Like most film buffs, I have a list in my head of movies I need to see before I die. I couldn’t tell you how large the list or even half the movies on it. But I can tell you the list in one film shorter since I recently saw “Since You Went Away”

It’s been on the list almost since I started my love affair with movies in Jr. High. I don’t really know why, since I haven’t read that much about it. Maybe it’s because it was nominated for 9 Oscars or the fact it stars Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotton, Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple and Monty Woolley. All I know is it was on that list. And now it’s off.

“Since You Went Away” begins after the start of World War II. We’re already fighting Japan in Pacific and the rest of the Axis in Italy and Northern Africa but have yet to invade Normandy. Claudette Colbert plays a housewife in an unidentified city on one of the Great Lakes. Her husband, who owns a successful advertising agency, has enlisted. She’s unhappy about this but proud of him and trying very hard not to show her feelings to her three teenage daughters, who are played by Jones and Temple. Times are getting tougher and tougher and Mom decides to take in a boarder. The boarder is a retired colonel, played by Monty Woolley as gruff and not so loveable. Shortly after the Colonel’s entrance, they are visited by an old family friend, played by Joseph Cotton. Cotton is an unrepentant playboy who has himself enlisted and will soon be shipping out. We know he’s a playboy because he is constantly bumping into ex-flames who tell him to “call me” despite the fact they are usually being escorted by a higher ranking officer or somebody from the Mayor’s office. This being World War II, accommodations are scarce and soon the household has another body. As if the house isn’t stuffed to the gills as it is, the former maid moves(Hattie Daniels) in when she needs a roof over her head.  

The oldest daughter Janie, played by Jones, has had a crush on Cotten since she was a little girl and still does. Cotton, a mensch if there ever was one, acknowledges her feelings but doesn’t encourage them. This is relationship that will never happen. Robert Walker plays the colonel’s grandson who is all but spurned by the old geezer when he pops in. Soon he is involved with Jones(They were married in real life), who eventually forgets all about Cotton.

Are you with me so far?

If this sounds like it’s a lot to take in, it could be. But it’s told in the space of three hours and told well.

I’ve always found Colbert sexy in a grown up, non-bombshell kind of way and she dominates the movie the way actors used to in those days. Not to say it’s just her movie. There are several story lines going on but we always get back to Colber waiting for her husband to get home. But whenever the movie came back to her, I was kind of glad. It’s really her movie when you come down to it.

There is an old axiom in movies that the unseen is more powerful than the seen. This is often used in horror movies or thrillers but works just as well in “Since You Went Away”. We never see the husband but he is just as vital a character as anybody else there. Except for Colbert, of course. At some point in the movie, the husband is missing in action and one of the most powerful scenes involves Colbert reading the last letter she got from him to her two daughters. It is beautifully written, directed and acted.

Although I’ve never heard it called an epic, I’d be surprised if some film writers haven’t call it one over the years. But “Since You Went Away” is really not an epic at all. In fact, it has a gentle humor sprinkled throughout the movie that perfectly counterbalances its heavier aspects. This not only keeps it from veering into epic territory but is the key to why the movie is as good as it is.

Colbert was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for “Since You Went Away” but didn’t win. Jennifer Jones and Monty Woolley were also nominated for supporting Oscars and also did not win. Colbert definitely delivers the best performance in the movie. But the second best performance is by Cotton, who did not get nominated. Although I’m hardly a film scholar, Cotton gives what is probably my favorite performance of his in this movie. Jones longs for Cotton and Cotton longs for Colbert. The character is pretty much written as a mensch who would never dream of letting either relationship happen, but the way Cotton plays him is almost a master class in screen acting. His attitude towards Jones is paternal but never condescending. And you can see in his eyes and subtle movements that as much as he adores Colbert, he values his friendship with her and the husband so much more.

If the movie has a weak link, it’s Jones. A beautiful woman for sure, Jones was not a bad actress. In fact she won the Best Actress Oscar for “Song of Bernadette” the year before. Like many stars, she had an undeniable screen presence that went beyond her physical beauty. There are times in the movie when we see that screen presence and it serves the movie well. But there are other moments, especially in one scene towards the end, where is she called upon to “act” and it comes off as too much.

“Since You Went Away” is one of those movies that not everybody remembers but those that do seem to love it. I just discovered it myself and don’t expect to forget about it anytime soon.