Classic Film Guide

Vacation from Marriage (1945)

Also known as Perfect Strangers (1945)

Produced & directed by Alexander Korda, and written by Clemence Dane, this above average romance drama features Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr in the leading roles, and Glynis Johns, Ann Todd, & Roland Culver in the only other credited parts. Donat, who made only 20 films in his career, had already earned his Best Actor Oscar (on his second and last nomination) for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), which helped launch Greer Garson’s career. Though Kerr got her big break after a handful of films playing three different roles in her previous film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), she had not yet achieved great recognition nor would she earn her first (of six, unrewarded) Best Actress nomination until 1950 (for Edward, My Son (1949)). So, this film was, in effect, one of her first starring roles; and it's a good one, playing opposite Donat. Plus, Dane's Original Story won an Academy Award! Donat & Kerr play a young London couple who've fallen into the dull routine of a 5 year marriage until he joins the British Navy in April, 1940; she then signs up for service as well. Separated by war for more than 3 years, the two grow so much individually that each doubts they are still compatible with their spouse, especially since each has "tasted" a relationship with another. They finally get a chance to see one another again when each receives a 10 day leave simultaneously.

Robert Wilson (Donat) has a rather mundane life: he's an accountant who's plain looking wife Catherine (Kerr) always seems to have a cold. The only interruption in their daily routine is his annual two week vacation which they always spend at a seaside resort with others from his company. Just before his five year anniversary with his employer, Robert is drafted into the Navy where he finds himself assigned to the shore battery, protecting England's coastline during World War II. Bored with being home alone, Catherine joins the service herself, as a messenger in the women's corp. Delicate Robert grows into a healthy man during his service while Catherine, with help from her team leader Dizzy Clayton (Johns), learns to live without her husband's restrictions (no cigarettes or lipstick). When Robert is injured during a particular engagement, he gets to know his attractive nurse Elena (Todd). On his last night in the hospital, he takes Elena out for dinner & dancing and learns that she's the widow of a famous explorer. They share some intimate, though platonic moments together. Likewise, Catherine also meets another, Dizzy’s cousin Richard (Culver), who sees her differently than her husband ever did (and for good reason, she's changed her appearance). Richard spends a lot of time with Catherine and tells her that he's fallen in love with her. Though flattered, she does not reciprocate.

After three years of letter writing, Robert & Catherine finally get leaves that will enable them to reunite. Robert returns home with one of his peers (Caven Watson, uncredited) while Catherine returns with Elena. As each discusses their spouse with their travel mate, it is clear that both husband & wife are apprehensive about their rendezvous. Each is hesitant because each realizes that they have changed greatly while assuming that the other has not. They both believe themselves to still be the center of their spouse's universe. As they get closer to reuniting, Catherine can't go through with it. She phones Robert and tells him that she's not sure she even wants to return to him. They meet in a local pub where they notice the physical changes (e.g. her hair, his physique) in one another. While they talk, and then dance (for the first time), they observe other changes in one another. The couple is then joined by their traveling companions, who notice (and remark about) the differences between what they'd been told and what they see. Robert's friend Scotty says too much to Catherine about what he'd learned from her husband such that she gets angry and insists that their next step is divorce. The couple's antagonism escalates into some verbal disagreements outside the pub which finally causes them to go their separate ways.

*** SPOILERS ***

After an angry Robert storms off into the night, Catherine realizes that he was once her whole life. Then, back at the couple's former flat, she fondly recounts her first impressions of Robert, and the events which led to their marriage, to Elena. Meanwhile, Robert (whose friend has disappeared altogether) stalks around the bombed out streets and thinks about Catherine. He decides to return to get his things, as quietly as possible, from the flat. When he enters, he doesn't at first notice that Catherine, who couldn't sleep herself, is sitting in the window. Bombs had destroyed the (claustrophobic) wall outside their flat to fall such that they now have "a room with a view" of the devastated city. They talk of (London's) rebuilding, which becomes a double entendre discussion of their own marriage ... which they agree to try, kissing in the final frames.

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