Thursday, July 04, 2013

Tonight's Movie: In Our Time (1944)

Earlier this week Turner Classic Movies kicked off its celebration of Paul Henreid as Star of the Month with IN OUR TIME (1944), a well-acted and absorbing romance set against the backdrop of the Nazi invasion of Poland.

The film is initially quite reminiscent of REBECCA (1940), as quiet Jennifer (Ida Lupino), a young British secretary traveling as aide to a rather obnoxious older lady (Mary Boland), is romanced by a dashing gentleman. The gentleman in question is Count Stefan Orwid (Henreid), a member of the Polish nobility who defies family and tradition to marry Jenny despite her being a working girl whose father was a mere piano teacher.

Stefan initially shows signs of "going wobbly" on the romance, attempting to elevate Jenny's background to something his family will find more socially acceptable, but Jenny will have nothing but honesty.

When Stefan's intimidating uncle (Victor Francen), the family patriarch who controls the purse strings, threatens to withdraw financial support, Jenny decides marriage to Stefan wouldn't work and plans to back out of the engagement. However, the incident proves to be a clarifying experience for Stefan and he declares his independence, resolving, with Jenny's help, to modernize the family estate so it will become a self-supporting farm. All goes well until the Nazis invade Poland...

IN OUR TIME had me engrossed from the very start, as the tentative attraction between Stefan and Jenny moves forward. Their mutual anxiety to see one another again -- his discomfiture when he realizes she's not someone who could be a quick fling, but that she's a very proper young lady -- her sadness when she believes she won't ever see him again and disbelief when he proposes -- it's all quite heart-stopping and very moving, beautifully acted by Henreid and Lupino. I was completely engaged and caught up in their story.

I can't say I've ever particularly been a Henreid fan, but he certainly had me swooning in this, especially as his character matures and puts aside his family's expectations in order to be his own man. Lupino, a longtime favorite, also builds a character who's initially in the shadow of more powerful personalities -- first her incessantly chattering, chocolate-eating employer and then the count who sweeps her into his life day by day -- yet once Stefan fully commits to her and their life together, she emerges from her cocoon to be his staunchest supporter and toughest ally, regardless of family pressures. After her marriage Jenny's growing confidence is also reflected physically, in a more elegant wardrobe and neater hairstyle.

The film's weakest section is when the film moves from romance and married life to more directly face the war issues which have loomed as a background threat since the opening scenes. The sequences where Stefan leaves to defend Warsaw with his regiment and then directs a "scorched earth" strategy at his estate constitute a relatively short time towards the end of the film. I'm generally a fan of shorter, faster-paced films but in this case the 110 minutes didn't seem to be quite enough. This film might have been even better as a longer wartime epic along the lines of the American homefront saga SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944).

In addition to the wartime scenes, the family drama also appears to have been pared down. Nancy Coleman, playing the count's bitter sister Janina, seemed strangely underused; that impression was confirmed by scenes in the trailer, including Janina arguing with Jenny, which do not appear in the final film. One senses Janina had a story at one point but her role was edited down to be simply a disapproving background character. I checked the biographical chapter on Coleman in Daniel Bubbeo's excellent THE WOMEN OF WARNER BROS., but it did not shed any light on the subject.

The supporting cast includes Alla Nazimova as Stefan's mother and Russian actor and drama teacher Michael Chekhov (nephew of Anton) as Stefan's Uncle Leopold. Chekhov was later nominated as Best Supporting Actor for Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND (1945).

IN OUR TIME was directed by Vincent Sherman, filmed in black and white by Carl Guthrie, and scored by Franz Waxman.

Extra extraordinaire Bess Flowers is listed by IMDb in not one but two scenes, at the train depot and the ballet, and I missed spotting her in both! I'll be watching for her next time.

This film did not have a VHS release and is not yet available on DVD. Perhaps this Warner Bros. film will be a future release from the Warner Archive.

IN OUR TIME will next be shown on TCM on August 4, 2013. It's definitely worth calendaring; even with its flaws I enjoyed it tremendously.

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