Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Unsung!: After Tomorrow

Sometimes you see an older film and it just sticks with you ... or it reminds you of what contempt current filmmakers have for their audiences.

After Tomorrow (1932)

A few weeks ago I had occasion to see Frank Borzage’s After Tomorrow at a Northwest Chicago Film Society screening at the beloved Portage Theater. I say “occasion” because I have since discovered that this film is difficult to see, unless you are willing to cough up  $188 for the “Borzage at Fox” DVD box set. I am lucky to live near a city that features these types of screenings (the NCFS does great work) but I understand I may be trying your patience this week, discussing a film to which many of you might not have easy access.

After Tomorrow really impressed me -- not just with its script or its performances or its cast, but that the film treated its audience as adults. Today’s popular image of Depression-era Hollywood is that of a “Dream Factory” providing escapism, rather than a real factory of social realism; yet this film is too smart to shortchange its audience with anything but the grim reality that everyone shared at that time.
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: The unfortunately named Peter Piper (Charles Farrell) and his girlfriend Sidney Taylor (Marian Nixon) are trying to make a go of it during the Great Depression.  Though they are both lucky enough to have jobs, they still cannot afford to get married and get their own place. Peter’s mother (Josephine Hull) needs her son’s income to make the rent every month; she refuses to move in with Peter and Sidney should they get married, and she is terrified of being abandoned by her only son. Sidney’s father has medical problems, and one senses her household desperately needs her income as well. Have I mentioned that Sidney’s mother is having an affair with a two-bit swindler? How can all of this ever be resolved? Will Peter and Sidney ever find happiness?

Although some of this could be written off as the stuff of sudsy soap opera, the filmmakers took the problems of these characters seriously and expected the audience to take them seriously too. The film does a terrific job portraying two specific families living in a specific tenement neighborhood where everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. The keenly-observed details about life during the Depression are engrossing. The film features an extended sequence about a marriage arranged on the cheap by friends of the bride and groom that matched stories my parents have told me about similar weddings where frugality came before ceremony.

Perhaps what intrigued me most was the film’s wild mix of genres -- a technique not often used in American films of that time. The film starts as a romantic comedy. The two lovers take a break from work, toting sandwiches to the top of the recently completed Empire State Building to enjoy the view. The city is laid out in front of them; it is theirs to conquer. This romantic idyll is broken almost immediately by the realities of their lives. The unspoken economic oppression of the times hangs on this film like a shroud; its as if the film wants to be a light romantic comedy, but the Depression itself will not allow it.

Josephine Hull (who some of you may remember as one of the homicidal aunts from Arsenic and Old Lace) gives the film’s best performance as Peter’s overbearing mother. She was the only member of After Tomorrow’s original Broadway cast to be retained for the film version, and you can see why. Perhaps this speaks to my own latent mother issues, but Hull is so adept at portraying an exasperating, clinging, possessive Mom that halfway through the film I wanted to climb into the screen and punch her in the throat. And when I was done I would punch the Depression in the throat.

Goddamn you, Depression, Goddamn you.

My students tend to dismiss the past, as if they think that anyone living in that pre-ironic era was a simpleton or a naive sap, and that contemporary audiences are much more knowing. Yet I am constantly amazed by the sophistication and honesty of older films, specifically films from the 1930’s and 1940’s that did not feel the need to whitewash reality as much as contemporary films do. Most romantic comedies of the past ten years do not even take place in a universe I recognize; they occur in Movieland. I give After Tomorrow so much credit for having the courage to take place in the real New York of the 1930s.

And of course it makes a romantic couple’s eventual happiness all the sweeter if they are triumphing over real adversity and did not start the film, as the protagonists of so many recent romantic comedies do, with six-figure salaries, designer wardrobes, and apartments the size of churches.

I know this film will be hard to track down, but it is worth it. All of us must continue to support local groups like the Northwest Chicago Film Society that show gems like this on a regular basis. Tomorrow night (Wednesday, August 8), the NCFS will be screening Lewis Milestone’s Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, 7:30 pm at Chicago’s Portage Theatre, 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave. I will see you there. Tickets are only five bucks; even Peter and Sidney could afford that.

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