Friday, July 07, 2017
      ( 5:59 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

So you want a better life. Why not go to war? It'll very likely improve both you and your spouse, or at least that's the message in Alexander Korda's 1945 wartime propaganda film Perfect Strangers (Vacation from Marriage in the U.S.), a message all the more insidious for the fact that it's a pretty good movie with amazing performances from Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr.

The two basically play two roles each, and maybe a transitory third role. They start the movie off as a dull, miserable married couple, the Wilsons, Robert and Cathy. Robert is a meek, set in his ways bank employee, at one point contemptuously called an "old maid". Cathy is a stay at home wife who never wears makeup and seems to have a perpetual cold. Then Robert finds himself forced to join the navy and, while he's gone, Cathy joins the Wrens, the women's branch of the Royal Navy at the time.

Gradually, both are transformed and the actors carry it off brilliantly in their performances. Donat's body language becomes more relaxed and expansive--maybe going slightly too far later in the film when he's propped himself up against the fireplace while sitting.

Cathy, under the influence of her worldly new cohort, Dizzy (Glynis Johns), starts smoking and wearing makeup. Both separately start to think they could never go home to their stuffy spouses, each has as close to an extramarital affair as the censors would allow--Robert with a nurse who tells him about how her recently deceased husband went from being a boring clerk to an exciting world traveller whose memory she admires, Cathy with an intellectual in a scene Korda lifts almost wholesale from Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale.

When the Wilsons are rediscovering each other in the third act, both are surprised to find the other can now dance, prompting the reply from both, "One picks these things up." The message isn't terribly subtle--join the navy, get the sexual experience that will make you more appealing to the opposite sex. Yet I did find it charming and kind of insightful that both Robert and Cathy felt that they were suffering before because they thought the other needed them and it was this suffering that made each seem so helpless to the other. And Donat and Kerr sell it so well. Donat's best known roles were behind him at this point and this was near the start of Kerr's career so it's also an interesting overlap of two eras.

But I would rather the film had been about Deborah Kerr and Glynis Johns having adventures. My favourite scene in the movie is just the two of them on an overcrowded train, taking turns resting their heads in each other's laps.

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