Told in flashback by Laura and Oliver's mutual friend, composer John Hillgrove (Herbert Marshall), we know from the beginning that Oliver and Laura are a couple. We also know that they are well-liked in their community. What the story brings is the long road they must travel to feel themselves worthy to be with other people. One particularly telling scene in the story of Laura's yearning for love occurs at a Canteen dance. Filled with airmen, Laura is ignored by everyone; men start to approach her, but when they see her, they turn back or avert their gaze. It's a heartbreaking moment, and one with which every young woman can identify. Because of this, Laura retreats back to the cottage where she hides with Mrs. Minnett, who herself bears scars that have caused her to secrete herself within the safe precepts of the house.
What the film is NOT is sensational (one wonders what film the designer of the poster above was watching when he created the tag line!) This is a sensitive and moving film, based on a play by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero. The play was written in 1922 as a morale booster for soldiers who were disfigured during the First World War (TCM article). That it would be redone as the Second World War ended is not surprising - sadly, it still had a tale to tell to GIs returning from Europe and the Pacific (a similar story is told by Homer Price in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
Robert Young is excellent as an exuberant young man plunged into depression by his family's reactions to his injuries. The revulsion displayed by Violet Price (Spring Byington), Frederick Price (Richard Gaines) - Oliver's mother and stepfather - and Beatrice all combine to drive Oliver to consider suicide. Mr. Young shows us the hatred that he has for his family, for himself, and for the world that robbed him of his secure vision of the future. Joseph Cotton was briefly considered for the part of Oliver (he'd previously played battle-scarred vets in I'll Be Seeing You (1944) and Love Letters (1945)) (AFI catalog). Mr. Cotton would surely have been excellent, but it is hard to imagine anyone but Mr. Young in the part.
It's hard to make Dorothy McGuire plain. She is an exquisite woman, with a radiance that make her pretty face even more beautiful. In prior productions of the piece, Laura was given a real physical defect - buck teeth, a crooked nose, a limp - but this film makes Laura homely with a bad hairdo, no makeup, and dull lighting. As Bosley Crowther points out in his (unfavorable) New York Times review, "a girl of moderate features (and fair intelligence) can make herself look very sweet." But herein Mr. Crowther misses the point that Ms. McGuire fully understands. Laura is homely because she feels that she is homely and undeserving of love. Ms. McGuire enacts a woman who has grown to fear the world; she's been told so many times that she is plain that she feels it is hopeless to even try to be appealing. It's a masterful stroke - one that makes the viewer identify with Laura even more. Like Mr. Young, Ms. McGuire was not the first choice for the part - both Ginger Rogers and Teresa Wright were considered.
Herbert Marshall as the pianist blinded in the last war is superb as the man who slowly leads Oliver back to the land of the living. And Mildred Natwick - it's impossible for her to ever make a wrong turn. Her love for Laura, her sympathy for Oliver, and her belief that they can have for each other the love that she lost when her husband died is moving beyond imagining. Hillary Brooke is also convincing in her major scene - asked by Oliver's mother to try to get him to come home, she does so reluctantly. Her horror at the changes in him are matched only by her disgust with herself for this reaction to the man that she believed she loved.
Also worth noting is the brief appearance by Josephine Whittell as the thoughtless Canteen manager who forces the delicate Laura onto the dance floor with the cruel and uncaring soldiers. Ms. Whittell's career extended from 1917 to 1948. Many of her appearances were uncredited and unnamed (like this part). She also appeared in several Broadway plays between 1911 and 1926 (including No, No Nanette). She died in 1961, three years after her final film appearance in The Buccaneer.
As we mentioned before, The New York Times was dismissive of the film (Mr. Crowther also thought that simple plastic surgery could heal what is obviously severe neurological damage that causes Oliver's face to droop on one side, and his arm to be unusable); Variety, however was complimentary. In 2014, this film was Robert Osborne's pick for his evening of films, and was one of Whoopi Goldberg's picks when she was guest programmer in 2007. The film did get one Academy Award nomination - the score by Roy Webb was nominated (but lost to Miklos Rozsa's Spellbound).
This is the second film version of the play - the first was in 1924, with Richard Barthelmess and May McAvoy as Oliver and Laura; in 2016, it was filmed again, this time Paul D. Masterson and Sarah Navratil in the leads (the war in this case is in Iraq). Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire reprised their roles in the Lux Radio Theatre edition of the story in September of 1945. Academy Award Theatre did a radioplay in December 1946, with Peter Lawford, Joan Loring, and Herbert Marshall. September of 1953 saw a General Electric Theatre version with Joan Fontaine and Dan O'Herlihy; and in September of 1955, Lux Video Theatre presented the story, with Teresa Wright, Dan O'Herlihy, and Sara Haden. It was even spoofed by Carol Burnett in her version entitled The Enchanted Hovel.
We'll leave you with the film's trailer and a hearty recommendation to view this lovely movie: