to do with the story, unless you consider being on a ship that's torpedoed in the Mediterranean a vacation; the original title was "Perfect Strangers.")
Cathy provides a cup of tea despite her cold

It's a wartime story of an average middle class couple, Robert and Cathy, living an average, rather boring life; he's a clerk in a big insurance firm, and she's a housewife. (You know they're not going to seem average for long because they're played by Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr.) He's getting to the age where he puffs a little climbing two flights of stairs to their apartment, and she potters around all morning in her woolen dressing gown, sniffling from a perpetual cold in the head.

But as the film opens, he has been drafted into the Navy, and is just about to leave. They are both worried and uncertain about this. She sees him off to training camp at the railroad station, waving a damp handkerchief as his train pulls away.
Peter at sea

We see Robert next experiencing his first weeks at sea, desperately trying to avoid looking at the swaying masts, and finding himself unable to dine happily on pork and beans. And he is astonished to receive a letter from his wife informing him that she has joined the WRENs, the women's Naval service.

Next we see Cathy arriving uncertainly at her training station, feeling very much out of place. Eventually she is taken under the wing of another girl, the smart and stylish Dizzy, played by Glynis Johns.

Both Robert and Cathyo have adventures on their own -- in fact, both display a certain amount of heroism. He forgets his weak digestion and she forgets her timidity and sniffles. To their own surprise, they find themselves attractive to other people -- he to a glamorous nurse, played by Ann Todd, and she to a dashing architect, played by Roland Culver. As the conflict goes on, both face a daily life that, rather than being routinely boring, tests their abilities and strength of character to the utmost. And both are tied up with their duties, and it so happens that they don't both get leave to return home at the same time until three years have passed.
Dizzy and Cathy, WRENs

When they do finally meet again, it's with trepidation on both sides. Each one thinks of the other as the colorless, dependent, unimaginative person they seemed to be before the war. But on the other hand, when the time comes, neither is entirely pleased -- not at first -- to see how the other has changed, though anybody else would say it's for the better.
Who is this person?

This is a wonderful story, straightforward but with hidden depths, beautifully written by Clemence Dane, and so charmingly played by all the lead actors. And it's the best kind of romantic comedy; it really has something to say, namely that people are stronger, and more resourceful, than they realize, and can achieve more than they thought possible.

This film also sums up the hopes of the Greatest Generation when victory over the Third Reich and the Japanese Empire was finally achieved. Upon completing their wartime service, which was often almost unbelievably difficult and traumatic, most of them hoped they would be coming home to a world of new opportunities and new fairness for everyone. The gradual ruination of those hopes lead to the wave of films noir later in the 1940's.

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