Irving Pichel’s weepy wartime melodrama Tomorrow Is Forever premiered in London on January 18, 1946, and premiered in New York City a month later, on February 20th. If you can suspend your disbelief and accept the convoluted, coincidence-laden plot, it’s quite a fine movie, with excellent performances and a moving story.
The film begins on November 11, 1918, as the First World War is drawing to a close. Charles Hamilton (Douglas Wood), the head of the Hamilton Chemical Works, Inc., in Baltimore, is joined by his son Lawrence (George Brent) and other members of the company in toasting their success. He raises a glass to the part the company played in winning the war, as well as their contribution to the nation’s victories in the Spanish-American War and the Civil War. Lawrence Hamilton walks over to a pretty woman named Elizabeth MacDonald (Claudette Colbert) who is sitting by herself, and offers her a glass. Charles Hamilton drinks to peace and prosperity, and declares the rest of the day a holiday. Lawrence talks to Elizabeth, a research librarian at the chemical works, and learns that her husband, John, who went to war as an officer just four months earlier, is coming home soon. Elizabeth is elated.
A little time passes. Presumably it’s a little more than a month, since there’s snow on the ground, Max Steiner’s lissome score breaks into an orchestral interpretation of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and Elizabeth is carrying a little Christmas tree. When she get home, however, she receives devastating news; a telegram informing her that her husband, Lt. John Andrew MacDonald, was killed in action on November 5th. She goes to their bedroom, stands in front of the dresser, and he appears behind her in the mirror like a ghost. He’s played by Orson Welles, and he and Colbert play out a touching scene. They were clearly very much in love, and seeing him go away to war was difficult for her. In the end, he holds her tightly and promises her he will come back. (Return he does, and that’s where the audience’s suspension of disbelief will come into play, but more on that later.)
Not only has Elizabeth lost her husband, she learns that she is pregnant with his child. Lawrence Hamilton takes her in, and cares for her and her son, who is named John Andrew after his father. Elizabeth and Lawrence marry, and while it is a marriage based on friendship and respect rather than passionate love, it is also a successful marriage, and they have another son of their own, Brian (Sonny Howe). John Andrew Hamilton grows into a strapping young man (played by Richard Long), whom his parents call “Drew.” They never tell Drew, however, that Lawrence is not his biological father.
Meanwhile, we learn that John didn’t actually die in the war, but he was so badly injured that he didn’t want to live, and refused to identify himself to his attending physician, Dr. Ludwig (John Wengraf). In their scenes together, only Welles’s left eye can be seen through his mass of bandages, and he begs Dr. Ludwig to put him out of his misery. Dr. Ludwig refuses, and tells him that with extensive reconstructive surgery and physical conditioning, he can be made well again. It’s not entirely clear why John wants to be allowed to die and never see his wife again, although it seemed to me that “shattered body” was code for “irrevocably damaged genitals.”
Twenty years pass, and war again conspires to destroy Elizabeth’s happiness. Germany invades Poland, and Drew and his fraternity friends, including his best friend, “Pudge” Davis (Tom Wirick), make up their minds to go to Canada to join the R.A.F. and train as pilots. Drew is a few months away from his 21st birthday, however, and Elizabeth refuses to give her consent. Drew is the image of his father, a man she loved with a passionate intensity, and to lose him to battle would be like losing John all over again.
At this point, an Austrian chemist named Erik Kessler enters the United States as a refugee, along with a little blond girl named Margaret (Natalie Wood). Kessler is played by Orson Welles, and it soon becomes clear that he is John A. MacDonald, even though he has an Austrian accent, a beard, glasses, and walks with a limp. He goes to work for the Hamilton Chemical Works, and enters the lives of the Hamiltons.
It’s at this point that the film began to seem ludicrous to me. Kessler immediately recognizes Elizabeth when he meets her, but she does not recognize him. Welles certainly looks and speaks differently as Kessler, but he was less recognizable in his old-age makeup in Citizen Kane (1941) than he is here. How can she not recognize him? A willing suspension of disbelief is required, as well as an appreciation of the conventions of the stage. It is enough to know that Kessler received a great deal of plastic surgery to reconstruct his face, so while the audience can recognize Welles in his new guise, they have to accept that no one else in the film can. Was I able to do this? Well … sort of.
Tomorrow Is Forever is a story about loss and letting go. The performances in the film are excellent, especially Welles and Wood. Their scenes together were my favorite in the film. Just seven years old when she made this film, her first credited role, Wood was able to project a wide range of emotions and even delivered her lines in German relatively convincingly. Long was also very good in his first film role, even though his performance is pitched mostly at a single tone; earnestness. It was clearly made as a star vehicle for Colbert, however, and it’s her emotional journey that drives the film. As I said, you have to accept all the coincidences in the story and the idea that Elizabeth is not able to recognize who Kessler really is to go along for the ride, but if you can, Tomorrow Is Forever is a pretty good film.