Perfect Strangers (1945)
Directed by Alexander Korda
Starring: Robert Donat, Deborah Kerr, Glynis Johns, Ann Todd
* Published specifically for The Robert Donat Blogathon hosted by Maddy at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films*
London, Spring 1940.
It is the start of an ordinary day this Wednesday, April 4, in the Wilson household. Robert (Robert Donat) and Cathy (Deborah Kerr) follow the usual morning routine in their modest but adequate flat. Both seem to still be half asleep as there is not much conversation and neither seems the least bit joyful. Judging exactly how old the Wilsons are or how long they have been married is difficult. In fact, everything seems to be rather dull.
Robert works at Jones & Hargrove as a bookkeeper and is 8 weeks short of his 5th year anniversary at the company. The job itself is not very attractive; however, it provides a steady income which is very important during this volatile period in history when Britain has joined the Allies in declaring war on Germany. This salary will especially come handy to help support Cathy after Robert leaves for his military service, as he has been drafted into the Royal Navy. Although Robert is hoping to get a raise before being shipped off, the Wilsons must make due with £100 in savings along with a portion of his salary that will be paid during his time away. Nonetheless, they both try to remain positive especially since they believe that the war will last no longer than a few months and that the conflict will be all over by Christmas.
The beginning of Robert’s time in the Navy is strained by his longing to go back home and a feeling of being out of place. Slowly but surely his attitude changes and he becomes efficient in duties as well as more engaging socially with his shipmates. One day he receives a letter from Cathy who announces that she has voluntarily joined the Wrens (WRNS) women’s branch of the Royal Navy. This announcement greatly surprises Robert who likens his wife to a “blind, helpless kitten”. Cathy’s beginnings as a Wren are as awkward as Robert’s had been but she likewise prevails with the help of her jovial bunkmate, Dizzy Clayton (Glynis Johns).
Ever so gradually, the two spouses find themselves fitting in well with their respective naval units. After 18 months however, they still haven’t managed to see one another as there is always a conflict with synchronising their leaves. Robert generally stays with his crewmates during these periods, especially if they are abroad. Cathy, on the other hand, tags along with Dizzy and her cousin, Richard – an older, worldly gentleman who is quite the opposite of Robert. She and Richard develop feelings for one another, propelling Cathy to become emotionally estranged from her husband.Another 18 months go by, during which time Robert inadvertently becomes a hero by delivering his shipwrecked crew to safety after five long, gruelling days of continuous rowing. His injuries are serious, resulting in him spending many weeks in convalescence at a military hospital. A beautiful nurse named Elena (Ann Todd) helps him write letters and provides him company. There is obvious attraction between the two but Elena is hampered by the recent death of her husband who was killed in battle. As for Robert, he remains polite and physically distant although his heart is taken with this breathtaking young woman.
The year is now 1943 and three years have passed since Robert and Cathy have been reunited as husband and wife. So much has happened to them that they feel like strangers to one another. Both lead vastly different lives than they did before their war services and now they seem to want to follow different paths altogether. Is there any way that they can fall in love again or is it too late for their marriage to last?
Background & Observations
The basis for the film came from a short story written by Esther McCracken, a British actress turned playwright. McCracken wrote the story pre-1944 and before her own husband was killed in action during the war conflict. It is not known how much of the original premise remained in the final version shown on-screen but it has been noted that the screenplay was regularly modified according to current events related to World War II. Celebrated female writer Clemence Dane co-wrote the screenplay and ended up winning an Academy Award for Best Original Motion Picture Story.
Released under the title Vacation from Marriage in the United States, Perfect Strangers held an importance for its two leading actors. While it would be the last MGM film for Robert Donat, it would be the first of many at the studio for Deborah Kerr. The film performed very well on both sides of the Atlantic and was a popular film for wartime moviegoers. In my opinion, it undoubtedly brought much needed diversion to spectators, both as a form of moral support and as a propelling jolt of Allied propaganda. There is also no doubt in my mind that the story, along with many others of the time, was used to boost civilian participation in the effort. There is no purposeful vulgar undertone in my observations, as I think the film as a whole was very realistic and communicated positive morals that can be felt even today, outside of a global military conflict.
Robert Donat and the Cast
I hold my head in shame in sharing with you that this is only the second film with Robert Donat that I have seen, the first being Goodbye, Mr. Chips. In an inadvertently comedic twist, the character of Robert Wilson is first shown to the audience as looking quite older than his years so I actually believed that Donat was really as old as the middle age Mr. Chips! (The memory of his youthful face in Chips has completely vanished from my mind.) When Robert Wilson reveals his fresh faced new look, I had a hard time placing him.
Donat brought about a great sense of realism to his character. You feel the difficulty that Robert has in leaving Cathy and all that he has known in civilian life to enter the military. He is not a natural match to be a serviceman – a fact that is apparent to most everyone around him, including his shipmates and superiors – but it is an urgent time of need and beggars cannot be choosers. Witnessing his maturation as a sailor is a satisfying surprise to say the least. I very much appreciated the down-to-earth feel that Donat exuded as well as his chemistry with his fellow thespians. His connection to Deborah Kerr is strong, so much so that you do not realise the relatively limited screen time they share together until after the fact. When Robert and Cathy finally see one another in the pub after three years, there is real electricity flowing between them. The two actors shape an image of a modern couple freely, but respectfully, talking about issues that they had once withheld.
Joining Donat and Kerr is the ever lovely Glynis Johns who is still with us at the delightful age of 96 (in her case, less than three months shy of 97). Her character, Dizzy, is a bit stern in her first scene but she gradually loosens up and becomes a fountain of sound advice to the torn Cathy. Johns would be remembered from her roles as a character actress although she could hold a film on her own given the chance. Last but not least is the talented Ann Todd in her last supporting role before reaching widespread fame later on in 1945 and several years before becoming Mrs. David Lean. Todd’s part in the film is quite small yet very memorable due to her angelic presence. Had the circumstances been different for Robert and Elena, they certainly would have made a fine pair.Thoughts & Discussion
At the moment of writing this piece, I am two months shy of celebrating my 18th year of marriage. Much has happened over those nearly two decades: memorable vacations, overseas moves, the birth of four children, and countless ups and downs. My husband and I never expected life to be perfect but we certainly were not prepared for the hardships that laid ahead for us. Were we strong enough to try and overcome these obstacles or was the possibility of our marriage failing something we would have to face? I will be honest in saying that sometimes it felt like throwing in the towel was the best solution, especially in the face of doubters and the constant strain. Perhaps just mentally contemplating this break was relief enough for us to expel some of the negativity and go on.
Like Robert and Cathy, all couples get caught up in the routine of everyday life after the honeymoon is over. It may seem as if all the excitement has gone with little variation coming their way. For hardworking, blue-collar folks like the Wilsons, their relative fixed income limits any recreational priorities so they must settle for what is affordable and tried-and-true, not to mention what is socially acceptable at the time. So Robert and Cathy would go on their annual trip to Boringville where they had also vacationed as newlyweds after their 1936 nuptials. During the work week, Robert would have his morning timed to exact minute so that they would rise, eat, and leave at the same moment each day. Cathy would be there to help him along, rather dowdy in her appearance as a housewife with not much outside stimulation throughout her day. Both are clearly dissatisfied to an extent with one another but say nothing. After all, tomorrow is another day.
I’m not saying he’s Clark Gable, but he’s dependable.
Luckily, marriage is not always an equation for disappointment. It takes a lot of work to make a marital union work because two people must be able to grow as individuals and build their couple all the while remaining on separate professional paths. There is a lot of sacrifice involved, especially when children come into the picture. Those enormous amounts of giving hopefully end up with personal gain when you see the life you build together bear fruit. (A lot of this achievement is not recognised outside of the family circle so do not expect to receive medals or plaques commemorating milestones.)
The Wilsons had been married for about four years when Robert was sent off to serve in the Navy. In this time frame, Robert and Cathy had gotten to know each other well although they still kept little “secrets” to themselves out of fear that the other would think they were odd. What they would learn later on is that they were perfectly normal and that they would not have been rejected or even laughed at for their ideas. The separation they experienced by both joining the war effort actually helped them ameliorate their health and how they would live the rest of their lives thereafter. When they met after three long years apart, they believed it would be the end of their relationship but realised that had they not been separated in the first place, they would be a lot unhappier. Both had a chance to relish in success, becoming veterans in their branches of service, and having a good time doing so despite facing the life or death circumstances of warfare.
Perfect Strangers is by no means a candy-coated romantic love story nor is it an overly dramatic film that will drain your emotions. Everything is told in a very straightforward fashion with no flashbacks or flash-forwards. There is no bad guy and the Wilsons never come to a point of being unreasonable with each other. Their little tiffs are duly justified. The narrative is one that is appealing to people of all ages, in all stages of their lives. It certainly hits a chord with married couples who can identify with the challenges faced by the Wilsons. I could not help but to associate this film with Brief Encounter; one of Great Britain’s very finest films that also deals with marriage and extramarital attraction. In it, the lead characters – Laura and Alec – are both married to other people but happen to fall in love with one another. Their emotional affair is tragic because the coupling, with their souls bound together by admiration and longing, can painfully never become a reality. However, the liaison changes them for the better as they return to their respective spouses with a newfound courage to continue on and rekindle the love they once had.