Watching 1939: When Tomorrow Comes (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  When Tomorrow Comes (1939)

Release date:  Aug. 11, 1939

Cast:  Irene Dunne, Charles Boyer, Barbara O’Neil, Onslow Stevens, Nydia Westman, Nella Walker, Fritz Feld, Inez Courtney (uncredited), Mary Treen (uncredited), Mickey Kuhn (uncredited), Delmar Watson (uncredited), Kitty McHugh (uncredited), Tommy Bupp (uncredited), Sonny Bupp (uncredited), Addison Richards (uncredited)

Studio:  Universal Pictures

Director:  John M. Stahl

Helen Lawrence (Dunne) is a waitress and meets pianist Philip Chagal (Boyer) while serving for him. Helen and Philip fall in love, but Philip is married. His wife Madeleine (O’Neil) is suffering from severe depression after giving birth to a stillborn child so Philip cannot leave her.

1939 Notes:
• Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer were both in three films released in 1939, and two co-starred in two of the three. They co-starred in “Love Affair,” and “When Tomorrow Comes” was made in response to the film’s success. Dunne’s other film was “Invitation to Happiness” and Boyer’s was “Le corsaire.”
• Barbara O’Neil was in four films released in 1939, including “Gone with the Wind.”

Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in “When Tomorrow Comes”

Other trivia: 
• Based on James M. Cain’s story, “A Modern Cinderella. Cain sued Universal and director John Stahl for copyright violation. Cain said a church scene in the film was plagiarized from his book, “Serenade,” which one of the many writers who worked on the film admitted to. Cain lost the case, as the court determined that it was “scènes à faire,” where it was a normal plot development, according to Hollywood’s Copyright Wars: From Edison to the Internet by Peter Decherney.
• Remade twice: Interlude (1957) starring June Allyson and Rossano Brazzi, and Interlude (1968) starring Oskar Werner and Barbara Ferris
• One of three films that Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer co-starred in. The others were Together Again and Love Affair.
• Child actors and brothers Tommy Bupp and Sonny Bupp appear in the film together

Awards and Nominations:
Bernard B. Brown won the Academy Award for Best Sound, Recording for this film.

Irene Dunne and Barbara O’Neil

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
After the success of “Love Affair” (1939), studio executives were eager to recreate the film major by reteaming stars Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.

Five months later, audiences saw Dunne and Boyer reteamed in “When Tomorrow Comes” (1939). The film had a few humorous moments, but is mostly a romantic melodrama about two lovers who readily can’t be together – slightly similar to “Love Affair.”

However, critics didn’t like the film. In fact, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther added it to his roundup list of the worst films of 1939, citing that it attempted to capture the “heartbreak of Love Affair but only succeeded in being silly.”

Other critics criticized that the film was made solely to recreate the success of “Love Affair.”

I frankly don’t think any of this criticism is very fair, and the film isn’t as bad as it was made out to be in 1939.

First off, recasting actors together in another film to recreate their chemistry was nothing new, not even in 1939. In fact, Warner Bros. released Daughters Couregous (1939) a month prior to “When Tomorrow Comes” was released in an effort to capitalize off of the success of “Four Daughters.”

Sure, “When Tomorrow Comes” may not be as good as “Love Affair,” but I also don’t think it is a bad movie. I actually enjoyed it.

Irene Dunne is wonderful, as always, and plays a waitress who is swept up by the romantic gestures of a French pianist she just met. After a short time of knowing each other, Dunne finds she’s in love with the Frenchman, played by Boyer, but also discovers he is married and plans to break it off, which of course is easier said than done. Charles Boyer is dashing and charming, but also a bit of a cad for going after a woman while knowing he can’t get out of his marriage.

Truthfully, the most interesting character to me was Barbara O’Neil as Boyer’s “mad” wife. Five years prior, O’Neil’s character gave birth to a stillborn child and is still grieving. Because of this, Boyer can’t leave his wife though they no longer have a marriage. O’Neil and Dunne only have one true wife vs. other woman encounter, which also tells a bit more about O’Neil’s character but I was really more interested in her grieving character. I almost wish we could have seen her developed a bit more.

Running at an hour and a half, my only real complaint is that I feel like “When Tomorrow Comes” ends a bit abruptly. The story is wrapped up and I no longer had questions, but it felt like the script (which apparently was difficult to adapt and had more than 20 writers) was finished because screenwriters didn’t know what else to do.

The story spends the most time on the couple caught in a storm and seeking refuge in a church – a scene that writer James M. Cain took Universal and director John Stahl to court over. Cain, whose original story was the inspiration of the film, said the storm scene was taken from another story of his, “Serenade,” which he wasn’t paid for. In both stories, the couple goes into a church during a storm and play the organ. Cain lost the case, as the courts said this would be a normal series of events for anyone who was caught in a storm and went into a church.

I think it’s interesting that Dunne and Boyer were both only in three films in 1939 and two of those films were with each other. While “When Tomorow Comes” was criticized for profiting off their chemistry, I enjoyed the film. While I feel like the script could have expanded on the characters, audiences at least had the good fortune to see Dunne and Boyer once more in 1944.

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