After Tomorrow (1932)

19 12 2008

My first Frank Borzage film and I am very impressed. While I’m well aware of how highly regarded he is, I also have to admit that I wasn’t really expecting much out of this or Young America, which came out the same year. All fears were put aside by the first five minutes with one of the most beautiful opening I’ve seen. It helps a great deal that this film, in particular, seemed to have had a big impact on the Japanese. The story starts out a little bit like Naruse’s Wife! Be Like a Rose! but it actually turns out to be even better. The physical condition of Naruse’s film isn’t really helping, but I’d still say that Borzage was a much more visual director, at least in the 1930s.

I’ll give Borzage a lot a credit for also being a pretty character-focused director, at least that what I would gather from the two films of his that I’ve seen. This isn’t exactly an Ozu film in terms of depth, but here, there is a similar focus on small little drama(s) that go on within families. The dynamic between Marian Nixon’s character, Sidney Taylor, and her father is really quite astonishing, even by modern standards. If I have to go back to an Ozu comparison, than I would probably equate their relationship to the one between Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara in Late Spring. As believable as Nixon and William Collier are as the closet members of the family, I think the wife of the house, played by Minna Gombell, comes off a bit too villainous.

Sidney has been engaged for three years to Peter Piper (an eye-roller, I know) who brings in a completely different cast of characters. First, his extremely jealous and passive aggressive mother, played by Josephine Hull, who comes off as whiny and irritating at first, but plays the first well enough to make her situation seem vaguely realistic. There’s also Betty, who longs for Peter and makes many sexual advances towards him, all of which he turns down. Some of the characters seem slightly superfluous, but the fact of the matter is, they never seem like stock role or “types” which may have been because many Hollywood “cliches” had yet to be developed.

While there’s no simplifying of characters, there is, however, plenty of cliches in typical pre-code Hollywood dialogue, which ranges from fairly clever writing to flat and predictable punchlines. It’s hard to know for sure, of course, but I have a hard time believing people really talked like this in the 30s. I’d imagine that people felt like they talked like this, but couldn’t have actually been as quick and clever. The writing isn’t the relentless cycle of perfectly set-up comedy a la His Girl Friday but it does seem a bit convenient in a way. Normally, I would just overlook this in general, but it’s hard when there’s so many intimate sequences that show potential for much more perceptive writing. It’s not a big setup, though, especially when the rest of the film is so great.

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