Today We Live (1933)

“It’s worth a World War to get a uniform like that.”

today we live 1Today We Live is a weepy melodrama set in WWI–notable for its cast: Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, and Robert Young. Directed by Howard Hawks and based on a William Faulkner novel, it’s the story of four characters and one love triangle set against the backdrop of WWI bravado.

The film begins with an American, Bogard (Gary Cooper) arriving in Britain. It’s 1916 and it’s the middle of WWI, but Bogard declares himself “neutral.” He plans to rent a country home in Kent from a British family, and he travels to the house just as Diana (Joan Crawford) the daughter of the house discovers that her father, a British army captain, has been killed in action. Bogard moves in and Diana moves into the gardener’s cottage.

Diana’s brother, Ronnie (Franchot Tone) and their life-long friend, Claude (Robert Young) arrive with just a few hours to spare before shipping out. This interlude confirms Diana’s romance with Claude and she agrees to wait for him. That leaves her alone with Bogard, and they fall in love.

Today We Live is a peculiar film. For a start, three of the main characters: Diana (Joan Crawford), her brother Ronnie (Franchot Tone), and their childhood friend, Claude (Robert Young) are supposed to be British but of course, they are all American. This leaves Crawford hard-pressed to deliver the fake accent, and as a result, her voice seems to come from somewhere at the back of her throat, and the lines with their long vowels are accompanied by little facial expression (apart from tears)–it’s as though Crawford puts all of her effort into the accent.

While it’s supposed to be 1916, some of Crawford’s costumes (before she runs off to join the war) are much too ‘modern’–take the number she wears when she first meets Bogard. It looks like something Lt. Uhura would wear. But frankly, all these quibbles aside, it’s the horrible script that sinks this film.

Today We Live is a tearjerker based on the premise that war is noble, calls for great sacrifices and that the best way to approach the war is to pretend it isn’t happening. This works for some scenes but not others. For example, when Ronnie and Claude visit Diana for a few hours before they ship out, the atmosphere is deliberately gay and carefree. It works. But when Ronnie and Claude visit the WWI memorial to the dead, look at the names, and see Ronnie’s father’s name as the latest addition, they are positively glowing. 

Diana and Bogard fall in love–it seems–after a short bike ride–another problem. If a film is a tearjerker, it should allow the audience to wallow in it, and this film doesn’t. There’s another scene with Claude acting as a turret gunner and mouthing “sorry” as he shoots Germans down.

But ultimately it’s the film’s dialogue that drove me around the bend. In what seems to be an attempt to show suppressed emotion, the film’s clipped dialogue is absurd:

“Wasn’t killed. Mistake. Met him in the hospital.”

“Been waiting. Getting worried.”

“Can’t help it. Tried. Tried terribly.”

Now while perhaps we could argue that it’s a brother-sister language (and the film indicates that Ronnie drives the ‘no emotion’ stance), Claude speaks it too: 

“See. See better now. See lots of things.”

With dialogue like that, the characters begin to seem like foreigners who haven’t yet mastered things like pronouns and articles. Makes me think of those Hollywood films where they have Americans dressed up as Chinese, let’s say, and the authenticity is supposed to come from perfectly pronounced words that are delivered in clipped sentences.

On the positive side, Roscoe Karns as Bogard’s sidekick McGinnis steals the film. McGinnis is the only sensible character in the bunch. And it is great to see the dewy-eyed Crawford before she developed that hard look that carried her through Mildred Pierce. Crawford met Franchot Tone on the set of Today We Live and they later married in 1935. Tone, of course, had a real-life love triangle of his own involving Barbara Payton and Tom Neal.

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