The scope of large events such as war can be hard for people to grasp. History is usually written by the victors. Hence, VACATION FROM MARRIAGE (1945), in the USA (A. K. A. PERFECT STRANGERS) presents the watcher with a low key, intimate view of ordinary people who undergo a personal cataclysm. The picture was directed and produced by Alexander Korda, using Metro’s U.K. production facilities. This in and of itself gives the film a different look; best characterised as a portrait of a married couple that you look at with some indifference, till you notice a humanity and vulnerability.
The script was penned by Clemence Dane, who won an Academy award for the original screen play from his story, with help from Anthony Pelissier. Mr Pelissier was an actor in the thirties with perhaps his best writing credit being THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER (1949).
VACATION FROM MARRIAGE (1945) tells the story of a ordinary, drab couple named Robert and Cathy Wilson, who join the military in England. Robert joins the Royal Navy and Cathy is called up by the Wrens. The picture follows their exploits to the end when they both decide that they no longer want to be married. This plot may seem similar to many romantic war time pictures, however, the sheer subtlety of the story, the brilliant acting, and, in the best cases, non-acting, make film this a treat.
Robert Wilson is played by Robert Donat, who had great success in the title role of GOODBYE MISTER CHIPS (1939) and the classic THE 39 STEPS (1935). Mr. Donat perfects the regimented English man building on his role as ‘Chips.’ Wilson has the same breakfast each day, checks the barometer by tapping it, and receives his umbrella from Cathy on the same arm. Donat is a combination of Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, both ‘masters of props;’ creating little bits of business for their role that is not in the script. This creative process takes disciplined indulgence by a director to allow it to happen and be seen in the final print. Although usually a hallmark of theater actors, a few film actors of the time had the ability to do small things that we remember, such as the James Cagney walk and shoulder shrugs. Humphrey Bogart’s hand placement held like a ‘rat’ in front of himself as Duke Mantee in THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936). Modern examples would be Warren Beatty repeatedly flipping a single wooden match in his mouth as he is baited by Faye Dunaway in BONNY AND CLYDE (1967).
Actors prosper in a role when they are given something to play against. Strong acting is the battle of give and take in a scene or a moment. Often, it is body position, movement and “acting still,” which is hard to do. This gives the other actor the moment that can be crucial to a story. Spencer Tracy spent a key scene with his head down, saying dialogue with Ernest Borgnine standing almost over him in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955) and takes the scene in a subtle way.
Cathy Wilson is played by Deborah Kerr in her M.G.M debut. Cathy caters to Robert by not wearing lipstick or makeup.
She even remarks to a new female friend in her barracks,Dizzy Clayton (Glynis Johns) that she won’t smoke because Robert doesn’t like it. Robert and Cathy are trapped in their own routines with his being the office and hers being their apartment. They suffer disappointment when an expected bonus of having Robert’s service salary possibly being topped up by the accounting firm he works at; only to find he is several months short of the cut off. The managing director states, “A rule is a rule.”
Cathy and Robert grow in different directions as they meet other people. They both find lonely people in their own way such as Robert meeting Elena (Ann Todd), a widowed nurse with whom he learns to dance with .
Cathy meets and goes out socially with a man called Richard (Roland Culver). Richard is an engineer who draws and sketches, has anecdotes and take her on picnics, knowing she is married.
The military service changes them as Robert goes from being a sea sick newbie who can’t eat to a Petty Officer. Cathy dances, wears lipstick , changes her hair style and smokes. She also goes on dangerous messenger duty in a small powerboat under fire to deliver a military order when radios fail.
The two get a ten day pass to meet for the first time in several months. Life can change you and it does not have to be a war.
VACATION FROM MARRIAGE (1945) features effective battle scenes especially at night and aboard ship. One gets to see the details of life aboard such as hammocks above the mess table.
The uniforms worn are correct down to the decorations, and cap and uniform patterns for both men and women. Women wear pants in this film along with a tunic and cap to sail. You get a warmth from the people in the picture as they joke and interact with personality that could be caricatures meant to boost morale.
VACATION FROM MARRIAGE (1945) is effective as you watch the subtle change of Cathy and Robert, and those around them. Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in CASABLANCA (1942) once said
I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. Now, now… .
The troubles of two little people are wonderfully handled in this picture with tour de force acting bringing a world of one couple to life and change.