Tuesday, June 02, 2009

After Tomorrow (Frank Borzage 1932)

After Tomorrow is definitely lesser Borzage. The film powers by more on its jaundiced view of marriage than any visual/sonic intelligence despite cinematography by James Wong Howe. But as with Young America, Borzage creates an indelible portrait of the modern psyche under siege.

The title refers to the endlessly deferred marriage of New Yorkers Pete (Borzage regular Charles Farrell) and Sidney (Marian Nixon). Pete's mother (Josephine Hull, in a fantastic performance that finds the insidious evil in Marie Dressler) refuses to move out of her home, effectively shackling Pete to her financially when she's not manipulating him emotionally with crocodile tears and smothering. Sidney's mother Else (Minna Gombell, another fine performance delivered mostly through gritted teeth) is no better, wasting money on clothes and carrying on an affair with a tenant. Devoted to their undeserving parents (albeit with increasing exasperation), the couple see no end to their engagement in sight.

But New York City in general gives them no peace. The first shot (another dolly as in Young America) reveals right away how little the couple enjoy privacy. It follows Pete out of an elevator as three different women inform him that Sidney is working late which he already knows anyway. The last woman uses the time to hit on Pete, an unsuccessful endeavor even before Sidney arrives and kicks her in the leg.

Most of the secondary and minor characters are unhappily married or joyfully widowed. Borzage uses them to create a sort of ambient dread around marriage that permeates even the moments of respite Pete and Sidney find at the top of the Empire State Building or in Central Park. It all results in a rather heavy film which the rushed happy ending does little to dispel. One is left with the distinct feeling of scores unsettled as the heroic couple kiss at Niagara Falls before the end credits.

As a pre-Code film, After Tomorrow features some frank discussion of sex. Pete's mother embarrasses him with talk of how "in every man lurks a beast that can be aroused," undoubtedly to arouse that very beast so that he might step out on Sidney. Sidney herself suspects that the long engagement is putting undue stress on Pete's loins and suggests a "holiday" together. But Pete has self-control and vows to wait for Sidney until hell freezes over.

Finally, for anyone like me interested in the representation of music in film, Borzage includes a scene where Pete gives Sidney the sheet music for "that tune you're so crazy about." As they discuss how much spending 40 cents will cut into their marriage fund, a car drives by advertising a song (although whether it's hawking sheet music or a specific recording is unclear).

Later, after a demoralizing argument with Pete's mother, Pete and Sidney sit at the piano and sing the tune. It's called "All The World Will Smile Again...After Tomorrow."

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