Vacation from Marriage (1945)

Having watched this movie (released in the UK as Perfect Strangers), I’m realising I need to watch more of Robert Donat. He—and Deborah Kerr, who overdid the saccharine act in Quo Vadis—pull off this unusual tale of a wartime romance with ease. Frankly speaking, wartime romances à la A Farewell to Arms don’t thrill me. I hate the angst, the fear of the loved one copping it, etc. Too much stress.
So Alexander Korda’s Vacation from Marriage, never too blue, never really distressing and with a mostly predictable end, was perfect. Sweet!

1940, April. Catherine (Deborah Kerr) and Robert Wilson (Robert Donat) have been married four years. Robert’s a bookkeeper; Cathy spends her time nursing a perpetual cold and pottering about their bleak little flat. She is, as Robert describes her later, quiet, simple, dependable. Not a pinup girl.

Cathy at breakfast

But then, Robert’s not much better himself. As Cathy says (later), “I’m not saying he’s Clark Gable.”

Robert on the stairs

No, definitely not.

Robert’s life is like clockwork: leave home at 8 (after winding up the clocks and picking up the brolly), reach office at 9, leave office at 6, and get home at 6.30 after buying a newspaper at the shop down the street.
To put it mildly, Robert and Cathy lead sedate lives. More bluntly, they’re dull as ditchwater. They’re caught up in the humdrum of daily routines, have little to say to each other, and aren’t going anywhere except on an annual vacation to Clacton-on-Sea.

Robert and Cathy

But Robert gets called up to join the Royal Navy, and ends up on the HMS Benbow. The first to go are his ghastly toothbrush moustache—the Navy won’t tolerate it—and the mop of hair he’s always combing down. Then, his diffidence and general dullness start taking a beating. He’s actually turning into an interesting man: friendly, self-confident, and yes, yummy in uniform!

Robert at the telegraph office

Cathy, meanwhile, has enlisted too—in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRENS). Her first day, she makes a friend: the likeable Senior Rating, Dizzy Clayton (a very peppy Glynis Johns). Dizzy swiftly sets about revamping Cathy, and soon we have another successful makeover. Cathy, all made up and with a smart hairdo, evolves into a very competent WREN. No wonder, then, that Dizzy’s cousin Richard (Roland Culver) falls for her. But Cathy insists that she’s devoted to Robert.

Richard and Cathy

Robert’s ship goes down, and Robert lands in hospital with frostbitten hands. While recuperating, he finds himself confiding in the nurse, Elena (Ann Todd), telling her about Cathy. There’s a mutual attraction of sorts, but it doesn’t get any further: she’s mourning her recently killed husband, and Robert convinces himself he still loves Cathy.

Elena and Robert

Out of the blue, both Robert and Cathy get 10 days’ leave at the same time. They’ve been waiting for this—or at least telling themselves they’re waiting—for the past three years, so they plan to meet back at the flat. On the way there, in their respective trains, they discuss each other: Robert with his mate, Scottie; and Cathy with Dizzy. The conclusion’s the same: neither wants to go back to the helpless, boring and utterly colourless spouse of three years ago.

Cathy with Dizzy on the train

Cathy, in fact, chickens out and phones Robert at the flat, saying she wants to leave him. She agrees to meet him, though, at the bus stop. It’s night-time, so neither can see the other too well, but they meet, hurl recriminations at each other, and agree on a divorce.

Talking it out...

To talk it over, Robert persuades Cathy to come with him to the local pub, where Scottie and Dizzy will soon be landing up.
Here’s where one of my favourite scenes begins. Cathy and Robert enter the crowded pub, and Robert goes off to get their drinks—all without seeing Cathy’s face (or her seeing his). The moment when they actually come face to face is priceless!

At the pub

But an attractive spouse—even if he or she’s gorgeous enough to have your best mate doubt your sanity in wanting a divorce—isn’t enough. Robert and Cathy bicker, digging up old hurts. In the process, they also find that a lot of pre-war misconceptions they had about each other get cleared up… but no, when they part, it’s still on bad terms. Really bad.

So what happens? Does Robert collect his gear from the flat and move on out? Does Cathy remain adamant that she doesn’t want anything to do with her `old maid’ of a husband? Watch!

Robert at the flat

What I liked about this film:
Donat and Kerr are delightful—and very convincing, both as a drab and boring couple and as attractive, self-assured people.
The scene in the pub is superb. Not just their sudden (and dramatic) recognition of each other, but also the subsequent dialogue. There’s a subtle chemistry coming through here, of two people who’re raging at each other, but whose shared past actually does bring them closer in ways they probably don’t realise.

What I didn’t like:
The end’s too hurried. I found myself looking worriedly at the timer and wondering how a plausible end could fit into two minutes.

But, despite that unsatisfactory end, a lovely film that left me with a smile for the rest of the day.

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18 thoughts on “Vacation from Marriage (1945)

  1. I remember watching this on TCM and loving it – your review captures so well what I loved about it and evokes the emotions I felt watching it. The chemistry between the leads, the way they grow while they’re apart but still find something in common that they probably never knew existed…. Like you, I wish they’d spent a little more time on the ending, but other than that, this is a sweet little gem of a movie. Lovely review.

  2. Yes, I loved this movie. In fact, someone the other day said I’d probably given away a little too much of the plot, but then I got around to thinking: it’s not really the story that’s gripping, so much as the dialogue and the chemistry between Robert and Cathy… very heart-warming.
    Thanks for reading!

  3. Thank you for reading – Vacation from Marriage is a lovely film. And thank you for telling me about The Enchanted Cottage: I hadn’t heard about it, but the description on imdb sounds just like something I’d like to see! I’m putting it on my to-do list right away.

  4. oh I recommend Enchanted Cottage very highly!

    perfectly cast, great writing by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Val Lewton collaborator DeWitt Bodeen and superb direction by the very underrated John Cromwell

  5. Thanks to your recommendation, I decided to catch this on TCM tonight. I’ve just finished watching and loved it! What is it about certain movies that grabs you from the first scene? This was one of them. Robert and Cathy’s drab exisetence was so well drawn and emphasised that you just knew a contrast is on the way. I loved the fact that both got make-overs. And their dawning attraction (should it be re-attraction?) was so beautifully done. Its such a cute little movie though I agree, the end could have done with a little more work.

    My previous experience with Robert Donat was 39 Steps and I thought he looked surprisingly old here. Just went through your reviews and realised that this was a decade after the Hitchcock movie (have you read the book – same story yet so very different). Deborah Kerr looked extremely young and sooooo lovely. Robert Osborne commented that an 18 years old Roger Moore shows up in some scene but I failed to catch it. Did you?

  6. I’m so glad you liked it! I loved this film from the word go – there was something just so gloriously romantic yet sweet about it.

    Yes, The 39 Steps was a whole decade before this one. I know, it’s nothing like the book (which I read simply because I’d liked the film so much!), but interesting anyway. And I’ve got to see Vacation from Marriage again to try and spot Roger Moore. I read in an interview with him that he appears as a sniffy sailor with a cold; must be somewhere in one of those initial scenes when Robert Donat first goes to sea… will check.

  7. Evidently the DVD was only released a couple of years ago. We had seen this movie about 20 years ago on TV and taped it, but the quality was poor. My only regret about the new release is that it is the 92 minute “Vacation from Marriage” version and not the original 102 minute “Perfect Strangers” version.

    My wife and I both love this movie – we have probably watched it two dozen times already. Some of it was to decode the British and Scottish accents and references (as when Scotty says “Give me Sauchiehall Street anytime!” ). We also realized that every detail in the set, and every action, has some symbolism or relevance. For example, when Robert and Cathy are heading via train to their inevitable meeting, the railroad tracks are branching away from one another (get it?), as is their marriage.

    We were also taken by the realism and accurate detail. Particularly the uniforms. We found a book called “World War II British Women’s Uniforms in Colour Photographs” that explains it all. When Cathy joins the Wrens, she is wearing the pre-1942 soft cap, whereas three years later she is in the correct updated cap. On the boat, she is wearing the correct “boat crew” kit which were actually small-size men’s clothes. The rope seen around various of the uniforms was the “lanyard,” which carried at the end a specialized pocket knife. Only Wrens in boat crews had these, so it was a badge of distinction. Very neat!

    As dustedoff points out, the face-to-face meeting in the pub is priceless. Cathy eyes Robert from stem to stern, in something of a state of shock, without hardly shifting her eyes. And then, a couple of moments later, when Robert gets close to Cathy’s face, it is clear that part of her wants to kiss him, but she can’t let herself do it. And then a bit later, Robert takes Cathy in arm, and starts dancing. Well, supposedly, neither of them knew how, so there is pleasant surprise on both sides.

    I also thought the heated street argument after the pub scene was odd and somewhat contrived. Not very satisfactory! Instead, the two should have kept flirting in the pub, in my view. Perhaps had the inevitable clinch on the steps of the divorce lawyer’s office, rather than go in!

    There are some small plot holes or errors which I’ll add here in a separate posting if I get to it.

    But all in all, a great movie.

    • It’s been far too long since I watched this film (or at least, all of it – I did watch a couple of scenes near the end; that brilliant one in the pub, for one, just a couple of months back). I must watch it again, and more closely this time – I don’t remember the rails branching out, for one, or the details of the uniform.

      Yes, I agree that the quarrel after the pub scene is rather contrived. Odd, too, considering that it’s preceded by obvious chemistry at the pub, and the end is – well, we know. It would have made much more sense to have them continue in the pub – or go back home! ;-)

      But yes, a great movie, and one I need to rewatch soon.

    • Could you be a little more specific? How does Perfect Strangers end? (I’m assuming – which I hadn’t heard of before – that the film had two different endings, one for the UK release and one for the US release?)

  8. Can someone please provide the details of how the British version (Perfect Strangers) ends? It’s impossible to find that version anywhere. Thank you!

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