I'LL BE SEEING YOU's origin in a popular radio drama of the time is betrayed by its occasional and generally superfluous narration, and there are other minor flaws, but they do little to dampen an emotional impact that must have been especially poignant for its contemporary audiences. IBSY gives us the classic story of two wounded souls finding strength and healing in their love for one another. It centers on the psychological phenomenon called 'shell shock' during the First World War, 'battle fatigue' during the Second, 'psycho-neurosis' in the movie and 'ptsd' today. The terms become longer and the words more abstract, but the problem remains. The symptoms of severe stress don't necessarily go away once the stress is over. That a popular film would concern itself with this subject while in the midst of a great war is especially impressive.
Still, I'LL BE SEEING YOU is a romance more than anything, almost accidentally set in the middle of a war. Joseph Cotton is a returning soldier just out of a psychiatric hospital to see if he's ready to return to normal life. Ginger Rogers is out of a prison on a temporary furlough (the charges seem quite shaky from what we see in a flashback that is not a very successful part of the picture), one would guess as a prelude to a possible parole though that is never made clear. They both find themselves alienated from their surroundings. It's no surprise that they would be attracted to one another as lifelines if nothing else. It's also no wonder that such a drama would be set during the Christmas season.
Cotton and Rogers both severely (and brilliantly) underplay their roles, always a good idea when playing a potentially sentimentalized subject, and they make the film a beautifully understated love story disguised by their respective traumas. One of the best scenes is their early date when they go to a movie. It's a blood and guts war drama. We see Rogers staring intently at the screen while Cotton mostly looks downward. Afterwards, outside the theater he placidly watches a few young boys running about playing soldiers. Walking away with Ginger, Cotton finally opens up in answer to her question as to whether the movie was what the war was really like. Obviously relieved, he takes her to a diner for a cup of coffee, but the waiter (Chill Wills), a victim of shell shock from the First World War, reminds him of himself and Cotton walks away upset, delivering Rogers to her uncle's house and then abruptly leaving her. It's a brilliantly understated sequence and typical of the film's low-keyed realism (speaking of realism, did you know that Ginger Rogers really had a husband who fought in the front lines on the Pacific island of Tarawa? She must have felt this the most hyper-realistic scene of her career).
The alert viewer can pick up many tidbits about life on the home front during World War II. Chocolate bars are not available at news stands, alcoholic beverages are not easily available, either, and well-to-do retirees find themselves taking a bus and then walking some distance to the golf course instead of using up their gas rations. I'm not so sure that one could so easily procure fancy new dresses for a New Year's Eve party, however.
That New Year's Eve celebration is an exhilarating one both for the audience watching and for the soldier played by Joseph Cotton. It's followed by the even greater excitement of the dog attack (not to mention the very different kind of excitement of some tender love scenes with his girl). Very realistically, this all combines to trigger a delayed anxiety attack which is brilliantly handled by Cotton. The modern film-goer may find it strange that such an attack does not immediately lead to mass murder, or at least attempted suicide.
Director William Dieterle made a flock of excellent films during his long career and one or two great ones. If I'LL BE SEEING YOU isn't a great film, it comes within shouting distance of one. Joseph Cotton was at the peak of his career and Ginger Rogers at the tail end of the peak of her film career, and they are both perfect in their lead roles. Spring Byington and Tom Tully provide terrific support, and though I find Shirley Temple's performance to be more irritating than anything else, it may be more the fault of the character than the actress. I'LL BE SEEING YOU really ought to be a lot better known than it is. Thanks to TCM, there's still hope that it will be.