We all have expectations of what the new year will bring. We reflect on what has transpired in the old year, and depending on the events, we hope either for continued good things or, more often, for better things. There is anticipation and anxiety. The passage of time is tinged with sadness, and we measure time in order to bring some order to our lives. Uncertainty accompanies these emotions, yet being human, we can’t help but plan for good things. We make new year’s resolutions, which mostly fall flat, but we also look at it in good humor.
We don’t often talk about it, but one of the most important parts of a new year’s anticipation is to remain firmly planted in reality. Of course, today’s culture celebrates anything but that. Reality is rejected all around us. We see this in expressions of art and film, which are devoid of meaning. The past seems to offer more nourishment for the soul in what Jacques Maritain called the habit of art and, by implication, of life. This is especially true of Christmas and New Year-themed movies.
William Dieterle’s 1944 “I’ll Be Seeing You” is a fine example of reality, hope, and love all coming together during the Christmas season. At times sentimental (like most Christmas movies tend to be), “I’ll Be Seeing You” is a dark yet hopeful exploration of a meeting between two strangers, both hiding something about their lives from each other.
Joseph Cotten plays Sgt. Zachary Morgan, a soldier returning from the war, who has just received a 10-day leave from a military hospital. He’s suffering from “shell shock” (the term once used for PTSD), and this leave is a test of whether he can adjust to a normal, daily life.
Ginger Rogers plays Mary Marshall, who is on an eight-day furlough from prison, where she is serving a six-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter. It’s not clear where Zach is going, but Mary is heading to Pine Hill to spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve with her aunt Sarah, uncle Henry, and cousin Barbara (Shirley Temple).
When they meet on the train, Zach and Mary are almost instantly attracted to one another, but they are both very coy about it. They both feel ashamed of the reality of their lives, and are presenting a false picture of normalcy. Wanting to spend time with Mary, Zach makes up a story that he is visiting his sister in Pine Hill. Of course, this sister doesn’t exist, and he ends up checking in at the local YMCA. Everyone seems to show him respect and deference because he is a soldier. There is a patriotic spirit in the air, yet Zach feels alienated, confused, and unwell.
Zach gets an invite for Christmas dinner and a New Year’s Eve dance by Mary and her family. A romance is budding, but there is a lingering and unspoken bittersweetness about it. Every time Mary feels hopeful about her relationship with Zach, she is thrown into the space of sorrow because she knows that the return to prison is inevitable. (She has served three years already, and the furlough for good behavior is just temporary.)
Every time Zach feels that normal life is possible, he is thrown into another panic attack that leaves him depleted and hopeless. After the initial happiness at the mutual declaration of love, Zach returns to his room at the YMCA only to enter into the whirlwind of post-traumatic drama. But it is Mary’s implicit presence that helps him move beyond his utter paralysis of mind. His struggle, at least from one panic attack, has ended. Yet we know there will be another.
At the New Year’s Eve dance, both Mary and Zach are living separate realities from the rest of the celebrants. There is a sense of joy and forward-looking progress, but the joy keeps getting interrupted by the interior struggles both face and the sense of dread that it leaves looming over the budding happiness. Mary is not accepted because nobody understands that her crime was committed in self-defense against a boss who had evil designs on her. Zach is not accepted because he refuses to give simplistic answers to what the war is all about.
During the New Year’s Eve dance, a U.S. Senator keeps asking Zach about his opinion on politics and war, implying that his opinion is a complete representation of every other good soldier. But Zach is annoyed. “Some of us have voted for Roosevelt, some of us haven’t,” he says quickly. There is nothing more to say on the subject from his point of view because everyone was equalized during the war. They were in it together, and there was more to it than the happy talk of this politician.
As they ring in the new year, Mary and Zach know that in order to continue their relationship, they must reveal the truth about their existence to each other. But this is not an easy thing to do, especially when there is so much to lose.
“I’ll Be Seeing You” takes its title from the eponymous 1938 song (which would become a jazz vocal standard) and it did extremely well, especially given its treatment of PTSD and sexual assault. Many American films that were made during this time were straightforwardly patriotic, and this one is no exception. Yet the added element of these interior struggles and what really happens to a returning soldier confronted with people who want to simplify his experiences for the purpose of justifying the horrors he faced, is what makes this film unique.
Joseph Cotten is a sublime and versatile actor. Here, too, he puts that gift on full display. Cotten’s Zach is tortured. He’s annoyed at the world around him, yet his attempts at connecting to the external reality that surrounds him are valiant, almost heroic. We see traces of future roles: a man seeking justice in 1949’s “The Third Man,” and, similarly, a former soldier haunted by awful memories in 1953’s noir “Niagara.” Only Cotten can bring a combination of confidence, alienation, and uncertainty in one existential package.
Ginger Rogers’ Mary suffers silently. She is beautiful, and her glamorous look is incongruent with the interior struggle she faces daily. Both Mary and Zach have that kind of wisdom that is borne of tragedy, and this is the thing separating them from the rest of the society, including Mary’s family. Aunt Sarah is a happy woman who settled for second best, which in her words, became the first best. She is willfully oblivious to these existential struggles.
Zach and Mary are outcasts, and perhaps, it is this which brings them together. They live in the world, which keeps turning despite the singularity of their experience. They are each other’s salvation, and their openness of heart and mind is what keeps their bond strong. For both, it is impossible to know what the new year will bring. Uncertainty looms in every corner, yet their quiet faith in each other brings forth a confidence that rises above their daily dose of anxiety. It’s a thin thread that holds them together, but it is enough to give birth to real hope, one day at a time.