#6 Exploitation and rebellion in When Tomorrow Comes (’39) [episode 11]
When Tomorrow Comes (’39) opens with whispers among wait staff for the time and location of a secret union meeting vote on whether to call a strike against their employer, Karb’s, a cafeteria franchise in New York City. In the next scene, set during the meeting, women appear thrown in sharp relief, in contrast with the regulation waitress uniform.
Viewers don’t register the full measure of Karb’s uniform until we see what the women assembled for industrial action look like in their own clothes. Repeat the restaurant scene for a revelatory gander at a wretched, demeaning garment. Women who work under precarious, hardscrabble conditions seem further belittled by a uniform that infantilises. Karb’s ticks every box of nursery fashion: giant four-fold hair bow; a puerile gingham print; hyper-puffy sleeves; a useless, sheer apron tied in back to bustle effect; moreover, although we don’t see their feet for long, they seem to be shod in white toddler kicks and ankle socks. Karb’s invites patrons to exercise a Lolita-fetish over a blue plate special. Not satisfied with blatant exploitation of their wait staff by docked wages for broken dishes, paid spies to keep employees under surveillance, or ignored complaints about sex-pest customers, the hash house management mocks women’s labour and dignity outright through a ridiculous uniform. They take no such scornful liberties with the bus boy’s required ensemble, it’s worth noting, which looks as though it could serve as gear for hospital orderlies, milk men, barbers, or many other respectable jobs performed by adult men.
Unity Hall, crammed full of women in pursuit of justice, provides an opportunity for a thrilling spectacle for both the potential of self-expression through style and collective action. Vera West and Orry-Kelly produce an exquisite line up of working women’s fashion. With so much chic eye candy on display, the scene demands numerous rewinds. Clad in various conceptions of muliebrity’s design, the waitresses manifest creativity, probity, and sartorial acumen. On a tight budget, women who can expect, as Irene Dunne’s character notes ‘a plug nickel’ for a tip, meagre wages nonetheless turn themselves out with flair. A duplicate hat doesn’t materialise among their crowd. Verily, women at the time augmented a limited wardrobe with fresh collars and cuffs, as made evident in the scene. Collars trimmed with pinking shears, or embellished with scalloped edges, a zig-zag design complement dresses, blouses and skirt suits. Flashy buttons liven up an otherwise staid frock. Jaunty floral, geometric or whimsical patterns offer distinction to women who feel hard done by or lost on social ladder.
The waitresses have material needs that make a strike risky. Individually, they rise from seats to worry over sick mothers, caring for children and grandchildren, spouses killed in previous labour negotiations, fear of unemployment, lost wages, layoffs, handsy customers—a full barrage of grievances against their employer..
— What chance have we got? A bunch of girls against a strong outfit like Karb’s?
— We ain’t a bunch of girls. We’re a union standing together.
Because it’s a woman’s picture, the male union delegate fails to rouse strike consensus—that’s left to Irene Dunne. Her barn-burner includes a golden nugget of feminist wisdom: ‘But we want the right to stand on our own feet. To enjoy life. To feel like free human beings. And you just can’t go on hoping for those things’. If Dunne’s speech isn’t enough to garner a fist pump or lighter flick, perhaps the scene’s ending, where Charles Boyer puts the swoon atop the triumph of watching ladies ripe to raise Cain. Boyer’s unbridled enthusiasm for Dunne’s address supplies what we seldom see onscreen—a man who admires a woman for what she says and does, rather than her appearance.
— You were superb! I’ve never heard anything like it! You were marvellous. Simply marvellous! You were wonderful […] I’ve never met a woman before who could make speeches, call strikes, make pancakes and look beautiful all at the same time.
Boyer’s aspect signifies awe and respect much more than the throwaway bit about her beauty at the end. He’s sighworthy in his praise for Dunne. Even though the room buzzes around them, their shared recognition mutes the squall of protest, so that their locked eyes spark a charge between them, which arrests the nascent picket line. When love sweeps you up, nothing else—however important—matters in comparison. Everything recedes, cast to periphery.