Bye Bye Blues Commentary

Anne Wheeler’s 30-year career as a Canadian filmmaker has been punctuated by many fine moments, among which was the release in 1989 of her third feature film, Bye Bye Blues. Nominated for thirteen Genie awards and winner of three awards for best actress (Rebecca Jenkins), best supporting actress (Robyn Stevan) and best original song ("When I Sing" by Bill Henderson), Bye Bye Blues was written and directed by Wheeler and produced by the Alberta Motion Picture Development Corporation and Allarcom Ltd.

In all her films, Wheeler attempts to tell authentic stories of ordinary people, especially women, as realistically as she can. In this movie, she has given us the story of her mother’s experiences during WW II. After Wheeler’s father was transferred from India to Singapore as a doctor with the British army, her mother returned to Canada with her young family; she supported them by singing in a dance band until her husband’s return from a Japanese POW camp at war’s end. This movie completes the wartime saga of the Wheeler family, complementing an earlier film, A War Story (1981), which documents the experiences of Anne Wheeler’s father during the same era.

Like so many grass widows in film and literature, Daisy Cooper (Rebecca Jenkins) quite suddenly finds herself alone; the war has taken her man away and she must now cope on her own. As an undefended female, her first option is to return to her father’s house, thus reversing the process of marriage, which passed her from her father’s care to that of her husband.  Going home is safe, but not necessarily easy. The movie makes this contrast clear by juxtaposing rich scenes of colonial privilege under the British Raj with the wintry landscape of a lonely Alberta farm. Daisy will have no servants in Canada. Although she is welcomed home, her family has no money. Western Canada has not yet recovered from the Great Depression. And, for some reason, Daisy never receives Teddy’s (Michael Ontkean) British army pay.

Daisy solves her financial woes with a bold move. She will play piano and sing in a local dance band. This decision leaves her open to moral criticism: she is a mother and a “good” woman. Yet, she is the only woman in a band that plays in clubs frequented by soldiers. She comes home at all hours smelling of tobacco. Her father is furious; he threatens that she cannot continue to live under his roof while still working in the band. This argument triggers her second rite of passage: she rents a house in town for her and the children. Now, Daisy has a space that she controls. It is the first, truly independent, adult moment of her life.

The plot ripples out from this decision, each time testing Daisy’s determination to support her family by her own labour. The band begins to find work further and further away from the town. As the distance between Daisy and her children grows, a gap widens between her duties as a mother and those of a provider. She misses her son’s birthday because of a recording session in Edmonton. She comes home to find her sister-in-law entertaining soldiers instead of putting the children to bed on time.

Not only is Daisy tested as a “good” mother, she is tested as a “good” woman. Over the years, she begins to lose faith that Teddy is still alive. Her letters are all returned. Her growing loneliness and despair are complicated by a realization that the band’s trombone player, Max (Luke Reilly), loves her and wants to marry her. Daisy’s innate decency has converted Max to a sincere desire for family life.

Daisy is also tested as a “good” person. She must make moral judgments that have nothing to do with her own emotions. When sister-in-law, Frances (Robyn Stevan) finds herself pregnant and asks for money to go to the city for an abortion, Daisy hesitates before agreeing, saying that the older she gets, the less she is sure of. 

Even though Daisy flouts the norm by having paid employment that takes her away from her children, she can still retain a measure of community support because so many families are suffering in similar ways in the 1940s. Her mother-in-law, mother and sister-in-law all help her out. The men in the band look after her on the road. When a drunk hits Daisy after a performance, the band goes to her rescue.

In its mid-twentieth century setting, Bye Bye Blues can supply a supportive context for a narrative of female becoming. However, not all treatments of the grass widow in Canadian film are as positive. It is useful to compare this movie with Jean Beaudin’s Cordélia, which was released a decade earlier. This tragedy about an abandoned wife in a small Québec village in the late nineteenth century has a very different outcome from Anne Wheeler’s film. In the five decades that separate the settings of the two movies, society seems to have become more forgiving of women acting outside the home, if just as critical. Nevertheless, when the soldiers come home, the women are still expected to leave their paid employment. Daisy’s mother-in-law loses her job as post-mistress. And Teddy’s return forces Daisy to decide between the band and her marriage. She will, quite naturally, stay home.

Bye Bye Blues is a feel-good movie that begs to be watched over and over again. Its coming-of-age plot is full of courage and hope. It is filled with sing-able dance band tunes performed beautifully by Rebecca Jenkins. The music alone sets its audience humming and the cinematography shows the central Alberta landscape to advantage. The dialogue has an authentic ring. The movie benefits from strong, believable performances and characters with whom any audience could relate, including two impossibly cute little kids. But Bye Bye Blues is saved from the merely anodyne by the sum of all its parts; it is quite simply an excellent movie.

Evelyn Ellerman