The White Cliffs of Dover is a 1944 film starring Irene Dunne and Alan Marshal. This film shares the story of the life of an American woman living in England during both World War I and World War II.
Filming this flick must have been quite a challenge for the beautiful and talented Dunne, who was also starring in A Guy Named Joe simultaneously (production on Joe had been delayed due to that film’s star, Van Johnson, being seriously injured in a car accident–funnily enough, he recovered in time to play a supporting role opposite Dunne in this film, too!). Nonetheless, Dunne’s performance is flawless. One can’t help loving with her and grieving with her as she undergoes life’s trials. The movie is the very definition of star-studded, featuring a healthy mix of stars young (Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Lawford, Roddy McDowell, June Lockhart) and not-so-young (Dame May Whitty, Frank Morgan, C. Aubrey Smith, Gladys Cooper). Although sneered at by some critics for its rather forced political theme, this film was well-received in both the United States and England. I watched this movie years ago, but found it was even more charming and moving upon this second viewing.
The film starts with Susan (Dunne), a WWII nurse, anxiously staring out into the night from a hospital window. A fellow nurse comes in to bring her a welcomed cup of tea.
Margaret: “Why don’t you take your cap off and lie down for awhile?”
Susan: “We were told to stand by. There must be some very good reason. It helps to be doing something.”
Margaret: “You’re worried?”
Susan: “Who isn’t, nowadays?”
Margaret: “I thought your son was to stay the week with you?”
Susan: “He called to say his leave had been cancelled. I haven’t heard anything since. It’s been five days now. I’m terribly worried.”
Margaret: “So when we were told to stand by for emergency, you made up your mind he’d be in the thick of it?”
Susan: “Yes, Margaret, I’m afraid I did.”
Margaret: “Well, you can be wrong, you know. I hope you are. Do try and rest.”
The hospital receives a message from the surgeon general that an expected 5,000 casualties will be arriving within 24 hours. Susan is terrified that her son will be among them. As she thinks about how this came to be, we are taken to a flashback of when Susan first came to England. As a young woman, she arrived on a boat from America with her ornery father, a newspaper man. Susan is obviously excited. She has never traveled before, and she is enthralled by the history that England offers. Hiram Dunn (Frank Morgan), Susan’s father, is a rather spirited (grumpy) man. He constantly complains about the rain and chill: “It’ll be like this the whole time we’re in England!” Unfortunately for him, he becomes ill for the entire two weeks that they are to stay in England. Susan is unable to see much of the country, but she is thrilled when she is invited to a ball on the last night of their stay. A friendly elderly man invites her to join him, and he even goes so far as to hunt for a young man for her to dance with. He makes a smashing choice in the dashing young Sir John Ashwood (Marshal). Sir John is immediately taken by Susan the moment he sees her. They spend the evening dancing and talking in the moonlight.
John begs her to stay in England for longer, but she tells him that she must return with her father. While Susan and her father are packing to leave, Sir John arrives at their boarding house to ask her father’s permission for Susan to stay behind. At first, her father is very protective and against the idea; however, John is extremely persuasive and persistent. Susan spends a week with Sir John and his aristocratic family. They take long walks in the gardens and spend time getting to know each other. One night, while Sir John is showing Susan the family portraits, he points out an open space for the portrait of his future wife.
Susan: “You must have often wondered what she’d be like.”
John: “Yes, I have, until a few days ago. Then, I began to hope she’d be tall and fair, with a mind of her own, and that when my great-grandson showed visitors her portrait, he’d say, ‘This is my great-grandmother. Lovely, isn’t she? She was an American.’”
Susan: “John …”
John: “You must’ve known. I’ve been out of my mind since I first saw you in the Adam Room. I meant to wait, give you more time, but it’s out now … Don’t say no, Sue. If you can’t give me the right answer, pretend I haven’t spoken.”
Susan: “May I do that John, for these few days? I don’t want to make decisions; I just want to live and be happy.”
John: “You are happy, Sue, happy here?”
Susan: “When we are together, yes, when we are alone.”
John: “What does that mean?”
Susan: “Please don’t ask me. It’s just that, it’s all so strange, this place, your family.”
Susan is correct in her perception of tension within the family. While Susan and John are quite busy falling in love, his family is not pleased with their courtship. Even though they are clearly aware that Susan and John are interested in each other, they speak openly in front of her of their wish for John and family friend Helen to marry. Susan feels this tension and lashes out against them. Her outburst seems to make them feel guilty and treat her kindly: “It’s a compliment not to be like an American? How insulting! … I came here loving England and all it meant to me. I was happy to come here, I was so sure I would like you all because of John. I hoped you would like me. But I was an outsider, I didn’t belong. You made that perfectly clear!”
Although the family apologizes, Susan is utterly embarrassed at her outburst. She leaves a goodbye message for Sir John and leaves on the morning train. When she gets off the train to find her boat, she is surprised to find John waiting for her. She tries to argue with him that she should return to America, but once again, he is quite persistent. He talks her into marrying him, and they seem quite happy.
Unfortunately, the happiness is short-lived. On their honeymoon, they learn that England has gone to war. Because it is tradition in the Ashwood family that the males join the military, John learns that he must go to war, almost immediately. The couple is separated for three years while John fights in WWI with his regiment. Susan lives in a constant state of fear while John is away. She worries from day to day that he may never return. When she visits him in France, they stay at a hotel with a beautiful, quaint bandstand visible from their balcony overlooking the sea.
It is on this visit that she becomes pregnant with their son, whom they name John, even though it goes against the Ashwood family tradition of naming the first male Percy. Unfortunately, when baby John is only an infant, his father is killed in action. Susan is devastated, and ignores her mother-in-law who tries to convince her to go on with her life.
When young John grows a little older, Susan attempts to move with him back to America so that he will not go into England’s military as his father had done. She tells her mother-in-law that she will teach her son to run when he hears cannons so that he will not die as his father had. Young Sir John is much like his father, however, and persuades his mother to stay and allow him to continue the Ashwood family traditions. This scene is especially heartbreaking, as we know from the beginning of the film that he does end up in harm’s way as a soldier in WWII.
This film is heartbreaking. We watch as Susan grows from a carefree young woman in love to a grieving widow, scared of also losing her only son. This film is about family. It is about the most important parts of our lives, and it is about the tragedy of war and dying young. It brings out our greatest fears of losing those that we love the most.