In 1940, Sir Cedric Hardwicke came up with certain idea. A British man who had traveled to Hollywood to expand on his already great stage and movie career, he felt the need to somehow contribute to war efforts. Hitting a patriotic note, Hardwicke reached out to the British colony of actors residing in Hollywood. And there were plenty of those at the time.
The idea was grand: to gather as much talent as possible and make a half-propaganda, half-entertainment movie that would convey an important message on screen and whose profits would be donated to war charities.
RKO was the first studio that agreed to host the project, but soon few other ones joined in to make lesser contributions. Ultimately, 7 directors/producers, 21 writers and 78 actors worked on this project in the space of a year and a half. Amazingly, it was finalized and released without any unpleasant surprises.
The story is about two families: Trimbles and Pomfrets. They start off on a very bad note, but as time goes on next generations of both exhibit all kinds of behaviors.
We're getting a peek at many, as the story comprises of four or five parts, each one depicting a different period in time, starting before 1804 as Napoleon's invasion of England was in motion and ending with World War 2 (opening and closing sequence).
Feuding as the families are, there is one adhesive that serves as a background, fundament, and sometimes an object of quarrels - a house built by Admiral Eustace Trimble. In reality, it is the house that is the lowest common denominator of the movie and plays main part in it.
The list of known actors engaged is enormous, which makes for every Golden Age of Hollywood fan's wet dream, making one feel like a kid in a candy store. Every scene, practically every person appearing is a known face. What's more, there is not a single weak performance in this picture!
Weakest one is, ironically, that of Kent Smith, but (irony again), it's not a big factor. His character Gates Trimble Pomfret is the embodiment of negative stereotypes about Americans. Shallow, materialistic, with no regard for tradition (due to his country having little to none), he has to be guided by hand and schooled to understand the values that the house represents.
Smith is great match for the role, but partly because he has a certain quality, which leaves the viewer with the feeling that there is something off with his performance, even though on paper everything seems to be right.
There is stiffness in his eyes and in the way he acts, even though he is skilled and determined enough to make it sit deep under his skin. His flaws sit well with what was expected of him.
When we start our travel in time (while the space remains), sir Charles Aubrey Smith kicks things off with a wonderful, charismatic performance played with great vigor and conviction. He plays Admiral Eustace Trimble, a person who builds the house in question. Light-hearted and positive, if somewhat naive, the story sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
Ray Milland plays his son in a slightly generic, but still interesting way, mostly to the uncharacteristic relationship he has with his dad.
Also in the opening sequence we see another big name - Claude Rains. He plays Ambrose Pomfret, the primary villain of the series, who is a nonchalant, well-mannered-yet-sinister aristocrat exacting his revenge for a stolen girl.
Just mentioning all the great roles in the following sequences would make for a very lengthy read, a time you could as well spend watching the film, so let's just go through the most impressive ones.
Reginald Owen breaks the bank as a crazy lawyer named Simpson. In his short performance, he manages to deliver the most abstract and positively-twisted character in the movie. As a bonus point, he is also sporting the best haircut of them all.
Cedric Hardwicke, the head of a project, got in front of cameras too. He plays a bath fitter who goes overboard with his near-science-fiction invention, hoping that installing it extra will one day pay off and his device will become a standard in every home. Wishful thinking of course, who in his healthy mind would want to take showers?
Charles Laughton appears for a brief moment as a drunken butler with a drinking problem that, lucky for him, his employer Bellamy turns a blind eye on, as long as he tries to hide it (for example, in between flowers). As is so usual for Laughton, he manages to steal the show, even though he's in front of the camera for only few moments.
The single best scene in my books without a doubt is that involving Ida Lupino (as Jenny Jones) and Brian Aherne (as Jim Trimble). As an energetic, witty, small-yet-powerful girl, Lupino squares things off with Jim, who is first playful and then aggressive with her.
As the two jump at each other's throats, they discover that they have the same elements burning inside them. A common tongue is established, which soon unbinds her quasi-slavery chains and sends both to seek a new life in the United States. It's also a nice reversal of roles, as Trimbles now have a seemingly shady character in their ranks.
Since there are so many British-American actors, many knew Hitchcock well and some have had worked with him before Forever and a Day.
Ray Milland, for example, had played the scheming husband in Dial M for Murder, Charles Laughton had played the absolutely hypnotising Sir Humphrey Pengallan in Jamaica Inn and Judge Horfield in Paradine Case. Claude Rains impersonated Alexander Sebastian in one of Hitch's masterpieces Notorious.
One of the biggest issues people who didn't enjoy the movie have with it is that the story is too disjointed, the scenes too uneven and their value is primarily in scenes treated as separate entities impossible to gel together to a satisfying effect.
Ironically, while watching the movie I had exactly opposite feelings. Despite so many writers, the prevalent sense of humor is somehow uniform, as if they had all been sitting in one room and soaking the same atmosphere before beginning to write. Most of the film is light-hearted while never crossing into the cringy and goofy territory. Here, the tone is also universal while at the same time retaining its unique charm.
The balance of seriousness with comedy is nicely struck across the picture, starting with not too pleasant circumstances and then cherishing on the rich history only to come back to tough times through a moving story of parents finding out that their beloved hero soldier child Archibald won't be returning from war.
Homogeneity of this film is great on many levels, but when you take into consideration how many names have contributed, it becomes a stunning achievement.
When chronology reaches the point of WW2, darkness creeps in. All those earlier reflections could seem out of place for a propaganda movie, but when we get the whole picture, we learn that they serve their purpose well.
With their ups and downs, high points and actions people would rather their children and grandchildren forget, every generation adds to the foundations of the house which can survive even if it's almost completely demolished, as long as there is a will to carry on.
Our paths may split, we may end up continents apart, but we share common roots and our paths intertwine. British, or American, the world is our home and we need to work together. The picture reaches its conclusion nicely by blending materialistic with the symbolic.
The last conversation is a bit cheesy, but while in normal film it would be a downer, here it is exactly what's needed to connect with the audience and send a clear call to action that sticks - which is what Forever and a Day was made for in the first place.
Forever and a Day represents what Alfred Hitchcock failed to achieve on his own - merging entertainment and propaganda. The picture does it the smart way, and in my opinion the only possible way, that is: to never try to put the two in the same room.
Had Hitch followed that formula (and most of his propaganda films were done after this one), he would have spared himself few embarrassments and wouldn't have to avoid talking about them after the war was over. The redeeming fact is that he was responsible for Lupino and Aherne's wonderful scene.
At the beginning, Hitchcock's great friend Cary Grant was supposed to play male part in the scene, which would make him the biggest star in this star-filled cast. He couldn't make it though, and even Hitch was so pressed for time due to delays troubling his other project that he had to capitulate after constructing a script together with his writers.
René Clair replaced him and decided not to change the script, so at least that part of Hitchcock's work came through. Clair did a great work with it.
The director's specific input is hard to identify just by watching the film alone. Perhaps there is a slight trail in the opening moments, when Jenny tries to watch through Jim's legs and he shuts her down by joining them for salute - typical Hitchcock.
He and Alma share similar fate to characters in the scene, after all they too are Brits who decided to cross the Atlantic Ocean hoping to find better pastures.
Looking at the credits, it's hard to believe that the movie even saw the light of day. It doesn't include rich RKO staff which also worked heavily, and Sara Allgood, Lionel Belmore, Ray Bolger and Charles Coburn whose performances were recorded, but removed from final print.
In Hollywood, getting many famous stars together is very hard to accomplish due to their complex contract obligations and big actor egos, which makes communicating and working out timeframes and compromises extremely hard to achieve.
Forever and a Day might just be the biggest project Hollywood has ever accomplished, a constellation of talent which in the space of 1.5 years was able to go from start to finish.
This period includes all the issues that the war brings. Actors had serving (and dying) family members, some decided to go fight themselves. Studios, agents and the government organized for them other forms of contributions which they were fulfilling on a daily basis.
It all disrupted the schedule, which forced a lot of elasticity, great planning and improvisation. Despite all that, it happened. Only under unusual circumstances could such a feat be achieved, but frankly, even then reason would bet against it happening.
Public reception of the film was great, although some critics had negative things to say. Despite the star-filled cast and staff, as the war ended, so did memory of the movie. For many years, it was completely absent from projector screens and only in 1998 it saw a DVD release (rightfully acknowledging Lupino's great performance by putting her on a cover).
Even that turned out to be a short-term affair, as the number of copies was limited. Nowadays, that DVD is collector's item, with unboxed copies selling for north of $100 on auctions (Amazon sells used for about half that price). With little effort, you can find it online if you're willing to break the law. Given that it wasn't meant to be a source of profit for anyone, you can make a good case in court if MPAA decides to hunt you down!
No actor chipped in, only time was devoted for the project and all profits went to various war-related charities, including British War Effort and National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The initial plan was to destroy all prints, so no unknown party makes profits from the movie in the future, but fortunately people came to their senses somewhere along the way.
Even if the movie would have ended up poor, it's practically a blasphemy to just wipe it off the face of the Earth. And it is everything but.
By rule, there are no official ranks of propaganda films here on Mr Biography, but judging it as an entertainment product alone, it is a strong 8-out-of-10 creeping into the 9-out-of-10 territory. If your mood is bright and you're in for a forgotten classic, there are few better recommendations.