An American World War I soldier, whose disfigured face is reconstructed by Austrian plastic surgeons, returns home after twenty years, but no one recognizes him, his widow is married to anot... Read allAn American World War I soldier, whose disfigured face is reconstructed by Austrian plastic surgeons, returns home after twenty years, but no one recognizes him, his widow is married to another man, and his son is a grown young man.An American World War I soldier, whose disfigured face is reconstructed by Austrian plastic surgeons, returns home after twenty years, but no one recognizes him, his widow is married to another man, and his son is a grown young man.
'How wonderful to know that one has been loved, and to be remembered'
This powerful and heart-wrenching melodrama takes its strength from the intensity and honesty of the central performance by Claudette Colbert, who makes the whole thing believable despite various story weaknesses and implausibilities. Orson Welles and George Brent are both very effective in the other lead roles, though Brent has little do but be sympathetic and attentive (which he always did very well in films), whereas Welles has to do some serious acting. This is a story of the wreckage of private lives caused by wars. The extreme situation portrayed here may have been rare, but such things must have happened occasionally. It is incredible to think that this important film has never been released on DVD. I had to acquire it on an old VHS video. The story concerns a young husband (Welles) at the time of the First World War who 'surprises' his wife (Colbert) one day at their comfortable home in Baltimore by putting on a uniform and announcing that he is going off to War. As we all now know, this kind of behaviour was common at the time, when all the young men didn't have any idea what they were getting into and thought it would all be over by Christmas. So he went off to fight in Europe and Colbert got a telegram informing her of her husband's death. She was pregnant, and was looked after by George Brent who fell in love with her and married her. But the problem is that Welles was not dead at all, he had lost his dogtags in the trenches and ended up in a German hospital for months with terrible facial scars and severe wounds. Having been, as he imagined, permanently and severely deformed, he opted not to return home and impose such a humiliation on his wife. Instead, he decided to remain 'dead, stayed on in Austria and became a German-speaking chemist named Dr. Koestler, assuming this false identity and new life with the aid of his Austrian doctor, who employed him. But 20 years later, the Germans having taken over Austria, Welles, with a desperate limp and a beard, had to flee, after his mentor was murdered by the Nazis. He brought with him a charming little orphan girl who had seen both of her parents murdered by the Nazis also. This little girl is played by the seven year-old Natalie Wood in her first genuine acting role (she had made brief uncredited cameo appearances in two previous films, playing for instance a little girl who drops an ice cream cone, no big acting job there). It is strange to think that I am writing this in era when so few people now remember who the amazing Natalie Wood was. Her early death at 43 cut short her career. But she was one of the leading young female stars of her generation. (See for instance my review of her in THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED, 1966.) Altogether, she made 66 films in her short life, and is probably best remembered for WEST SIDE STORY, 1961, GYPSY, 1962, and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, 1955. Her most characteristic whimsically smiling expression, particularly around the eyes, is to be seen here when she was still a tiny child. In the part, she speaks very good German with a decent accent. (Wood was from a Russian immigrant family, and her parents barely spoke English.) There will never be another Natalie Wood. Well, Welles and Wood (he pretends she is his daughter to get her through customs) make their way to America where Welles has secured a post as a chemist in his old home town of Baltimore, to see how the land lies there, as he no longer has his life in Austria. He goes back to the old house and sees that it is empty. But before long he comes face to face with Colbert, who does not recognise him, as well as his 20 year-old son by her, who does not even know that Brent is not his father. In fact, ironically it is Brent who is now Welles's employer because he owns the chemical company. Welles continues to pretend to be Koestler, but it is difficult for him. He becomes increasingly involved in the family affairs of his former wife and his son and slowly she begins to suspect that he may really be her ex-husband. Colbert convincingly portrays the profound emotional agony of this impossible situation, and Welles heroically continues to insist he is someone else, while Colbert's belief that he is her original husband becomes stronger and stronger. Meanwhile Welles is forced to intervene in a tense emotional situation regarding his son, who of course doesn't realize that he is his son. This all becomes increasingly fraught and we don't know what is going to happen, and I'm not going to tell.
- Oct 22, 2010
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