Edward H. Griffith’s Next Time We Love (1936) arrives on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber looking like a typical glossy example of what the studios called “women’s pictures” or “women’s films”. Upon closer examination, it makes unusual moves. To understand what this film is doing, we must explain what it doesn’t do, and that means we must explain its genre.
A staple of classic Hollywood, “women’s films” centered on the star actress and aimed themselves at female audiences. They told stories that explored women’s choices in a glamorized setting and usually amid much melodrama. In film after film, those choices could be broken down as follows:
1. The choice between marriage or career, because both at once was frowned upon. The word “career” could be applied to either choice because it came down to what a woman would do for a living.
Two factors were predictable in this choice. One factor is that whatever glamorous career the heroine followed, she was always successful at it, not some washout who needs a man to pay the bills. On that score, such films showed confidence in women’s competitive abilities and creativity.
Ah, but that brings us to the second prediction. The heroine always found success hollow and meaningless unless she had a husband and children to make her “feel like a real woman”. She never found that she could pay proper attention to a boyfriend or husband when she had all these meetings and factories to run. Inevitably, the successful “career girl” or strong-minded heroine, at last, finds true love and retires from the grind to enjoy her “proper” role.
2. The choice between this man or that one, because both at once was frowned upon. Usually, two charming men, each with his qualities, vie for the heroine’s favors. Sometimes one man is rich and the other poor, and then it’s often found that the rich guy’s a stuffed shirt and a tyrant while the poor fellow’s more agreeable, and he’ll probably get rich anyway. In general, the more raffish and working-class, the better. This choice becomes complicated if the heroine happens already to be married to one of them, which brings us to:
3. The choice between marriage or divorce, because both at once was frowned upon. While silent films and pre-Code talkies sometimes solved the heroine’s problems with divorce, it was nearly always seen as a frivolous, selfish, and tasteless decision.
After the Production Code crackdown of 1934, divorce was virtually always verboten. William Wyler’s highbrow Dodsworth (1936) twisted its plot into pretzels to justify divorce as the wife’s fault—poor saintly, suffering husband. Even so, Dodsworth had to be released by those free thinkers at United Artists, an indie studio that sometimes got away with details that flouted the Code. It came out the same year that Universal released Next Time We Love.
4. The choices, or lack thereof, engendered (no pun intended) by pregnancy and children, which were frowned upon for all but the safely married. These punishing, self-sacrificing melodramas about single mothers and “back street wives” presented the suffering woman as pretty much an unrecognized saint and were extremely popular. The average ticket-buying housewife found much to identify with and feel exalted by while reaching for her hankie.
All of that brings us back to our subject, for Next Time We Love will touch upon all four choices while serving as a vehicle for one of the era’s most charismatic, beautiful, and natural-seeming stars, Margaret Sullavan. Her name is trumpeted before the title. Listed after the title are her frequent co-star James Stewart as the husband and Ray Milland as the dapper friend. As far as the film is concerned, they’re equivalent.
Sullavan plays Cicely Hunt, who aspires to succeed as a Broadway actress. She loves Christopher Tyler (Stewart), a journalist who aspires to report from hotspots all over Europe, Russia, and China, with reference to various wars brewing. While he’s still angling for the job as a foreign correspondent, we hear samples of his writing about Mussolini. He later talks about Japan invading China, an unusual topic to mention at this time, and we even see him discussing things with a young Chinese man who’s going to attend Columbia University. That’s one of many odd little details we’re not quite expecting.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Cicely loves Chris, and they get hitched on the understanding that they will be all modern and support each others’ careers. In practice, Chris tends to give vibes of frustration and resentment. They hit their first crisis of compromise when he gets his first assignment in Rome just as she’s making a hit on Broadway. She convinces him it wouldn’t be good for her to leave the show right now, so he should go on without her.
This is where many another film would condemn Cicely’s egotism, and that judgment is hinted at by Christopher’s best man Tommy Abbott (Milland). Lovestruck Tommy forever suffers silently for Cicely, helping her career and otherwise being a dashing sport. On the other hand, some scenes almost imply that Chris is handing Cicely off to Tommy.
Tommy and the audience get a surprise when, as soon as Chris leaves for Europe, Cicely reveals the true, thoughtful, self-sacrificing reason for staying: she’s pregnant! She knew that if she told Chris the real reason why she won’t feel comfortable traveling, he’d turn down the job or else be distracted by a wife who needs extra attention, and she wants him to have a clear path. The gobsmacked Tommy only increases his admiration.
Such is the beginning of the Tylers’ marriage, which Next Time We Love will follow over the course of a decade, as charted in under 90 minutes of screen time through more ups and downs than we have time to detail. The point is that over all the years, Cicely and Chris only see each other a few weeks or months at a time. The film implicitly argues that this is why their marriage is so successful.
Their son grows into a self-assured tyke who knows Tommy better than daddy. Cicely takes Broadway by storm without being condemned for being so chic. Chris travels farther and farther and makes important contributions to news on earth. Finally, Tommy confesses his love and begs her to divorce Chris and marry him instead, and this proposition shapes the final crisis.
From that first choice of dishonesty over the pregnancy, Next Time We Love is emphatically one of those films where people keep all the most important facts from each other because they all think they’re being so damn noble. As a result, Stewart’s crusty boss praises a rare love that stays true despite the distance, and that’s the real message. According to the dialogue, they always remain faithful until the final shot of Cicely in shining Madonna mode, clutching Chris to her breast.
By these curious convolutions, Next Time We Love constructs a scenario in which Cicely is canonized for pursuing a successful career separately from her husband, wherever the heck he is, and for depending not at all upon his support. She performs this magic while maintaining the sanctity of marriage in a spirit of renunciation that incidentally makes her rich and successful, instead of being one of these modern butterflies with lots of husbands, like the real-life Sullavan. Wow.
Next Time We Love is based on a bestselling novel by one of those careerist butterflies: the scandalous Ursula Parrott, who kept cranking out romantic novels that got turned into films. Her Wikipedia page is full of anecdotes I’m unsure whether to take at face value, including a bizarre one about the birth of her son that weirdly resonates with Next Time We Love. A biopic about her would have more incident than one of her books.
Next Time We Love is directed smoothly by the busy and forgotten Edward H. Griffith. Joseph Valentine shoots everything on Charles D. Hall’s colossal sets, all vividly captured on this 2K master from Kino Lorber. While Melville Baker is the only credited writer, some sources indicate Preston Sturges as a contributor, possibly because he’d scripted her film The Good Fairy (Wyler, 1935).
As a matter of aesthetic curiosity, Next Time We Love eschews any musical score aside from a few examples of diegetic music, as if it were still an early talkie, even though 1936 is well into the decade. This choice of natural sound makes the whole thing subdued and restrained, and really, the story is devoid of melodrama.
Another minor point is that a few African-Americans are seen in bit roles, including a valet and a Pullman porter, and, like the Chinese student, they conduct themselves as normal humans instead of broad amusing types. Also glimpsed in one scene is Hattie McDaniel as a neighbor (not dressed as a maid) who conducts herself like Hattie McDaniel.
At the risk of getting off track, this element forces us to wonder about Griffith’s filmography. Did he commonly have progressive or at least non-cringing racial portrayals? Someone else must comb through his obscurities to be sure, but a casual glance causes me to doubt it.
For example, he was entrusted with a Technicolor bit of Southern apologia called Virginia (1941) with support from Leigh Whipper, Louise Beavers, and Darby Jones. Those are three very interesting actors, but their roles sound like sentimental twaddle. Before that film, Griffith made Safari (1940) with Jones and the always riveting Madame Sul-Te-Wan, and just after that, he made the Technicolor Bahama Passage (1941) with Whipper and Dorothy Dandridge. So he worked with outstanding people but may not have done outstanding work with them.
That leads us to the theory that the true guiding intelligence on Next Time We Love is producer Paul Kohner, one of the most fascinating men in Hollywood. Although his accomplishments are legion, he’s probably best known for producing Universal’s Spanish-language version of Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) starring Mexican actress Lupita Tovar, whom Kohner married; their daughter Susan Kohner played the girl who passes for white in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959).
This is how film buffs free-associate. You’re probably used to it. Speaking of free-associating film buffs, the Blu-ray of Next Time We Love offers cinephilic commentary by film historian Lee Gambin and costume specialist Elissa Rose, who go to town on subjects from Vera West’s gowns to the story’s ambiguous sexual politics. For example, Rose points out that when Cicely secretly gets her husband another job abroad, it could be interpreted as either self-sacrificing or selfish. These choices are part of what makes the film unpredictable and watchable today.