The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.
In 1931 Frank Borzage directed the screen adaptation of Viña Delmar’s novel (and subsequent Broadway play) Bad Girl. The film was an enormous commercial and critical success, grossing over $1,100,000 at the box office and earning Borzage his second Academy Award for Best Director.1 Hoping to recreate the success of this stage-to-screen domestic drama, Fox went to great lengths to purchase the rights to John Golden and Hugh Stange’s new play After Tomorrow, a similarly-themed story of two working class lovers attempting to achieve domestic bliss in spite of tremendous financial and familial obstacles. Despite purchasing the motion picture rights for After Tomorrow only a month after the play premiered, the studio’s contract with the playwrights stipulated that the film adaptation could not be released until February 1932 as to not compete with the play’s initial Broadway run.
However, the studio may have been more interested in purchasing the rights to the title of the play (and the positive publicity associated with it) than the actual story. According to historian Hervé Dumont, Fox made a conscious effort to temper the somewhat bitter tone of the original story by blending the structure of the play with elements of Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Street Scene, another working-class drama that touched on issues of infidelity and had been brought to the screen by King Vidor in 1931. Despite these stipulations, After Tomorrow screenwriter Sonya Levien created a story that tackled issues central to not only the original play and Street Scene but also to Borzage’s previous hit, Bad Girl (including the plight of the working class, familial conflicts, infidelity, and the temptation of pre-marital sex).
When casting After Tomorrow, Borzage wanted to re-team frequent costars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell as the film’s undaunted lovers, Sidney Taylor and Peter Piper. Despite securing Farrell for the part of Peter, Gaynor ultimately declined to appear in the film. The part of Sidney ultimately went to Marian Nixon, an actress who had been under contract to Fox since 1925. When it came to the supporting cast, Borzage opted to have Josephine Hull recreate her role as Peter’s domineering mother, marking Hull’s first appearance in a feature-length film.
Despite the financial success of Bad Girl, After Tomorrow was given a miniscule budget. The budget was so low that Borzage was unable to include any tracking shots in the film. Even under these incredible constraints, Borzage was still able to creatively showcase sexual innuendo in key scenes of the films in a way that both pleased the Hays Office and entertained audiences.
After Tomorrow premiered in New York on March 4, 1932, just days after Golden and Stange’s contractual hold on the film ended. The film opened to mixed reviews, with many critics disappointed by the blaring narrative similarities between After Tomorrow and Street Scene. A critic for the Los Angeles Times stated, “In its best scenes reminiscent of Bad Girl, and in its worst of Seventh Heaven—both products of the same fine Italian hand—it classifies as fair entertainment.” It was not until later decades that the film began to be viewed in a more positive light, attracting the attention of filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich. The Borzage touch that permeates nearly every frame of After Tomorrow is perhaps best characterized by Scorsese in the statement, “Whenever [Borzage] is filming two people falling in love…the action plays out in what I call lover’s time—every gesture, every exchange of glances, every spoken counts.”
Special thanks to Janet Bergstrom, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media, and the Program in Cinema and Media Studies.
1. ^ Frank Borzage received his first Academy Award for Best Director for Seventh Heaven, 1927/1928
Bogdanovich, Peter. “The Golden Age of American Talkies: 1932.” Blogdanovich. http://blogs.indiewire.com. 16 Dec. 2011.
Dumont, Hervé. Frank Borzage. London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1993. Print.
Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema; Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. New York: Dutton, 1968. Print.
Scorsese, Martin. “Foreword.” Frank Borzage. London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1993. Print.
“True Love Hits Obstacle.” Los Angeles Times. 12 Apr. 1932.
Jessica Fowler is a recent of graduate of UCLA’s Master of Arts program in Cinema and Media Studies and will be pursuing her Ph.D. in the fall. She received a B.A. in Film Studies and a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Georgia. Her research interests include Hollywood films produced for the international market during the early sound era and the impact of Top 40 radio on television productions of the late 1960s.