Producer David O. Selznick’s tribute to the homefront during World War II, Since You Went Away stars Claudette Colbert as a mother to daughters Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple, who must cope with her husband gone to war and find some meaning in her life beyond being a wife and mother.
Except for Colbert, the performances are a bit broad for today’s audiences. The film is far too sentimental for my tastes, but it must have packed quite a wallop upon its release in the midst of the war. Coating the film in a saccharine film of sweetness is Max Steiner’s score.
The film has more melodic material than any other Steiner score except perhaps Gone With the Wind, and that’s what ultimately hurts it—there’s just too much music. Steiner contributes his usual wealth of beautiful melodies, but the overuse hampers their effectiveness.
The main theme closely resembles the song “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” which had been made popular the year before by Bing Crosby. The theme conveys Colbert’s longing for her husband. In addition, Steiner borrowed the tender waltz “Together” from his 1937 score for A Star Is Born as the song for Colbert and her husband.
Typical of Steiner scores, most of the main characters have themes. A bluesy theme for Hattie McDaniel’s maid is heard in the muted trumpet, accompanied by bassoon and loping clarinets. A military trumpet call conveys General Smollett’s (Monty Woolley) irascible character. There is a lively theme for Temple’s rambunctuous Brig, and even a bass clarinet and contrabassoon melody for the bulldog, Soda. The most effective theme is the tender melody that accompanies the budding love affair between Jane (Jones) and Bill (Robert Walker).
The most famous scene in the film occurs as Jane says goodbye to Bill at the railroad station. The music heightens the poignancy and sadness of the scene, and eventually the music picks up steam as the train pulls out of the station with Jane running alongside it. What makes the scene even more touching was that Jones and Walker were at the end of their real-life marriage and finding it painful to act together, especially since Jones was being courted by Selznick. Though the scene has been parodied in numerous films ever since, it’s an undeniably heartbreaking moment that Steiner thankfully doesn’t overplay.
Steiner’s music for Since You Went Away is, as always, intensely melodic. However, a more judicious use of the music might have served the film better. Still, just “good” Steiner is better than most composer’s finest. And Since You Went Away is, if not great, very “good.”