Vacation from Marriage (1945, Alexander Korda)
Wonderful, just absolutely wonderful. Vacation from Marriage, initially entitled Perfect Strangers in its home country, is an almost magical British variant on movies like The Awful Truth that’s less comedy than war-infected, witty drama… but mostly, like Dodsworth, a movie about serious long-term relationships that is genuinely and unmistakably made for adults. Though it bears a strong resemblance to the obscure Hitchcock satire Rich and Strange, it mostly calls to mind Billy Wilder’s and James L. Brooks’ films — none of the fast-talking of Sturges or the slickness of Lubitsch, just a real sense of life and of people.
It’s not really a straight comedy but it is quite witty, opening up as a good-natured examination of a loving couple whose life is extremely structured, only to be upended by the war — which opens the world up to both of them (they both join the Navy), to the point that during a three-year separation each decides they can’t go back to the drab old life and must ask for a divorce! The film has a strong sensual undercurrent even as it follows two stuffy people in a relationship built on routine; when both of them bust out and discover something bigger, they seem to become entirely different people and each assumes — in not so many words — that the other could no longer possibly be satisfied with them.
With its genuine even-handed empathy for both characters, it’s nearly as profound a statement on prolonged marriage as Sunrise… and the biggest miracle is that the more devastatingly serious and catastrophic it gets, the funnier it is. The feeling of elation from it calls Bad Girl to mind; this film’s surreal backdrop of bombed-out London recalls the artificial New York City of Frank Borzage’s masterpiece. Yet above all, the performances are the perfect evocation of the complex emotional cycle through which these entirely believable characters travel; just look at Robert Donat’s face, early on, in that screenshot above, or at the just-under-the-surface desire within both of them in the next one (which is even more erotically charged in motion).
I’ve seen so many American films made during the war lately that attempt some insight about how such earth-shaking events impacted civilian life; one of the more convincing was Princess O’Rourke — a silly romantic comedy for the most part, but imbued with a few scenes of genuine and weighty heartbreak — and one of the more baffling was the Billy Wilder-scripted Arise, My Love, which seemed to change plots and genres every five minutes or so. But none of them could match the gravity of this film. In a similar vein to The Best Years of Our Lives a year later, it uses the strife and agony of the war as a backdrop to interpersonal upheaval, and quite beautifully casts London in the aftermath of the Blitz as a metaphor for a broken-down relationship.
This is brilliantly cast — Donat and Deborah Kerr, magnificent actors to begin with, have genuine chemistry as both the “before” and “after” versions of themselves, and their organic evolution as individuals and as a couple is remarkably believable; modern viewers will almost certainly think of the elder McFlys at the beginning and end of Back to the Future. But the presence of Ann Todd and especially Glynis Johns in supporting roles give the film the gravity of outer wisdom, friendship and temptation that so often informs our life decisions, especially about love. For all the banter, I don’t think there are many films of the ’40s that are finally this realistic, diplomatic, humane yet ultimately optimistic about real marriage between real actual humans.
Surprisingly advanced in its sexual politics, Vacation from Marriage is a portrait of a real marriage between full-bodied adults. In general I can’t say enough about this — it’s probably the best older film I’ve discovered since seeing Bad Girl in 2013. It’s just too bad you can’t really rent it anywhere. It’s Warner Archive or Amazon Instant or nothing, which means that barring TCM screenings people are unlikely to discover it. Buck its obscurity and watch it when you can. It’s brilliant and truly sweet and well worth your while.
[Screencaps from the web, but for once I actually was able to track down some I approved of!]