When Tomorrow Comes, the lefty-est studio film you never heard of
Scour the lists of pro-labor American films, and I promise you, you will find no mention of the 1939 Universal melodrama When Tomorrow Comes. Do the same for feminist, or proto-feminist, or embryonically feminist American pictures, and again, you will see no mention of When Tomorrow Comes.
It's not hard to understand why. To begin with, it's not an easy film to see: it doesn't appear to have been released as a DVD or video cassette. It doesn't even get a plot synopsis on the website of Turner Classic Movies, which suggests that even TCM's manically diligent cineastes haven't seen it.
More fundamentally, a look at When Tomorrow Comes' credits doesn't lead you to think for a nanosecond that this will be a picture with provocative - let alone progressive - politics. It's a tear-jerking tale of thwarted love from the master of Thirties romantic melodrama, director-producer John Stahl. The screenplay is by Dwight Taylor, whose best known screenplays were for the Astaire-Rogers films The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat and Follow the Fleet. It stars Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, who a little less than a year previous had starred in the classic weepie, Leo McCarey's Love Affair, and Stahl's film is clearly an attempt to cash in again on the Dunne-Boyer romantic chemistry. The bare-bones plot summation - waitress and world-famous concert pianist fall madly in love, but he is stuck in a hopeless marriage to his mentally ill wife, so waitress and pianist must part - doesn't suggest we are on the same political turf as, say, The Grapes of Wrath, which Fox released five months after Universal premiered When Tomorrow Comes. And should you be privy to the details of Irene Dunne's off-screen life - she was a devout Catholic and a staunch Republican - the idea that she'd star in a lefty picture is silly to the point of ridiculous.
Even a more fleshed-out synopsis may not sound all that promising. In Act I, Boyer meets Dunne while dining in a Manhattan chain-restaurant, and falls for her. In Act II, he takes her away to his Long Island estate, where he serenades her on the piano (only then does she realize who he is), she sings a few bars (Dunne was the star of Showboat) and they are caught up in a ferocious hurricane which compels them to abandon their return to the city and spend the night in a church loft (lest you think any hanky-panky ensues) while the water threatens to wash over them. In Act III, the next morning, the storm has subsided, and Boyer tells Dunne that he is married. She flees back to the city; he finds her and introduces her to his wife, who has clearly descended into a state of delusional space-cadethood; the space cadet comes out of her trance just long enough to visit Dunne and tell her that while she (Dunne) can land any guy, she (the wife) has become so addled that she knows she can't so she is clinging to Boyer and hopes that Dunne will understand her predicament and give up any thoughts of horning in on her marriage. Dunne understands. She and Boyer have a tearful farewell, and he sails off to Paris.
But what is it that causes Boyer to fall for Dunne? Let's look more closely at Act I.
The film begins in the Manhattan restaurant where Dunne works - a vast, high volume, low-price joint that is part, apparently, of a citywide chain. The waitresses are buzzing about a meeting to be held that night at Unity Hall, where they will vote on whether to strike. One comically nervous waitress - Dunne's roommate, it turns out - is so flustered she drops her tray and breaks some dishes. "There goes my whole week's salary," she laments. "That's all going to be changed tonight," Dunne assures her. But the roommate fears that management will reject their offer and they'll be compelled to strike. Dunne reassures her that that's unlikely. "Our demands are reasonable," she says. Then she cautions her roommate not to speak so loudly, lest management spies overhear. "Walls have ears," she says, "and great big ones in Karbs Resturants," the name of the chain.
At this point, the manager - an officious type we are meant to hate at first sight - snaps at them to get moving. A customer has just come in. "Feed him and get him out of here," the manager says. "Space is money at lunch time." The manager loathes his customers as much as he loathes his staff.
The customer is Boyer, who is so entranced with Dunne that he pumps her roommate for info on where he could see Dunne again, which is how he ends up sneaking into Unity Hall for the union meeting - quite the most remarkable scene in the picture, and one of the most remarkable scenes, politically, in the entire inter-war major studio cinema. While a number of Thirties pictures favorably portrayed career women, this scene depicts working girls - in the parlance of the picture and the parlance of the times - as serious political actors who are able to conquer their fears and take on an employer that abuses and spies on them.
The scene begins with one union staffer in the film - a young man who also has the hots for Dunne - reporting that their talks with management have gone nowhere. "We'll strike!" one waitress shouts. "No we won't," shouts another. "What chance do we have - a bunch of girls against an organization like Karb's?" "We're not a bunch of girls," another waitress replies. "We're a union standing together!"
Quite the discussion follows. One waitress says she can't afford to strike; she is taking care of her mother. Another says she's taking care of her grandchildren because their father was killed in a strike; striking is the last thing she wants to do. With the debate growing more raucous - and sounding eminently plausible - some in the crowd ask Dunne to speak.
"I don't know what right I have to speak," Dunne begins. "Perhaps none, because in a way I'm more fortunate than you." (That is, she doesn't have kids or parents to take care of.)
"But I've worked with you girls and I've seen the worry and the fear on your faces. I've seen you tremble at the thought of losing your jobs. I've seen you struggle to make one penny do for two, the way you skimp and save and still never have an extra dollar for a new hat, a pair of stockings, any one of a million things a girl might want."
At this point, Stahl cuts to Boyer, who is plainly entranced.
"We've all heard these speeches tonight," Dunne continues. "Some of you have children. Some of you have parents, aged and sick, depending on you. And it's not for me or [the union staffer] to tell you what to do. I'd rather cut off my right arm than be responsible for a decision that would bring you more suffering or more hardship.
"But we want the right to stand on our own feet, to enjoy life, to feel like free human beings. And you can't go on just hoping for these things. That's what [the staffer means] when he says you've got to fight. He knows nobody's going to hand them to you on a silver platter. You've got to go in there and make them listen. And if the only way to do that is to strike, then I say Strike!"
Cheers ring out. A voice vote is taken; the waitresses shout their decision to strike. Irene Dunne - nice, Republican Irene Dunne, who in Showboat sang "Only Make Believe" and "Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine" - leads the waitresses in singing "Solidarity Forever." Honest.
But the scene is remarkable not just because it's Irene Dunne who sings the anthem of American labor. It's also remarkable because it takes the narrative of American labor beyond where American labor itself, during its most dynamic decade, was taking it. While the Thirties saw a tumultuous uprising and unionizing of American workers in the country's leading industries - steel and auto, most of all - most of that unionization came among preponderantly male work forces, in unions that were entirely male-led. Even unions that were substantially female, like the clothing and garment unions, were entirely male-led. There were brilliant female unionists who came out of the left, of course (Millie Jeffrey in the UAW and Rose Pesotta in the ILGWU, to name just two), but they took a back seat within their union leadership. It was the only seat they were permitted to take.
As for rank-and-file militancy in female-dominated occupations in the Thirties, it was a sometime thing. Teachers, at that point, weren't joining unions, nor were many office workers. The greatest outbreaks of mass militancy among female clothing workers had taken place at the height of the Progressive Era, when the needle-trade unions - the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers - were still forming and rank-and-file women leaders could still come to the fore.
The vast majority of waitresses went through the Thirties with no trace of union ferment in their worksites - but there were exceptions. In his 1955 impressionistic history of the Thirties left, Part of Our Time, the great Murray Kempton recounts the sit-down strikes of Detroit-area waitresses and department-store clerks during the two months following the UAW's epochal (and successful) occupation of General Motors' factories in Flint. "You'll be sitting in the office any March day of 1937," Myra Wolfgang, recounting her days as a young organizer for HERE, told Kempton, "and the phone would ring and the voice at the other end would say, 'My name is Mary Jones; I'm a soda clerk at Liggett's; we've thrown the manager out and we've got the keys. What do we do now?' And you'd hurry over to the company to negotiate and over there they'd say, 'I think it's the height of irresponsibility to call a strike before you've even asked us for a contract,' and all you could answer was , 'You're so right.'"
So the Unity Hall scene in When Tomorrow Comes captures that slice of the Thirties, but even amid that decade's labor turmoil, it was an unusual slice. In highlighting it, When Tomorrow Comes was as much a prophecy of feminism to come as it was a representative chronicle of Thirties women's activism. Precisely because it fuses the class-based activism of the Thirties with a feminist sensibility that was to grow in future decades - even as feminists,' and everyone's, class sensibilities declined - it actually depicts a kind of idealized left that never (or hardly ever)really was, as if the Thirties Left and the Seventies Left could magically combine.
However far ahead of social reality When Tomorrow Comes may have been, it was even farther ahead, in its combination of class and gender politics, of anything else the studios were turning out. Films of the Thirties often featured assertive career women - the Rosalind Russell part in His Girl Friday, for instance. Others possessed a kind of class-and labor consciousness, which you can see in such films as The Grapes of Wrath and Our Daily Bread. But as for films that combine the quasi-feminism of the career-woman films with the labor consciousness of a handful of 30s productions - as for films in which the lead character is an assertive working-class woman asserting herself as a labor firebrand among her fellow female workers - well, there's When Tomorrow Comes.
But the most remarkable thing about the picture when viewed today is what it assumes about its audience. Dunne comes across not just as a beautiful, caring woman but also as a gifted, charismatic labor leader - and she does so because this made her a more sympathetic character to the picture's audience, which was not a bunch of New York lefties, but, rather, middle-and working-class American women. If Dunne was going to be a potential home-wrecker, however unintentionally, the filmmakers mitigated this by making her an otherwise model citizen - that is, by making her the Irene Dunne incarnation of Mother Jones. That may have been a questionable calculation by 1939, when the New Deal fervor of the early and mid-Thirties had begun to wane, but it was a calculation that no studio would have let filmmakers get away with in any other decade in American history. The feminist union parable Norma Rae was made for a more socially conscious audience at a time (1979)when the great movie-going public of the pre-television age had long since fragmented into distinct sub-groups. When Tomorrow Comes was made for a much larger, less differentiated public: the women who flocked to romantic dramas about the travails of sympathetic heroines. Only in the Thirties would a studio bet that this mass audience would find Dunne more sympathetic because she organizes her fellow waitresses.
In fact, though, that's precisely the reason why Boyer falls for Dunne. When he meets her after the meeting, what he says is, "You were superb. I've never heard anything like that. I've never met a woman before who could make speeches, call strikes, serve pancakes, and look beautiful at the same time."
Where, o where, did this feminine ideal come from? Is there anything in the careers of writer Dwight Taylor and director John Stahl that would suggest they'd come up with When Tomorrow Comes?
Perhaps there is. Taylor, the Astaire-Rogers specialist who wrote the script, was an elected officer of the Screen Writers Guild during the Thirties. He was also the son of Laurette Taylor, one of the great Broadway actresses of the first half of the 20th Century, much acclaimed for her unmannered, naturalistic performances (her last role was that of the mother in the original production of The Glass Menagerie). Stahl, who produced and directed the picture, often made "weepies" - indeed, in the Thirties, he was the master of the genre - in which assertive women were trapped or undone by the collision of their private passions with social constraints. In 1932, he teamed, for the first time, with Dunne in the film Back Street, in which Dunne, a feisty working woman, abandons her job and, for all intents and purposes, her life to become a kept woman of a married man she loves - skulking around back streets, isolated from other people, her life reduced to a relationship that cannot ever be publicly acknowledged. In 1934, Stahl made Imitation of Life, in which a light-colored African American woman rejects her mother to pass for white, with predictably tragic consequences. Clearly, Stahl and Taylor brought a combination of feminist, non-conformist, and unionist sensibilities to the project - a combination singularly absent not just from any other Irene Dunne picture, but any other picture during that period.
When Tomorrow Comes is hardly Stahl's best picture, though. As sheer narrative, the three acts don't really cohere. The labor activism of the first act is swept away by the hurricane-like passion of Act II, though the reason Dunne has to go back to the city amidst the storm is because she has to picket the next day. (We do learn, near the picture's end, that the waitresses win their strike.) The conflict with Boyer's wife isn't even introduced until Act III, though it is the central drama of the film.
But as an oddly assembled proto-feminist statement, When Tomorrow Comes does actually - if roughly - cohere. Boyer is bound to a relationship with a wife who needs him, but who is incapable, most of the time, of being in the world. He falls in love with a woman who is not only in the world but capable of changing it. Indeed, he falls in love with Dunne because she's capable of changing the world.
Stahl and Taylor love her for this as well, for her leadership capacities as a woman and as a worker. They know that their audience - at least a good chunk of their audience - will love her for this, too. I miss that audience, and the American from which it sprung.
Murray Kempton - Part of Our Times: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties
Dorthy Sue Cobble - The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America