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Perfect Strangers / Vacation from Marriage (1945)


CRUMBLIES… 3 crumblies

Old Mrs Jack, bless her, was a live wire. She charmed old Jack here out of his tense shell in the 1950s. We were too young to have seen the big war, but passed each other in the Services, meeting occasionally, until love took us. I mean me. She decided up-front and little of what followed was my choice – and this passive soul was more than happy with that. She needed my calm; I needed her feist. We were busy, loud, happy and filled with the energy of the times. It was like we’d both seen Perfect Strangers, Robert Donat’s fourteenth film and one Grandpa Gus wouldn’t let me watch as a bairn. For its story is an odd one, of a young-old couple, married before World War 2 into low-energy lives and then…well, as the Americans knew the film, they took a Vacation from Marriage. Salacious bastards.

I watched it with The Widowers: me, Grim Graeme and Sad Sid lined up on the TV room sofa, the American print in the DVD player, and looked for the promise of the poster: ‘”Mr Chips” is back in a thrilling new romance!’ Which is a lie. Robert Donat (Robert “drab” Wilson) is already married to Deborah Kerr (Cathy “permanent cold” Wilson). He is a coweringly passive clerk who has been called up and fails to get special treatment as he is a few months short of his company’s five-year line for respecting employees. She is, well, flat of personality. Between them, they channel early decrepitude and tedium: a series of photos on their mantle are all entitled ‘Clacton-on-Sea’ in some year or other, underlining their combined lack of ambition. Where’s the romance, eh?

Cue a three-year separation during the war. Donat heads off to the Navy, dropping his Chips-shuffle along with his haircut. He misses the wife, but the war is the making of him. His growth from sickly puker in a crow’s-nest in dodgy waters to keen observer of the surrounding ships and a steady stomach, untouched by the need to vomit on his ship-mates, is an early, funny and telling sign. Robert Wilson is growing up.

Incidentally, he also has an interesting set of bit-part and uncredited comrades.  I definitely saw Leslie Dwyer, decades from grumpiness in Hi-de-Hi!, and thank imdb for confirming the back of Bill Owen‘s head (knew it!). Also in there somewhere, though damned if I could find him, was Roger Moore in his first logged role (uncredited…) as a soldier. He was probably lost in one of the railway station crowd scenes, or in the back of the pub that hogs the last third of the film… Anyway, Donat stands proud in a group of British film and TV stars in the making…

Then Deborah Kerr, five years and eight films into her career, joins the Wrens. Her transformation is pretty much the same. Helped along by Glynis Johns‘ terrific Dizzy Clayton, doling out a pile of feminist leadership, drab Cathy gets the uniform, sorts the hair, and puts the lip-stick on…sexiness appears just as elsewhere Donat’s ship goes down and he rows a bunch of survivors to safety, nearly destroying his big manly hands…

In all honesty, none of us on the sofa were buying it. The film is war-time British fun through and through, but the characters are forced into caricature. Donat, Kerr, Johns et al are magnificently watchable, but the beats from drab to heroic to scared to see each other after three years…with no small infidelity along the way…make for strange viewing. Ann Todd and Roland Culver as the objects of desire make for insightful war-time commentaries, but they too are incidental.

The pub scene, in which the Wilsons meet up again, all sexy and energised despite themselves, becomes a row about how awful everything used to be in their marriage (Grim Graeme: ‘but it wasn’t…it was just arse-spasmingly dull…’). There’s a subtext, of course, as their blood boils into shag-me-now promise and the group head back to the flat of dull photos (Sad Sid: ‘do it, do it now, bitches’), but a ton of loitering in the streets ahead of that moment is an unconvincing distraction from the formula of the plot. What’s a-coming is a-coming and the characters will obey…

Which means the film nearly runs out of time. The actors are deft in bringing all the moments together, nearly charming enough to hide the grinding of the plot mechanics, and the last moment is what you’d expect. My problem is Perfect Strangers slaps the audience into a different mode every half hour: sad marriage becomes war-does-you-good becomes shouting and a quick fix now we’re sexy. The promised romance lasts for the fifteen seconds of the final shot.

Is it a worthy entry in the Robert Donat canon? Oddly, yes. He covers a lot of his movie standards. There’s young Chips, tentative and nervous. There’s the brash young Murdoch Glourie, confident and snoggy. And finally there’s hacked-off and dealing with it Hannay. He was turning 40 when this was made, so mid-life angst and marriage woes feel right on him.

The Widowers ultimately said nice things about Donat, nicer things about Deborah Kerr, and agreed we’d seen a film aimed at our parents: too many of them held apart by war and – in Perfect Strangers – told it was okay to find it difficult to work their way back to love.

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