Friday, August 22, 2008

When Tomorrow Comes

John M. Stahl’s 1939 When Tomorrow Comes is handicapped by an undistinguished script and by the structural problems posed by the "other woman" genre. And yet something about the concentrated quality of Stahl’s camera style lifts and unifies the project.

The film divides into three sections of approximately equal length, and only the middle section is completely successful. The opening half-hour, showing the meeting and courtship of concert pianist Charles Boyer and waitress Irene Dunne, looks great – Stahl’s slightly standoffish compositions and fluid reverse tracks have a visual authority that few Hollywood directors can match – but plays a little cute. (Interestingly, the script’s pro-union agitation - Dunne and her coworkers go on strike against a callous employer as Boyer circles her – manages to make the film seem more rather than less frivolous, thanks to the total irrelevance of the politics to the plot.). And the last section is impaired by the movie’s weirdly fictitious conception of insanity, as embodied in Boyer’s invalid yet threatening wife Barbara O’Neil, a black hole of the diegesis who not only sucks away a happy ending, but also reduces the putative leads to second-banana status.

The middle section takes Boyer and Dunne from uneasy courtship to full-blown love, as an unexpected storm first isolates them in Boyer’s Long Island house, then becomes violent enough to endanger their lives. I’ve put up a short clip from the beginning of this section (hopefully a "fair use" of the movie – God knows where the rights reside, or why it has been unavailable for so many years), showing the couple in separate rooms of the mansion as they take a breather from the eventful narrative that has thrown them together. There are two things going on here:

1. The "other woman" genre mandates a certain amount of complexity in the male figure. This complexity is difficult to manage from the point of view of characterization: the film’s pleasure mechanism requires that the man be appealing enough to inspire romantic feelings in the audience, but the genre’s plot structure makes him a bit of a cad. When Tomorrow Comes doesn’t avoid all the confusing side effects of this dramaturgical dilemma, but in this clip we see Stahl and the writers (credit goes to Dwight Taylor; the IMDb lists a host of others) open up a pocket of silence in mid-film, in which both characters confront the narrative problem (by looking at photographs of the absent wife) and hint at a psychological ambiguity that begins to make sense of the tangled subject matter. The entire sequence is shot and edited with a simplicity verging on minimalism, and when the couple come together at the end of the clip, Stahl’s axial tracking shots and the point-of-view decoupage are so precise as to evoke Resnais.

2. One of the first things you notice about Stahl is that there’s a lot of weather in his films. Though his career is heavy on melodramas, and though adverse weather is one of the prime motifs of melodrama, Stahl invariably deploys weather against melodrama: he uses it to create a steady, conspicuous signal that remains more or less constant across dramatic vicissitudes. In the scenes before this clip, a storm whips up as the couple are boating, and the wind and rain drive them to an unexpected pit stop at Boyer’s house. The storm having served the narrative purpose of forcing a sexually charged situation, we might expect the filmmakers to let it lapse – but in this clip we see Stahl beginning to create a secondary focus on the weather, turning its sounds and sights into a continuous background texture. In the impressive thirty minutes that follow this clip, the storm will begin to drive the narrative, all the while serving as a sensory drone that is deployed in counterpoint to the ups and downs of the lovers’ adventure.

Okay, here’s the clip. Apologies for its poor condition: the source material began life as a Garden City, NY television broadcast and was repeatedly dubbed into its current ghostly state before becoming a pirate DVD.

Stahl is an extraordinary director who could use a little more attention. I threw out a few ideas about his style on a_film_by in posts #23893 and #32852.


Daniel Kasman said...

Wow! Thank you for introducing me to this film! That clip was exquisite, the Resnais' reference is spot on, but boy is there a lot of greatness in these few minutes, much of it gestural (the way Boyer turns and walks away dragging on his cigarette after looking at the photo; the way Dunne opens the door to hear the music better). I must track this down!

Dan Sallitt said...

Just the reaction I was hoping for! It's not too difficult to find this same crappy copy of the film - the trick is seeing a decent print. My understanding is that the estate of James M. Cain (the author of the short story upon which the film was based) is somehow preventing exhibition.

Anonymous said...

I don't know the James M. Cain story "A Modern Cinderella" (which may have been intended as the basis of the film and not actually exist on its own), but I believe the problem with the Cain estate may be that they lifted a sequence from Cain's novel SERENADE (the protagonist and the woman in the story are isolated during a storm in a church--the equivalent of the middle section you celebrate here). Really, the scenes are not that close, but as I recall Cain wanted to make an issue of it anyway.

What I don't get is that Universal(who owns the film and could surely put out an excellent restored print if rights were cleared) remade WHEN TOMORROW COMES as INTERLUDE (1957, Sirk), making the male protagonist a conductor but mostly keeping the broad outlines of the story, and seem to have had no problem with rights in that instance--they even remade it again under title INTERLUDE in the 60s or 70s (I'm fuzzy on that film except it exists and is another remake, though unacknowledged I believe). I should stress that the story has virtually nothing to do with SERENADE except for the tenuous relationship of the storm sequence (nor does Anthony Mann's 1956 film have more than a passing resemblance to Cain's novel--it is, dismayingly, Mann's worst film).

I saw WHEN TOMORROW COMES once on TV a long time ago and had a good impression of it--I haven't wanted to see a bad print of it so have kind of been holding out. I would like to see it again. But in any case I'd bow to Dan's fluency with Stahl. Interestingly, the second link to his a_film_posts does in turn link to one of mine in which I weighed in just a little on Stahl too and enticed Dan to elaborate further. It was interesting to reread those posts, at a time when a_film_by was enjoying many lively, illuminating discussions.

I know INTERLUDE (the Sirk version) a little better than the Stahl original. It may not be as good overall, but I believe Sirk may have done better with the mentally ill wife (Marianne Cook), who is given the most dramatic moments but they are carefully limited and she doesn't so much dominate as reinflect the tone of the movie from the shadows.

The Sirk/Stahl relationship is always interesting, interesting because they are really so different and not because Stahl is more "old-fashioned" or less sophisticated. And I say that as a lifelong Sirk enthusiast. I actually prize Stahl for what he could do with the "other woman" subgenre of melodrama and consider the original BACK STREET one of the greatest of all melodramas.

If there were a complete Stahl retrospective somewhere, I would make an effort to see it all.

Dan Sallitt said...

Blake - I do recall that Cain made an issue of that borrowing at the time. There's an interview with him in an old Film Comment (May-June 1976) in which he tells the story of going to court after someone told him that Stahl openly advocated stealing from authors whose work he had purchased. Cain was impressed with Stahl's honesty on the stand, and decided that his source had fabricated the story.

But is that the reason that the film is out of circulation? Is the Cain estate holding a grudge, or does someone just have to clear the rights to Serenade?

I wasn't wild about Sirk's Interlude when I saw it - I remember thinking the script pandered to genre expectations so much that it couldn't be redeemed - but I can't remember how the problem of the wife was handled. It probably helped that mental illness came out of the closet to some extent during the years between the two films.

Mann's Serenade is a really uncomfortable memory....

Anonymous said...

An excellent post, Dan. It makes me wish once again that you were back working regularly as a reviewer.

The AFI Catalog claims that "When Tomorrow Comes" was based on an unpublished James M. Cain story, and goes on to cite The Hollywood Reporter to the effect that "at least twenty-one writers worked on the script," and that it still was not finished when shooting began. It's not surprising to learn, after viewing the clip, that the picture also won that year's Oscar for best sound recording.

Just the fact that "When Tomorrow Comes" is a Universal film is enough to explain its unavailability. NBC Universal is probably the worst of the current entertainment conglomerates when it comes to taking care of and keeping its film library in circulation. The Sirk is not in distribution either.

Dan Sallitt said...

Thanks, Dave! Wanting to be a reviewer these days is like wanting to be Pope - the odds aren't great.

Somehow When Tomorrow Comes seems to have beem more persistently unavailable over the years than other Universal Stahl films, no? (The Eve of St. Mark is another Stahl film that has gone AWOL - I can't remember hearing of a screening in many decades. You'd think that one would show up on the Fox Movie Channel.)