It’s been a while since I did a Christmas post—therefore, this time round, I decided it was time to mark this festive season with a Christmas special. Not It’s A Wonderful Life or one of those other famous Christmas films, but a little-known one that manages to retain all the sweetness and charm of Christmas, but gives it dark undertones. I’ll Be Seeing You is about Christmas, but it’s also about the demons that haunt people; about pasts and futures; about healing and forgiveness.
The story begins on a busy railway platform. Mary Marshall (Ginger Rogers) stops to buy candy from a stall, and seems to be completely out of date about the candy on sale. The stall keeper asks her, “Where have you been?”
Also at the stall is a soldier, Sergeant Zachary ‘Zac’ Morgan (Joseph Cotten). He fumbles, doesn’t seem to quite know exactly what he’s about, and after he’s finally bought a magazine, leaves it behind at the stall. The stall keeper has to yell to Zac to come and take the magazine.
As luck would have it, these two people, though they haven’t encountered each other at the stall, meet in the train. They’re seated opposite each other, and it soon becomes apparent that they’re both fairly insular people. Though they glance surreptitiously at each other, they instantly bury their noses in their respective magazines.
Even the arrival of two gregarious soldiers, who start joking and playing rock-paper-scissors, does not elicit anything but the merest polite greeting from Zac and Mary.
After a while, the soldiers’ incessant chatter makes even the other two put away their magazines, though both the sergeant and the girl refuse to join the soldiers when a trip to the dining car is suggested. The soldiers move off, leaving Zac and Mary to themselves. And, the ice having been broken thanks to the soldiers, Zac and Mary finally begin talking to each other.
She tells him that she’s a travelling saleslady, on a 10-day vacation right now. She’ll be alighting not far down the line: at Pine Hill, where she’ll be spending the Christmas holidays with her uncle and aunt.
After a brief pause, Zac tells Mary that’s a coincidence, because he too will be getting off the train at Pine Hill. His sister lives in Pine Hill, and he’ll be staying with her for Christmas.
Pine Hill comes, and Zac and Mary get off the train. Just as Mary’s getting into a taxi, Zac asks her if he may telephone her, and where. She tells him her uncle’s name and says that the telephone number is in the directory. She also looks happy when Zac tells her his name, and hints that he will be phoning her very soon indeed.
Mary arrives soon after at the home of her uncle, Henry Marshall (Tom Tully), Aunt Sarah (Spring Byington) and 17 year-old cousin Barbara (Shirley Temple, looking very grown-up and different from the ‘usual’ Shirley Temple). Uncle Henry is at work, but Aunt Sarah and Barbara are at home, and their welcome is warm and affectionate, Aunt Sarah’s a bit more effusive.
Barbara, who’ll be sharing her room with Mary, is guilty of a faux pas when she apologises that her room is very small—more a cell than a room, she says. And immediately fumbles, apologising for having said that.
From their snatches of conversation—Aunt Sarah’s delight that Mary has been able to come, etc—a shocking truth emerges: this lovely young woman is a prisoner. She is serving a 6-year sentence, and has been allowed 10 days’ vacation for Christmas on account of good behaviour.
While Aunt Sarah’s affection for Mary is undiluted by anything approaching suspicion, it is not so with Barbara. Mary, going into the bathroom, discovers that Barbara has set out two separate towels, clearly labelled ‘Mary’ and ‘Barbara’. Mary has a separate bar of soap, and in the wardrobe, Barbara’s dresses have been moved to one side, a makeshift curtain hung up, and ‘Barbara’ scrawled on a scrap of paper pinned above Barbara’s half of the space.
Meanwhile, Zac has moved in, too—into the YMCA. He checks in, goes up to the room he’s been given, tries to hang his coat on the coat and hat stand—and misses.
“Don’t get worried, Zac. That bayonet wound is all healed, but the wound in your mind is going to take a little more time. That’s why the doctors gave you this ten-day leave from the hospital: to prove to you that you can go out in the world again…” goes the voiceover as Zac moves away from the stand and around the room.
When he tries to light a cigarette, the cigarettes slip from his hands, two of them tumbling to the floor. He lights a match, but it remains unused until he finally extinguishes it.
Among the things he pulls out of his knapsack are his clothes, a Purple Heart, and this printed article:
If Mary has a secret to hide, so does Zac.
That evening, Mary receives a phone call from him, asking if she’d like to go out for dinner. Mary would like to, but since she’s staying with the Marshalls, it wouldn’t be polite to leave them and go gallivanting. With Zac still on the line, Mary calls to Aunt Sarah to tell her what’s up—and Aunt Sarah immediately tells Mary to invite Zac over for dinner. Mary does, and Zac accepts.
When he arrives for dinner, though, he makes a confession to Mary: he does not have a sister (or any other relative) in Pine Hill; he made up that excuse on the spur of the moment when Mary said she would be getting off at Pine Hill. All because he wanted to get to know Mary better, spend some more time with her. Mary is pleased, and a little taken aback.
Dinnertime conversation is cheery, until Barbara, having spotted Zac’s Purple Heart, his ribbons for service in the South Pacific, and his other medals, asks him to tell them about the campaigns he’s been on. Zac looks uncomfortable. Even though Barbara continues to pester him, he does not answer her questions, leaving Mary a little puzzled. Aren’t soldiers—heroic soldiers, as Zac obviously is—expected to talk about the honours they’ve won?
After dinner, Zac and Mary go out for a movie. There are reminders of the war all around. The movie is a war movie, glorifying ‘our boys at the Front’. On the pavement outside the theatre, a trio of little boys, equipped with toy guns, is busy playing troops. Mary doesn’t give any of this a second thought, but Zac is visibly disturbed.
The movie over, Mary asks Zac what it’s like at the Front, and he tells her: that you’re only aware of the ten feet surrounding you, of the men injured and dying around you, the sights, the smells, the sounds. Mary begins to get some idea of what this man has been through.
When they stop at a diner for a cup of coffee, there’s more distress in store for Zac. The man behind the counter sees Zac’s decorations, and immediately comes over to their table, chattering nineteen to the dozen, telling Zac how much he wanted to be in the forces, but they wouldn’t have him, blah, blah, and how was it out there, and what he would have done if he’d been sent to the Front, etc.
Zac tries to stem the tide by interrupting (twice) to ask if Mary would like cream with her coffee. When even that has no effect on the man, Zac abruptly rises to his feet, grabs his trench coat and cap, and strides out of the diner. Mary follows, by now certain there’s something wrong.
At the gate to the Marshalls’ home, Zac begins to say that he wishes he could tell Mary—and even as he’s saying that, he lifts a pebble from the ground and flings it at a nearby lamp post—and misses. And stops speaking in mid-sentence.
Mary, smiling and looking towards the lamp post as she bends to lift a pebble, doesn’t see how distressed Zac is by the fact that he’s missed the lamp post. When she looks around, he’s striding away down the street, without having even said a word of farewell to her.
While Mary is still in the dark about the reason for Zac’s odd behaviour, someone else is curious (not to mention suspicious) about Mary herself. When Mary confronts Barbara about the lines of demarcation the girl has drawn in their shared space, Barbara apologises and admits that she doesn’t know why Mary is serving a prison sentence.
So Mary tells her. Three years earlier, Mary had been working as a secretary. Her boss was an attractive man, and seemed nice enough to her for Mary to begin hoping that perhaps someday he might want to marry her. One day, the boss invited Mary to a party at his home—and even gave her a white orchid to wear as a corsage. A very excited Mary bought herself a new dress, just so that she would be able to make a good impression…
…only to discover that she had been duped. There were no other guests; the ‘party’ was all for her. He boss was drunk when she arrived, and continued to drink until a frightened Mary decided it was time to leave—which was when he lunged andt her and tried to molest her. In the scuffle that ensued, Mary managed to break loose, and her boss fell backward, out of the window.
He lived on the 14th floor.
[Interestingly, this entire sequence is filmed without ever revealing the boss’s face. We see his back, we see Mary, but he remains, in effect, faceless. Ironic, for a man who turned Mary’s life right around].
That was why Mary was arrested, charged with (and convicted of) manslaughter, and sentenced to 6 years in jail.
Barbara is indignant—it wasn’t Mary’s fault, after all—and terribly sorry for having treated Mary like a pariah. She sets about removing all signs of the segregation she had imposed, and says she wishes her parents didn’t treat her like a child and hide things from her.
When it comes to hiding things, however, that’s exactly what Mary is doing. As the days pass, her friendship with Zac grows deeper. There is obvious chemistry between these two. Zac starts (even in these few days) seeming to be more confident of himself, less nervous and tense, less haunted by his demons—and it’s all because of Mary. But will Mary let him into the secret she harbours? What will happen when the 10 days of respite are over, and Mary has to return to prison, while Zac goes back to the hospital?
I’ll Be Seeing You does not have the sugary, all-is-well feel of so many old-fashioned Christmas films. Mary and Zac’s individual secrets make them lonely people, who try to reach inward for comfort. (In Zac’s case, quite literally, since he keeps telling himself that things will be all right). Each of them has a cross to bear, in both cases not one of their own making, yet one that is construed as shameful by the rest of the world.
And yet, this isn’t a film about only darkness and gloom in a time of rejoicing. It is also about hope and love, and about forgiveness. All the things that make Christmas a time to celebrate. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a pleasant watch, and it has a message other than that of universal goodwill.
What I liked about this film:
Joseph Cotten. I have admired Cotten’s acting ever since I first saw him in Shadow of a Doubt. I had been looking forward to seeing him in this film, and he didn’t disappoint: Zac Morgan, while battling the effects of the experiences he’s been through, does not descend into melodrama. Most of the time, we see only glimpses of what he’s going through, and then only in small, easily-missed expressions or gestures: a shaky hand, confused eyes, silence. There’s an admirable restraint here, which further enhances the occasions when there is a sudden glimpse of the anguish and pain Zac carries within himself. Classic Cotten.
What I didn’t like:
The end, which was a little too rushed—and didn’t show the process by which a certain change of heart took place.
Still (and perhaps that’s because I’m in a mellow Yuletide mood), I was willing to forgive that. I’ll Be Seeing You was, for me, a satisfying enough watch.
Merry Christmas, all! May this season bring you joy and peace and many blessings.