The most recent additions to my collection of movie memorabilia – and of images featuring the likeness of stage and screen actress Claudette Colbert (1903 – 1996) in particular – are stills for the 1954 motion picture Destinées. The French-language film, released in Britain as Love, Soldiers and Women and in the United States as Daughters of Destiny, is one of the few works in the Colbert canon that I have not yet seen. Rather than relying entirely on plot synopses provided by Colbert biographers William K. Everson, Lawrence Quirk, and Bernard F. Dick, I am imaging and imagining the film’s story, or, rather, the story told in one of the three vignettes that constitute Destinées.
Even before I determined on an order for the five film stills, what came across is that this is a story about absent men and relationships between the women they left behind. From the image I chose to begin my stills-inspired version of the story, I can tell that Destinées is as much about the future as it is about the past: fate, fatality and a fatalism to be challenged. The number of aligned grave markers, impersonal yet collectively inspiring awe, distinguish this site as a war memorial. This woman might be a war widow.
What stands out in the field of Christian crosses is the prominently positioned star of David behind her, suggesting a memorial to those who were killed during the Second World War. Either the narrative of this mid-1950s film is set in the recent past or Colbert’s character, for whatever reason, is only belatedly coming to terms with her loss. She may have come to bury the past, or else to uncover it.
Yet this is not the story of her loss and of her past only. The flowers on the ground are not placed there by her hand, at least not at that moment. They are dry and withered. Someone else may have been at the site before her – someone else may be mourning the loss she is experiencing.
A sense of probing into a dark past is communicated by the still of Colbert holding a lamp. Light of day makes way for dead of night, the open field for the enclosed space. The rough and worn interior contrasts with the sophistication of the woman’s clothing but corresponds with her careworn expression. The scratches on the wall suggest that smooth surfaces are being challenged: anger and despair are on display in this place.
The image that continues my version of the story is of Colbert and the boy. In a dark and seemingly cheerless place, she comes face to face with innocence. Colbert’s character seems to be reaching for the child’s hand; but they are not touching. Her hands are encased in gloves.
The boy staring at her is clutching a toy. At first I thought it was she who placed it in his hand; but the apparently hand-crafted object – a cheerful fantasy figure, not a mass-produced toy soldier – is too singular to suggest that she has bought it for him. More likely, she has just learned of the child’s existence.
The image I chose to come next in this sequence is of Colbert sitting on the bed opposite a woman (played by Eleonora Rossi Drago) who is younger and plainly dressed. What they have in common is grief, as their facial expressions and postures tell me. Are they grieving for the same person? Are they sitting on a bed that was once shared by a man whom they both loved? This might be the site where the child was conceived. These women are joined in yet separated by more than grief.
The image to complete my story suggests reconciliation. The two women are breaking bread, and the lamp on the table is the same light that, in the other image, communicated a desire for clarity that is now being achieved. Colbert’s character remains reserved, even skeptical. The clenched hand, with its wedding band on display, suggests her clinging to the claim of legitimacy, even though that legal right seems to provide no comfort besides financial security.
But the woman sitting next to her is so lacking in guile that she might ultimately convince her unannounced visitor that theirs is not a destiny of contest but a bond of love: the war that has separated one woman from her husband has created another love that, in turn, begot what used to be called a love child.
Close to the battlefield, a life was created, while far from the war zone – in the cosmopolitan setting of a remote metropolis, New York rather than Paris, suggested by the affluence, and the affront, even, of Colbert’s designer clothing – a woman being left by a husband-turned-soldier could only see loss.
Initially, my story unfolded somewhat differently. I had Colbert’s character confront the lover of her husband first, then learn about the child and change her attitude as a result. Then I noticed the gloves, which have not yet come off when Colbert’s character meets the boy that might be her dead husband’s son; and, looking again at that other image, I noticed the rough, barn-like setting of their encounter, which more closely corresponds with the scratched wall and the lamp shedding light on the issue of a heretofore hidden love.
However inconsequential Destinées might have been, in terms of box office or impact on Colbert’s waning career in film, these images are remarkable in their ability to make readable what matters about this common story – a story told without Sirkian melodrama but with the neorealism of post-Second World War European filmmaking.
French-born Colbert who, years earlier on US radio, had proudly and publicly exclaimed “I Am an American,” may have embraced this assignment as an opportunity to return to her roots. Instead, cast as a visitor in Destinées, she was obliged to rehearse her estrangement and uneasy reintroduction. France and cinema were moving on, away from the Hollywood paradigm of It Happened One Night; this is not the ersatz old world of Colbert’s I Met Him in Paris or Midnight. And yet, the destiny that the new Europe was forging in the 1950s remained inextricably intertwined with the United States. As the dresses of the two women make plain on one side and up-to-date on the other, there were destined to be clashes in style as well as in substance.