One of the most important things a movie can have is a strong opening scene. A good opening scene can tell the viewer a lot about characters or explain long backstories in a matter of minutes. Just think of the first scene from Gone With the Wind. In two minutes, we get a sense of what Scarlett was like before the war and find out she has romantic feelings for Ashley Wilkes. Opening scenes can also set the tone for the rest of the movie; The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, and Gold Diggers of 1933 are prime examples of that. But 1944’s Since You Went Away is a movie that uses its opening scene to its full potential. It does everything an effective opening scene should do.
Since You Went Away opens with a shot of the Hiltons’ home before progressing to a tighter shot of a window with a service flag displayed in it. Clearly, the family that lives here has a loved one serving in the military. From there, we look inside the Hilton home with the camera moving from an empty, well-worn chair with the family dog laying forlornly in front of it to a calendar, a telegram, and the box for a rush delivery of military raincoats. The telegram, which orders Captain Timothy Hilton to report for duty on January 12th, is dated January 6th. This family’s world was turned completely upside down just a few days earlier.
From the telegram, the camera continues moving around the room, revealing that Tim and Anne (played by Claudette Colbert) were married in 1925 and have two teenage daughters (played by Shirley Temple and Jennifer Jones.) Then we’re back to the window we started at, through which we see a car pull up and Anne walking to the door.
When Anne gets inside the house, she enters with the weight of the world on her shoulders. This is her home, but it’s different now. This is my favorite acting moment from Claudette Colbert; as she walks through the house, alone, trying to come to terms with her husband’s absence and grappling with uncertainty about whether or not she could face life without him. Anne’s inner monologue tells us, “This is the moment I’ve dreaded: coming back to our home, alone.” There’s no over-the-top melodrama to be found here. Claudette Colbert impeccably conveys this feeling with her body language and a glint of a tear in her eye. The subtlety of her performance makes this scene so much more emotional than something more dramatic would have been.
Anne isn’t alone in the house for long, though. Just as Anne is about to lose her composure, her daughters Jane and Brig come home and Anne finds her strength again. Jane and Brig are handling their father’s departure in different ways and there’s a lot of uncertainty in their lives right now, but one thing’s for sure — this is a family that will be drawing a lot of strength and support from each other in the near future.