Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by Claudine West, Jan Lustig, George Froeschel, and Robert Nathan (based on the verse novel by Alice Duer Miller)
In 1943, Clarence Brown grappled with life and death with The Human Comedy, offering catharsis for an American public stung by what the war had cost them, with some nine million men and women displaced into the service, and perhaps a hundred thousand dead by the time the film was released in March, which meant that for a hundred thousand families, give or take, it had cost them everything already. I wasn't there, but I like to think The Human Comedy did all that a movie could have done, which admittedly isn't that much even if it's a mawkish war years masterpiece: it contextualized the losses America had suffered and promised that American utopianism would triumph, even if, for many, life remained uncertain and afraid, or worse, certain and grieving. In 1944, Brown took on a similar task, only this time with Britain—sort-of with Britain, for it does have an American protagonist. On behalf of Britain, he looked at MGM's other successful Britain-set war melodramas of the early 40s, and kind of just mooshed 1940's Waterloo Bridge and 1942's Mrs. Miniver together.
That is, of course, incredibly reductive and unfair to The White Cliffs of Dover (and "an American protagonist" already makes it somewhat distinct); but it is not for those reasons inapt. I assume composer Herbert Stothart must have agreed: Stothart scored both this and Waterloo Bridge—he also scored Mrs. Miniver, but since I don't recall Mrs. Miniver's music, never mind it—but he seemed to recognize the affinities between the two accurately enough to recycle Waterloo Bridge's idea of using "Auld Lang Syne" to shape a beautiful romance doomed by the onrush of war. It was based on a work by Alice Duer Miller, famed poet of early 20th century feminism, now turned towards interventionism: having witessed Britain's unexpectedly desperate struggle against the forces of darkness in 1940, Miller authored The White Cliffs, a verse novel about the American wife of a British officer who found herself caught similarly off-guard 26 years before. It struck an enormous chord with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, selling over a million copies and therefore becoming what is, I expect, the single most commercially successful work of English language poetry ever, at least in its author's lifetime, despite a wildly-variable meter that makes it frequently-clunky and sometimes-downright-annoying to read, not to mention some truly enervating bullshit non-rhymes, like "lover" and "Dover," or "rather" and "father." But it has finer points, too, and I am no poetry critic.
Other than both stories concerning mothers in England, Miller's White Cliffs is, obviously, rather less indebted to Mrs. Miniver than the film winds up. Miller's verse novel is much more concerned with World War I, and the interwar years, concluding its narrative with the certainty of war, but not the war itself, I expect because, fundamentally, it's an activist poem advocating America's entry into WWII, and not "really" about Britain already being in it. I can't say how cautiously MGM and Brown, who produced, approached the rare challenge of adapting a poem, but they dutifully did so with The White Cliffs of Dover (evidently MGM saw fit to clarify precisely which Cretaceous chalk deposits Miller's title referred to). It's possibly less-unfaithful than the average adaptation from any given medium, but it does decisively widen the poem's scope, taking us all the way up to August 1942, beginning in the aftermath of the disastrous and foolish raid on Dieppe. Even besides this, it's obliged to add significantly to Miller's loose narrative (it bears noting, also, that the term "verse novel" is misleading itself, as White Cliffs has the word count of a short story, and Robert Nathan is even credited here with providing some "additional verse"). The film doesn't depart radically, or at least not obviously radically, in terms of its plot, but it finds its own resonances, mostly by modifying what was already there. It can be a little willy-nilly about it, honestly (for example, an older brother to the male lead is replaced with a younger brother, but all the important material regarding the family tradition that an eldest son be named "Percy" remains completely intact, so they are required to further invent another brother, who died decades earlier of childhood illness). But Miller, obviously, could never have used Dieppe as Brown and his screenwriters do, with horrifying effectiveness in its own right—but, upon its release, also just a month shy of a more successful return to France.
So: we begin as the poem does, which is to say, in hindsight, with Susan, Lady Ashwood (Irene Dunne) already widowed and alone, her son Sir John (Peter Lawford) already having joined his lost father's regiment. Susan has likewise determined to serve her adoptive country, working as a nurse in a military hospital. Presently, she awaits the arrival of some three hundred casualties from "the show" across the Channel. Unable to rest, her thoughts drift back to her own arrival in Britain, many years before, in the April of 1914, alongside her newspaperman father Hiram Dunn (Frank Morgan). The trip appears to have been mostly her idea, as Hiram hates Britain—he hates its weather (and in response, Britain's weather spites his lumbago), he despises its food, and in truth he might not particularly care for its inhabitants, either. Accordingly, Susan winds up spending seven days in London and most of them trapped in the walls of their boarding house. Fortunately, a fellow boarder, gregarious old Colonel Forsythe (C. Aubrey Smith), takes an interest in her plight, and brings her out to an aristocratic ball where no less than the King and Queen shall make an appearance, and in arranging for a more suitable dance partner than himself, he runs across Sir John Ashwood (Alan Marshal). John has arrived alone, and is meant to be taking care of his friend's Australian cousin as a favor, but in a deft bit of subterfuge Forsythe sends him in Susan's direction; I believe the implication is less that John can't tell Americans and Australians apart, but that he very much refuses to believe she's not his date. And she is very happy to play along.
It is, obviously, love at first sight, and John intervenes to extend Susan's English vacation—and when the time comes, asks her to extend it forever. The second time he proposes marriage, she agrees, overcoming her discomfort in his English country manor home, making peace with his deceptively aloof mother Lady Jean (Gladys Cooper) and younger brother Reggie (John Warburton), and overlooking the fact that his second proposal really only just stops short of actual, legal kidnapping (40s screenwriters and perhaps Brown in particular did, after all, have their beloved little romantic comedy shortcuts). But if you recall that it is 1914, you know their time together shall be short. She sees him once again, on leave in Dieppe, where they conceive a child, meant to be named "Percy" as tradition dictates, but named "John" anyway (a small but extremely revealing change from the poem: the American gets her way). This son (Roddy McDowall as a child) is all that will be left of Susan's Sir John, dead somewhere in France, and for maximum tragic irony, killed only a few hours before November 11th, 1918. In time, Lady Jean passes too—I didn't mention it, but war pulverized this family, and Reggie died even before John did—and that leaves Susan, stranded in a Britain preparing once again for war, with a half-American, half-British child, who would prefer to honor his father's legacy while every instinct in Susan's body screams to escape with him to the safety across the ocean.
This covers practically the whole film (though I've revealed nothing, I believe, that is not explicitly-stated or strongly-implied by the 1944 prologue), which means it's mostly filled with little things, and the war (that is, the First World War) imposes a very bizarre structure on it. In a film that covers a quarter-century and runs a bit over two hours, practically half of that runtime is invested into a single twelve-hour span: the lead-up to, and details of, Susan and John's first encounter. This is extremely Brownian in its complexion, sweet and comfortably tingly and suffused with romantic shadows, and in several cases it actively apes Brown's shot design from another film about love-at-first-sight between a woman and her aristocrat, Flesh and the Devil, except turned toward far gentler and more genial ends, rather than towards dangerous eroticism. There are novel touches, and one little bit of business says a great deal about John, as he nervously takes a glimpse of his wife-to-be from behind a column, retreats behind the column, then peeps out from the other side; and there's Susan's gawky overcorrection when hurriedly taught to curtsy for the King, as well as a swooning crane shot that begins with a coachman asleep atop his vehicle after a long and dull night across London for him, and ends with us peering in through the moonroof at Dunne gazing fascinated at the man across from her.
It's a splendidly charming little romcom: delicate with the rom, and the com being fairly light as regards our principals, though comedy does arrive, either by way of their eager awkwardness, or by way of Susan's barking dad, who gets into a frenzied debate with Forsythe over, of all things, the War of 1812, a war that John, a military officer, is forced to admit he doesn't know Britain fought, and when told of it, he briefly operates under the impression that the British burned George Washington. (That's funny, but thematic, too.) There are some problems with this screenplay, but the lopsided structure does terrific work in getting at the poem's description of a brief marriage cut short: Susan's recollection necessarily dwells almost exclusively on her intoxicating first blush of love, while the decades afterward all collapse into painfully sharp fragments. Those first weeks with John are the only true happiness she'll ever have, and, truthfully, she probably doesn't really remember them: it'd obviously be giving this MGM movie too much credit for artsy cleverness (and if they'd done it on purpose it would almost certainly have been far too airless), but even Susan's first night with John feels like a reconstruction, a half-fantasized recollection cobbled together out of tropes.
And so it's right to treat it as a collection of image- and mood-heavy stolen moments, and for a 40s romance, the film is unusually willing to invite us to actually perceive the superficiality of the relationship that's going to define Susan's life regardless (though one particular idea involving Susan and John, obscured into oblivion by the steam of a passing train engine, while seeming like it should have been meaningful in this regard—it's a riff on Brown's Anna Karenina—still obviously got away from poor Brown and his editor). The most effective individual choice is not romantic, and it's in the way that, after the screenplay primes us with John's self-mocking but subtly-proud rendition of his family history in his ancestors' gallery, and in particular the family legend of the ghostly rider that arrives whenever an Ashwood son is lost to battle ahead of the message of his death, Brown has Dunne retreat into a dark corner, and has Marshal pursue only belatedly, so that for a short but potent moment, all we see of John is his phantasmal reflection in the window glass.
Things do not get grim immediately thereafter, and they're so ungrim right now you might not even notice; but we do know we're not really watching something light. That becomes apparent with the ugly tricks Brown plays with our awareness that John will die, without quite knowing when, leading into the single best acting beat of the film when Dunne leans in close to console her mother-in-law over the fate of her brother-in-law with a hug, which Brown reveals was in part a deliberate act to conceal the small relieved grin she wears, that makes you question whether she's even crying for Lady Jean, or out of her own selfish joy that, for the moment, John still lives. But it's an awfully well-acted thing overall: Marshal is just inordinately charming and handsome and has an ideal face for a 1910s mustache, while Dunne is perfectly great—for starters, at 45 years old she's still astonishingly undistracting playing a 22 year old for a good half of the movie. More importantly, Susan requires a lot of different gears ranging across entirely different genres: romantic comedy, romantic drama, grief melodrama, and ultimately patriotic declamation as the screenplay supplies several obligatory patriotic speeches about war and the fundamental unity of the Anglo-American people, and all of it's tied-up in an admittedly arch register that still feels like everything, even the speeches, are organic extensions of Susan's character. Or almost everything: the poetry itself is a small stumbling block (I don't see how it eluded them to just make Susan an amateur poet), and while somebody must've felt compelled to incorporate Miller's verse as voiceover narration, Brown doesn't know how to do it without it feeling like an imposition, and Dunne doesn't either, slightly coming off like she's shrugging sheepishly at somebody on the other side of the recording studio while she's reciting it.
I've spoken about the curious combination of softness and hardness that Brown's films in the 1940s kept bringing, and White Cliffs is no exception: as the follow-up to The Human Comedy, it's manifestly less interested in being comforting. It gets as cruel and mean as it had been nice and gentle, and while it's cruel in extremely overt ways that need not be further belabored, it's also cruel in subtle ones that can gnaw on a viewer eight decades removed from it. For all its bellicose Allied spirit and flag-waving and purposeful conflation of "My Country 'Tis Of Thee"/"God Save the King," there is a countervailing pessimism—maybe simply plaintiveness—that pervades even the most propagandistic moments.
A discussion of the enduring "peace" that John's sacrifice helped create feels sickeningly perverse, and, clearly, it's supposed to; the film continually wonders, sometimes less explicitly, sometimes more, if this war to end wars will be different. It puts a disquieting spin on the poem's single-minded allegory, and perhaps coming in 1944 with victory assured allowed it to have a more ambivalent attitude about that, with a vastly more complex reaction to the poem's straightforward metaphor of an American woman breeding a soldier on behalf of Britain. And so, pondering the usefulness of Britain's aristocracy in the twilight of its existence, Brown's film charts the life cycle of a baronet as a collage of quaint privileges and responsibilities, beginning as a morbid coupling in a seaside villa and ultimately depositing him upon the precise spot of his conception, the blown-out ruins of the last (and, moreover, one of the very few) places that his parents ever knew love, on a dubious mission foreordained to fail anyway. The final shot is troubled and unsettled and shockingly difficult, considering what The White Cliffs of Dover is "meant" to be; even the camera movement, a resolute push-in on Dunne's beatific profile looking in the opposite of the direction she should be at that moment, feels angry and bitter. It's hard if not entirely impossible to square with the film's propagandistic purpose, let alone its express hope that this time a better world can be born in blood.
It's not one of Brown's masterpieces: it's a little too flimsy in some respects—I said the screenplay has problems, and the main one is that it stumbles after John dies, and truncates the mother/son drama once it finds this as its new groove, basically settling it in a single scene (a baffling little problem is Van Johnson's rejected American suitor, who seems like he should be important somehow, but he's only in one subsequent scene, speaks three lines of dialogue, and vanishes)—and while it's often quite inventive, not every choice comes off. But it is still, very clearly, the work of a master, presently in his most successful phase.
Notes on history: I spent a good thirty minutes trying to find the total casualties that America suffered between December 7th, 1941, and March 2nd, 1943, the release date of The Human Comedy. It was a task, given how easily-ascertained this figure should be, that seems like it ought to have taken no more than thirty seconds. I gave up and multiplied the "6600 dead per month" figure by sixteen, which is a rhetorically-effective figure but likely wrong, as I rather doubt America's losses had anything remotely resembling a smooth distribution across the four years of war. Counting Philippine losses, which is not inappropriate (though few Filipinos would be in a position to enjoy The Human Comedy), the figure is more like 400,000-500,000. As for the film's treatment of Dieppe, honesty compels me to admit this movie has no idea what to do about Canadians.