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"Seven Days' Leave" is based on James M Barrie's play 'The Old Lady Shows Her Medals'. The title change is interesting, as it moves the play's emphasis from the old-lady character (Sarah Ann Dowey) to the soldier (Private Dowey) who visits her on his furlough from the trenches. The soldier is played (very well) by Gary Cooper, and the original advertising campaign for this film made it clear that 'Coop' was the star of this movie, with the old lady firmly a supporting role. But in fact Sarah Dowey is still the central character in this maudlin drama, even though the screenplay builds up Private Dowey's character.
I viewed this film in 1992 through the kind assistance of film scholar William K Everson, who had a restored print in his collection. Mr Everson and I both had some trepidation in watching this film, as the central character of Mrs Dowey is played by Beryl Mercer, whom William Everson and I agreed is the single most annoying performer in the entire history of motion pictures. Mercer specialised in maudlin tear-stained performances, all trembling and whines and heaving bosoms. The fact that "Seven Days' Leave" has a maudlin plot line in its own right seemed to threaten that Mercer's performance would be even more bathetic than usual. James M Barrie's plot lines veered towards the diabetic, and this one is no exception. But I was curious to see Gary Cooper's performance. As Mr Everson himself had not viewed this film in more than 20 years, our mutual curiosity won out. "Seven Days' Leave" turns out to be better than I'd thought. Cooper gives an impressive performance, and Mercer's maudlin moaning is less obtrusive than I had feared, due to the fact that this story has some legitimate tear-jerking to do.
SYNOPSIS CONTAINS SPOILERS. Sarah Ann Dowey (Mercer) is an elderly charwoman in London during the Great War. She cries herself 'Mrs' Dowey, but in fact she never married and is childless. (Apparently an elderly widow commanded more respect in 1914 than an elderly spinster.) The other three scrubwomen who char with Mrs Dowey - Mesdames Mickelham, Haggerty and Twymley - all have sons in uniform, and Mrs Dowey feels left out ... until she spots a newspaper despatch mentioning Private Kenneth Dowey of the Canadian Black Watch. (In the original play, the soldier was Scottish: here he's been made Canadian so that Gary Cooper won't have to attempt a Scottish accent.) Mrs Dowey tells her neighbours and co-workers that this soldier is her son. She then proceeds to send him letters and cakes, which she claims are from 'Lady Dolly Kanister', apparently a genuine person. (I guarantee that no peeress was ever named Dolly, much less Kanister.) She reads to the other charwomen extracts from 'letters' she receives from her 'son'; these are really blank paper.
The well-meaning Reverend Willings, believing that Pvt Dowey is genuinely Mrs Dowey's son, arranges for them to meet. Private Dowey (Cooper) is astonished to learn that this scrubwoman is his 'Lady Dolly' benefactress. There is a genuinely touching scene in which Dowey tells her that he is an orphan, while Mrs Dowey excitedly recalls her 'memories' of young Kenneth's boyhood. These 'memories' are all her own invention, yet she has genuinely persuaded herself that this handsome soldier is her son whom she has raised from birth, and that these memories are real. Like Martha in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?', Mrs Dowey has given herself a pathetic fantasy of motherhood, and now she inhabits it so fully that she believes it is real.
This screenplay opens up the original play considerably, as Private Dowey now takes his 'mother' to the theatre and to a restaurant, where they sup champagne. (He must be getting a general's wages.) By the time his leave is up, these two people have touchingly accepted each other as mother and son. Private Dowey returns to the front, where he soon volunteers for a mission to eliminate a German machine-gun nest. He dies a hero ... and his posthumous medal is given to his mother, Sarah Ann Dowey.
"Seven Days' Leave" could have become dangerously bathetic, yet it works much better than I had expected, and this is largely down to Gary Cooper's splendid performance. The screenplay dilutes much of James M Barrie's twee-ness, and I expect that cynical John Farrow deserves the credit for this. Beryl Mercer gives (by her standards) a surprisingly restrained performance; the very underrated director Richard Wallace deserves praise for this. Daisy Belmore is quite good as one of Mercer's sister charwomen. I was expecting "Seven Days' Leave" to be a wallow in treacle, but it's far less cloying than I'd expected. I'll rate this movie 7 points out of 10, mostly for Cooper's performance, Wallace's directing, and the screenplay.
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