When Tomorrow Comes (1939) and Romantic Shelter From The Storm

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Waitresses bustle about on their beats passing along the news like busy bees: eight o’clock tonight unity hall! It caused quite a stir in the ranks and the girls are currently walking on eggshells afraid to get canned. A few of the gals are especially jumpy including poor Lulu who drops a whole tray laden with plates.

So when a Frenchmen sits down during the dinner rush it’s how do you say, disconcerting. He’s not rude by any means. His manners are fine. But he’s a foreigner and he asks for things outside of her comfort zone like bouillabaisse for instance (I had to look up the spelling just now). For instance, we can’t hold it against her when she says “To me all foreigners are spies until I learn different.”

The prevailing thought is he might be with the management to check them out. So they put their most level-headed colleague on the assignment. It’s none other than Irene Dunne. He has no malicious intentions at all. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. After making the acquaintance of such a charming lady, he wishes to see her again.

Irene Dunne feels like the original Norma Rae. She has spirit — the kind of spirit that stands up against injustice and will not allow others to be bullied into submission. But this is grounded by a charitable heart and a sense of decency. It’s what makes people get up and take note within the clamor. Because there’s genuine substance to her words. We believe them to be true.

Amid the host of admirers is one very special one. He’s attended in hopes of seeing her, a man oozing with names (and the Boyer charm). What might have been a chance encounter in real-life, in turn breaths life into an entire movie romance. The humid streets of New York don’t exactly scream love nest, but the man is so taken with his company, he doesn’t mind if he has to meet half the city just to be with her.

There are other interludes in this budding relationship, though we might as well focus on the focal point. It comes during the onslaught of a tropical storm. The man, she now learns is the famed pianist, and he welcomes her into his home to get out of the elements. Far from feeling surreptitious, it seems like an oasis from the world outside.

She walks around one of the bedrooms scanning around, leafing through an album of pictures, trying to glean more about the man downstairs. What follows is an enchanting zoom mimicking Dunne’s gaze as she returns from freshening up. She’s brought down the stairs by the sound of his playing. There’s a forceful authority to it to, matching the gale raging outside the windows. On her face, we see the love brooding right in front of us.

The dramatic situation is made plain by the inclement weather (that’s an understatement) and falling trees overhead. Blaring coast guard bullhorns warn of waters rising. They must find high ground.

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Rest assured, this is hardly a survival film. The scenario itself is ripe with more intimate pleasures as Helen and Philip seek asylum in a church during the brunt of the storm. After the crowded, liveliness of the city, the actors are contented in one another’s company, and it provides an understated satisfaction.

They light candles, she raises a prayer to the unnamed Providence for getting them to safety. He has the subtle tact to take her up into the balcony to the organ as the water starts to flood inside. It’s a thoughtful act, and they continue their genial conversation unencumbered. As she sits, listening to him quietly play “Fur Elise,” she thanks him. Because she saw what he did too.

What a lovely digression it is for those willing to partake of the solace. The gentle hospitality of the minister and church organist is yet another touch of decency in a picture ripe with such encounters.

If this sounds blase, rest assured, it plays to the rhythms we might attribute to a Stahl melodrama. They somehow bend away from the brunt of drama and pierce our hearts far deeper. Like Tay Garnett’s One Way Passage, there’s the sense of a destined love of the highest most ethereal kind — a love that can never be — it can never fully acted upon.

Because if it’s not evident already, they are people of principle and conscience. It goes unspoken for so long — the impediment between then. But she knows. He is not free. He is married to someone else, albeit loosely, as Mrs. Chagal (Barbara O’Neil) is a sick woman.

When Helen’s roommate notes it looks like she’s been away for 20 years like Rip Van Winkle upon her return, there’s some truth in the words. Even an evening can feel like a lifetime under the circumstances.

She eventually meets his catatonic wife and lovely mother-in-law. There’s no malice or ill-will, only a bit of sadness on her part to see what his life really is. She feels obligated to leave him behind — to not make this any more difficult for either of them. So she goes back to her picketing and wins the victory she helped champion. The film has gone too far though. It is no longer about unions or these type of ideals. At the very least it is about romantic ones.

There is another scene where she answers a caller at the door. It’s the wife, out on the street, as if she’s perfectly fine, and she might very well be. The scene has been written many times before: A wife confronts the other woman. We’ve seen the scene play out in so many stories it’s mind-boggling. Here it’s different. You almost don’t realize what is upon you.

There is a curious energy about it. Quieter and yet not unsure. Forthright and devastating in its very simplicity. What could be incisive and vindictive feels blunted and equally delicate in the hands of Stahl, and I believe this is quite purposeful. The main characters pull back, compelled by their sense of good and decent feelings. The “villain” in actuality is a helpless victim.

In another film the ending of When Tomorrow Comes would feel uncomfortably abrupt. Here it somehow works for me and not because the swelling music is cued. It’s because we know there is a foregone finality. It might not be today or tomorrow exactly, but it will have to end, going their separate ways and holding onto the love they had and what could have been. That is all.

Because unrequited love is not the most tragic form; it is the uninitiated followed closely by the unfulfilled romances that sear the most. If you are inclined, this is a tender drama more than capable of inducing a few misty eyes. I’ll never get over the grace of Irene Dunne, the adroitness of her reactions, touching on each and every emotion. Boyer has never been more gentlemanly. Together they feel sublime.

If my praise sounds too effusive, I’ll admit I haven’t seen Love Affair for some time. Have I simply forgotten what their chemistry was like? I’d like to believe Stahl brings something of his own to the material as well.

3.5/5 Stars

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