Grab a Kleenex because when you settle in to watch this one, you're likely to be crying. (If not from the tear-jerking scenario and heart-tugging acting, then perhaps from the unintentional humor of a sometimes preposterous storyline and some campy makeup! Either way, be prepared.) 1946's Tomorrow is Forever is a melodrama that takes its cue from the 1864 narrative poem “Enoch Arden” by Alfred, Lord Tenneyson, albeit updated and tweaked to fit a contemporary setting. In the poem, a man leaves his wife and three children to find work, but is shipwrecked and believed dead, but returns a decade later to find his wife happily married to his one-time best friend. Forever doesn't follow things that closely, but retains the basic story scheme.
It's 1918 and WWI has at last come to an end. Claudette Colbert is working as a laboratory assistant at a chemical firm run by George Brent and is eagerly awaiting the return of her husband. While the office celebrates victory, she can only dream of finally being reunited with her husband of only one year, Orson Welles.
She is later seen scurrying home during her lunch hour one day, prior to Christmas, with a tiny tree and packages in order to make their house a bit festive should be be popping in soon. She hasn't even taken her coat off when she opens a telegram from the U.S. military informing her that her husband was killed in action only a few days before peace was achieved.
Here, we flashback to the only scene of Colbert and Welles as young marrieds. Despite her concerns for his safety and welfare, he's seen modeling the new uniform he will wear as a 2nd lieutenant in the army. Still newly wed and very much in love, they embrace passionately with Welles promising Colbert that he will return from the war.
Back in the present, Colbert can hardly pull herself together enough to make it back to the office and, in fact, has only just appeared, late, when she faints altogether on the stairs. Her boss Brent takes her to his mansion-like family home where his aunt (Lucille Watson) can look after her. It is soon discovered that it's not only the news of Welles' death that has caused Colbert to collapse. She's also pregnant!
She stays with Watson and Brent all through her pregnancy, never returning to her old home. We see her bedridden, her fleeting moments of happiness brought crashing back down as Welles' personal effects (letters from her, a pipe and an engraved cigarette case) are delivered to her by the army.
However (and this is no spoiler as the movie makes it clear all along), Welles is not dead! He's been very badly injured; his face and body crushed significantly during battle. At his bedside, an Austrian doctor has nothing at all to go on but one letter from Colbert in which she expresses her deep love for Welles. Welles' identification is missing and he refuses to inform the doctor of his identity. (By the way, though she isn't credited – no one is – I cannot escape the impression that this nurse is played by Moyna Macgill, Angela Lansbury's mother!)
Welles feels that it would be unspeakably cruel to go home to his young, beautiful wife with a disfigured face and a battered deformed body when she could otherwise be free to live a better life. He has no inkling that she is, in fact, carrying his child. Through heavy bandages (and a teeny straw that somehow, hilariously, allows him to carry on full, if a tad echoed, conversations with ease) he steadfastly determines to keep his identity private.
Just in case you aren't getting the picture, look at the way he's bandaged up!!
Colbert goes into labor and the delivery nurse proudly comes out to show Brent “his” baby, never dreaming that he's not Colbert's husband or the child's father. He and Watson take the baby and Colbert back to the estate to carry on as before. The baby is named after his real father, Welles.
Brent, though, has by now fallen in love with Colbert himself and just as she's considering leaving his care (and free boarding!), he proposes. She is hesitant, admitting to his face that she is still deeply devoted to Welles and possibly not able to truly love again, but in the end accepts his offer of marriage and they proceed to a life together.
Cut to twenty years later and Brent and Colbert not only have her nearly-grown son (Richard Long), but another boy several years younger of their own (Sonny Howe.) Preparations are underway for a party with a gaggle of young people dancing to, as Watson calls it, “boogie woogie.”
On this day, Brent has brought a noted scientist over from Austria to assist him with a new venture. In a remarkable coincidence, the visitor is none other than Welles, now a haggard, gray-haired, wrinkled, barely mobile old man! He has a little, blonde Austrian girl in tow with him (Natalie Wood, in her first significant role.) The petrified child who has barely survived Nazi occupation clings to Welles much of the time.
They almost don't let Welles and his young charge into the country because his health is so frail, but he's finally allowed through when it's determined that his work won't be tremendously demanding physically.
Welles, nervous about being back in his original hometown, takes Wood with him to his old house in order to be certain that Colbert no longer lives there. Once assured that the home has been vacant for years after an Italian family moved out, he proceeds with his plans to work for Brent.
By this point, twenty years after the opening, Brent has gray temples, Watson's face has sunk and all her hair has turned gray and Welles, as mentioned, looks like Heidi's grandfather, but Colbert is still radiantly beautiful, svelte, stylish and, of course, is nearly always shot on her left, favored side!
Anyway, Brent invites Welles over to discuss some plans while the young folks party. Colbert is upstairs dressing (and lending a pair of earrings to a young deb who has her eye on Colbert's son Long) when the doorbell rings.
She heads to the stairs just as Welles is entering and descends them as he turns to face her. He is staggered to find out that his new employer's wife is his own, long-ago deserted one!
For her part, she doesn't even recognize him (especially since he has the gray streaks in his hair, the craggy wrinkles, the dark shadows on his face, a gimpy right arm and, inexplicably, a thick Austrian accent that he uses now, even in private!)
She is a bit taken aback by his stricken expression, but otherwise has no inkling that this is her husband of two decades prior and the real father of her twenty year-old son.
She is felicitous and gracious with him, making sure that Long and Watson help him get around and fix him something to eat from the sizeable buffet. Things go on swimmingly for the most part with Colbert not suspecting anything amiss about Welles.
He however, is again thunderstruck when he realizes that her first born son Long, is in fact his own child! He chats the boy up and is duly impressed with his sense of duty and intelligence.
Colbert gets a shock of her own, however, when Long later announces to her and Brent that he wishes to join a friend of his in running off to Canada to join the RAF, fighting in WWII even though the U.S. is not (yet) involved in the conflict! She is horrified that her son might be taken from her the way her husband once was, though, since Long is in the dark about all that, he merely see her as irrational.
Back from the party, we get a glimpse of the tender relationship between the beaten-down and physically disabled Welles and the precious, tender Wood. Everything she says is polite and caring as she helps undo the difficult buttons on his vest and collects his medicine for him.
Welles is invited back to Brent's home, this time for lunch and with little Wood in tow. The family is playing horseshoes and Colbert helps the girl throw her first one. Things at the lunch table don't go well at all, however.
Long brings up the idea of joining the RAF again and Colbert starts to lose it. She then turns on Welles, stating that someone like this Austrian war veteran before her might have been the one who killed her young spouse back in the day.
Their scuffle is interrupted, though, by the screams of Wood. Colbert's younger son had attempted to entertain her with a party favor, a cracker that pops loudly when the ends are pulled, and it reminded her of the gunfire she'd witnessed back in Austria during the German occupation.
Welles reveals to everyone how Wood's parents were gunned down in front of her and she not only heard the shots but saw the killings, blood and all. Colbert can hardly believe that this tiny child has already experienced such horror and admits to feeling somewhat remorseful about her previous outburst.
(It must be noted, too, that Wood is revealed to be the child of the doctor who put Welles face back together! That doctor was old and craggy-looking, with a particularly prominent vein on his head, when Welles was injured – though he was only forty-nine then. The storyline asks us to believe that he fathered a child – Wood – fifteen or so years after that!! Tony Randall would be proud!)
Colbert's wedding anniversary to Welles rolls around and, in a funk, she heads to their old house, which is still vacant and boarded up. (What the hell is wrong with it?? Why won't it sell? Was it the wallpaper?) She sits on the porch in tormented thought when, out of the blue, Welles appears! This startling coincidence is more than she can bear and they have another confrontation.
Now seriously believing that Welles is her long-lost husband, she pores over an old scrapbook of their life together. Her young son Howe remarks that the man in the photos looks like Long (which he doesn't...) Howe then tells his mother that Long isn't home! He's run off to joing the Royal Air Force in Canada!
At Brent's office, Welles has simultaneously intercepted a letter that Long wrote to Brent before departing. As it is addressed “Father,” he feels justified enough in opening it, for fear of what its contents hold. He scurries to the train station in a taxi to help prevent Long from enlisting in the service.
Back at Brent and Colbert's home, Colbert shows Welles his own personal effects and is utterly convinced that he is her spouse, but he will not budge on the matter regardless of how much she pleads with him. In a rather notable scene for 1946, she lies on the floor and embraces him about his legs and lap, despite being married to Brent who could arrive at any moment.
I won't proceed any further with the story except to say that some characters have a happier ending than others (and some still are bitter-sweet.) The whole enterprise is designed to wrong tears from viewers which many folks, including me, often find cathartic.
It's a luxuriously presented melodrama from the old school, capably directed for maximum impact by Irving Pichel. With music by Max Steiner and costumes by Jean Louis, it ticks off many of the boxes required for a memorable weepie (though remains somehow strangely unknown to many people!)
By the time of Tomorrow is Forever, Miss Colbert had been a top female star of the cinema and still had hits to come. She won the Oscar for 1934's It Happened One Night and had been nominated twice more for Private Worlds (1935), losing to Bette Davis in Dangerous, and Since You Went Away (1944), losing to Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. Amazingly enough, she had already done a previous version of the Enoch Arden concept in The Man from Yesterday (1932) with Clive Brook as the “dead” husband and Charles Boyer as her new love.
The year after Tomorrow is Forever, she and Fred MacMurray starred in a huge comedy hit, The Egg and I, which also featured Richard Long and which kicked off a whole string of movies featuring two of the movie's supporting characters, Ma and Pa Kettle. Colbert drifted out of movies in the mid-1950s, only working sporadically (such as in 1961's Parrish), though in 1987 she costarred in the miniseries The Two Mrs. Grenvilles and scored a Golden Globe for her trouble. She passed away in 1996 at age ninety-two from a series of strokes.
At this point in his life, maverick filmmaker and dynamic personality Welles was still licking his wounds from having taken on the mammoth Hearst publication machine over Citizen Kane (1941) and having his elaborate directorial pet project The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) slashed to bits by RKO. He'd been off screen for three years and was working as a writer for The New York Post. His sometimes brilliant career was to be punctuated by various starts, stops and issues.
His sole acting nomination (for Citizen Kane) was lost to Gary Cooper for Sergeant York, though Welles did receive an Honorary award in 1971. Eventually gaining a considerable amount of weight, he lent heft to a variety of character cameo roles in order to make ends meet. While his makeup in Tomorrow is Forever is more than a little jarring and theatrical (not to mention uneven throughout the picture), it's rather fascinating to see that in real life, he actually wound up looking very much like this as time went by!
There are times in the movie during which he is spellbindingly lit, his eyes gleaming with great effect. Welles passed away in 1985 at only age seventy due to a (rather unsurprising) heart attack.
Brent was the favorite leading man of Bette Davis. Many leading ladies enjoyed having him as a costar because he was solid and reliable, yet rarely, if ever, showy enough to upstage them. He was often described as wooden, as a matter of fact, though fans of his prefer understated as an adjective. The year before this, he played, perhaps, his most challenging role in The Spiral Staircase.
Active in films from the early-1930s on, he would work on (increasingly less important) movies through the early-1950s before spending a few years in television. He left acting in 1960 and enjoyed retirement until his death in 1979 of emphysema at age seventy-five.
Watson was a stalwart supporting actress who appeared in many movies including The Women (1939) as Norma Shearer's pragmatic mother, Waterloo Bridge (1940), The Great Lie (1941) and Watch on the Rhine (1943), for which she received an Oscar nomination. The statuette went to Katina Paxinou in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Watson retired in the mid-'50s and lived until 1962 when a heart attack claimed her at age eighty-three.
This was the film debut of young Long who was not yet twenty when the film was released. His second film, The Stranger (1946), also starred Welles. He then did The Egg and I (1947) with Colbert, which led to a string of sequels over the next several years. As a Universal contractee, he often received publicity alongside other rising stars such as Hugh O'Brian, Tony Curtis and, as seen below, Rock Hudson.
In 1959, Long kicked off a successful run of series on television with work on Bourbon Street Beat (1959-1960), 77 Sunset Strip (1960-1962), The Big Valley (1965-1969) and Nanny and the Professor (1970-1971.) Thicker Than Water, an unsuccessful sitcom with him playing the brother of Julie Harris, came and went in 1973. Sadly, in 1974, at only age forty-seven, Long was felled by a series of heart attacks. His widow is actress Mara Corday.
Howe was not able to establish a considerable show business career after this, his debut. He only appeared in uncredited bits before leaving the world of movies around 1956. (And no, that was not him as the banjo-playing inbreed in Deliverance, 1972! LOL)
In an earlier post, I focused on the childhood career of Wood, including her work in Tomorrow is Forever, but eventually I just had to delve further into the movie itself and, once again, draw attention to her work in it. The poor girl is given some really formal, even complicated, dialogue for a little six year-old girl and she handles it about as well as anyone could.
Where she really excels is in her delicately appealing physicality (contrasted sharply against the imposing, nearly 6'2” Welles!) How the little thing wasn't terrified of Welles' garish makeup I'll never know. She plays so lovingly towards him. This was a terrific primer for her later work opposite Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street a year later (and she matured significantly in that quick period of time.)
She's called upon to cry at least three times (with an accent, even!) during the film and it's really pretty wrenching to witness, as she is clearly affected emotionally in each one. It's just a striking, touching piece of work from a neophyte actress that was, for once, worthy of the publicity build-up the studio put forth upon the film's release.
Both she and Long adored Colbert and duly noted her extreme helpfulness in coaching and supporting these two newcomers to the cinema. Colbert surely never dreamed that she would outlive both of these young performers, but she did. Sometimes tomorrow isn't forever!