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August 23, 2022

When Tomorrow Comes

when tomorrow.jpg

John M. Stahl - 1939
KL Studio Classic BD Region A

To advertise their mini-retrospective of films by John Stahl, the New York City theater, the Metrograph, featured an excerpt from When Tomorrow Comes. Irene Dunne plays a waitress at a union meeting of other waitress, encouraging them to strike for better wages, well aware of the potential hardship it may cause to her co-workers. In her essay on Stahl's silent films, Imogen Sara Smith mentions, "a commitment to exploring women’s experience". If the scene mentioned is representative of a filmmaker primarily known for his films where his female characters have agency, the film itself defies the easy classifications of Stahl's best known films, Imitation of Life and Leave Her to Heaven.

The basic story is of a waitress who meets a French concert pianist at her restaurant, and their intense, but platonic love affair over a three day period. The film begins on a comic note with Irene Dunne's waitress helping out her flustered friend and co-worker with Charles Boyer's requests first for bouillabaisse (not on the menu), followed by apple pie with cheese - please hold the apple pie. Did Carole Eastman see When Tomorrow Comes prior to writing that scene of Jack Nicholson and the whole wheat toast in Five Easy Pieces? Dunne biographer Wes Gehring also saw a possible connection, especially as both Nicholson and Boyer playing concert pianists. Dunne and Boyer meet again at the union meeting where Dunne initially assumes Boyer is an out of work itinerant musician. A date for sailing in Long Island is extended when shelter from an oncoming storm is Boyer's mansion. Freshening up in a bedroom, Dunne notices a photograph of a woman, presumably Boyer's wife. It is as this point that there is a major tonal shift in the film. The storm turns out to be a hurricane. The two attempt to drive back to the city, the road blocked by a fallen tree. Dunne and Boyer go to a nearby church where they sleep in the organ loft, unaware that the church is flooded beneath them. Finally back in New York City, Dunne meets Boyer's wife, a woman psychologically traumatized by the death of her newborn child. Dunne knows Boyer will not leave his wife, but chooses not to be his mistress.

The screenplay very loosely is based on an unpublished short story by James M. Cain, "A Modern Cinderella". Cain's short story eventually evolved into the novel, The Root of His Evil. What is kept of Cain in the film was some of the waitress' back story and her working as a union organizer. Cain was upset that the church scene was apparently taken from his novel, Serenade, without his permission. Cain sued Stahl, screenwriter Dwight Taylor and Universal Pictures, unsuccessfully.

Stahl throws in some humor where it is unexpected. While Boyer and Dunne are trying to say goodbye in front of Dunne's apartment, they are interrupted by a neighbor rolling a garbage can, a first floor neighbor peering out on the window sill, and a woman in need of directions to the subway. And where did that man with the two sheep come from in the scene with survivors of the Long Island hurricane which somehow never touched Manhattan?

There are also a couple of sub-plots that are dispensed with quickly. The waitresses' strike is over in a day. The romantic overtures of a union organizer in love with Dunne is ignored once Dunne goes to Long Island. The other bit of sleight-of-hand is how Boyer's wife gets out of a locked room to confront Dunne.

Stahl makes interesting use of dolly shots. The film opens with a full shot of the interior of a restaurant, facing the main entrance. Charles Boyer enters in the general direction towards the camera. From behind, Irene Dunne crosses the pathway, carrying a tray, walking to the viewer's left. The camera follows Dunne towards the kitchen. Within the single traveling shot, Dunne and Boyer are briefly united. With his dolly shots, Stahl simultaneously provides enough information of where a scene is set while simultaneously isolating in full or in part his lovers. Stahl primarily films the couple in two-shots during most of their conversations. Only a few times does Stahl employ the shot-counter shot, alternating close-ups of his stars.

The blu-ray is sourced from a 2K restoration. The commentary track by film historian Lee Gambin and costume historian Elissa Rose provides some general information on the stars, the director, and the making of the film with an emphasis on how When Tomorrow Comes fits in with what were designated as women's films of the time as well as the political climate of the late 1930s.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 23, 2022 06:32 AM