This post is my contribution to the “Dueling Divas” blogathon hosted by Backlots. Go check out the other great entries that have been posted over the past three days!
Arguably, the two biggest dancing female stars of the 1930s–at least on the silver screen–were a sharp-tongued witty dame with legs to there, and a precocious, pint-sized charmer with precisely fifty-six curls on her head.
While Ginger Rogers hoofed her way across the screen in nine well-received films with partner Fred Astaire throughout the decade, Shirley Temple danced and sang her own way through a series of feel-good “lovable moppet” roles, becoming the savior of Twentieth Century Fox in the process. Both actresses had (and continue to have) immense fan bases, and both are remembered and cherished by film fans today for their respective dancing prowess and winning screen presence.
As Temple moved into more adult roles in the 1940s, and Rogers forged a very successful career outside of her partnership with Astaire (winning an Oscar for Best Actress for 1940’s Kitty Foyle in the process), the two of them would come together for their first and only film together, a Christmas-themed wartime melodrama called I’ll Be Seeing You (1944).
Mary (Rogers) and Zach (Joseph Cotten) happen to sit across from one another on a train at Christmastime. Zach is on furlough from a military hospital in the wake of a debilitating injury and shell-shock. Mary is also on furlough–from prison, where she has been serving a six-year sentence for manslaughter. Neither knows the details of the other’s “Christmas vacation,” but feel an instant attraction to one another. Mary goes to stay with her uncle’s family for Christmas, while Zach lies about visiting his sister in the same town so that he can see her again. Their feelings continue to grow throughout the week, and Mary’s aunt (Spring Byington) urges Mary not to tell Zach about her troubles. But Mary’s young cousin, Barbara (Temple) inadvertently tells Zach the truth about Mary’s life. Can Zach overcome his trepidation for the sake of their new-found love?
There is a touch of the maudlin to this film, particularly in the scenes in which Mary explains to Barbara exactly why she has been sent to prison. But this does not detract from what is ultimately an enjoyable little movie. There is an interesting dynamic between Rogers’ and Temple’s characters in that their prototypical roles are somewhat reversed in the film. Rogers usually plays the quick, tart-tongued worldly woman, but here she is meek and downtrodden, plagued with regrets for the things she has lost because of her misfortune. On the other hand, Temple has more than enough sass for both of them as Mary’s suspicious cousin. As opposed to her typical screen performances as the eternal optimist, here Temple is (at least at first) the sharp one, the cynical teenager who cannot fully accept her cousin’s presence until the truth behind her imprisonment is revealed.
There is an initial hint of rivalry between the cousins upon Zach’s arrival at the family’s home for dinner. Barbara stares at him longingly, shooting veiled, disapproving looks at Mary as though she feels her cousin is not good enough for the handsome soldier (as well she likely does). Of course, Barbara is far too young for Zach herself, but her obvious crush on him further colors her perception of her jailbird relation. Mary, for her part, strives to understand Barbara’s trepidation at having a convict for a temporary roommate, though it’s hard for her once she sees how Barbara has labeled all of the possessions in her room. But all indications of conflict are set aside once Mary explains the details behind her “crime.” And even though Barbara is ultimately responsible for driving Zach away by telling him about Mary’s past, it is the mistake of a child, born out of haste, not malice, and one that eventually leads to a positive denouement for the film.
I read an article several years ago that claimed that Rogers disliked Temple and loathed working with her on this movie, but I have not seen any evidence of that elsewhere. Who’s to say if the two really did have a fierce rivalry, or whether it was merely tabloidic speculation (yes, I’m aware I probably just made up a word)? Still, I thoroughly enjoy the combination of these two famous hoofers in this film–though, admittedly, real “hoofing” doesn’t play all that big a role in the movie. There is a YMCA ball near the end of the film, but neither actress gets a chance to really show off her skills.
Wouldn’t it have been beyond fascinating to see these two talents really hash out their perceived feud on the dance floor? I mean, seriously–it’s one of those interesting questions to ponder: who do you think would win in a head-to-head dance-off between Ginger and Shirley? Is that even a fair question?
(For the record, my money would be on Ginger, all the way. No offense, Shirls.)