Stories involving special knowledge about the future nearly always appeal to me, so I was looking forward to seeing It Happened Tomorrow, a whimsical fantasy set in the 1890s, starring Dick Powell and Linda Darnell. Unfortunately, it was not all that I had hoped for. It’s more of a curiosity, though not without its charms.
Lawrence “Larry” Stevens (Dick Powell) is an ambitious reporter who has just been promoted from writing obituaries. At a party, he jokes with his co-workers that he would give ten years of his life to be able to read tomorrow’s newspaper, but the old timer Pop (John Philliber) cautions him that he doesn’t even know if he has ten years to give. However, that night Pop hands Larry a newspaper that is indeed tomorrow’s newspaper. It says there will be a hold-up at the opera house and Larry makes sure he’s there, even copying down the article from the newspaper so he can reproduce it.
But things do not work out exactly as Larry expects. For one, the police suspect him of collusion and even suspect the woman he has fallen in love with, Sylvia Smith (Linda Darnell) – a professional clairvoyant who does her act with her hustling Uncle Oscar (Jack Oakie). Essentially, Larry becomes a prisoner to the future, always trying to either fulfill it, ignore it or avoid it. But no matter what he does, he always manages to act in a way that makes the headlines a self-fulling prophecy. The eventual result is comic despair and fatalism.
It Happened Tomorrow feels like a transitional (or filler) film for nearly everyone involved. Dick Powell was about to essay his career changing role as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, Linda Darnell was transitioning away from sweet ingenues to femme fatales or woman from the wrong side of the tracks and director Rene Clair was partly killing time while stranded in America during the Nazis occupation of France.
Rene Clair often gravitated towards fantasy and whimsy. His most famous movies include some early French musicals (A nous la liberte) and I Married a Witch and And Then There Were None. It Happened Tomorrow is definitely a lesser film, though it’s not a bad film. The pacing seems a little off, and the timing, and the acting and humor is a little broad. Would it have made a difference if Clair had gotten his first choice for Larry, Cary Grant?
Dick Powell, as I said was transitioning away from musicals and about to establish his wry noir persona. He seems much more understated in those films. For It Happened Tomorrow, he’s funny, but seems to be playing it too broadly, which is interesting because in later comedies, like Susan Slept Here, he seems spot on. Perhaps he was simply too old, or simply no longer looked like the eager young reporter he was playing and was trying to compensate?
Or perhaps it was because he was playing opposite Jack Oakie, who is the very definition of broad comedy. Oakie has a way of stealing scenes, even at one point wearing one of the loudest suits I’ve ever seen, and he tends to run away with things a little too much at times.
The ending is pretty hilarious, though. Larry has read that he is going to die at a certain hotel the following day and is trying his best to stay away, eventually settling into despair that no matter what he does he will end up at that hotel. He even decides to provide for his widow – Sylvia – by betting at the racetrack, knowing which horses will win and there is genuine suspense as one wonders both how he will end up at the hotel and how he will manage to stay alive.
Linda Darnell as Sylvia is still mostly in her ingenue phase, though she would play her first femme fatale that same year in Summer Storm with George Sanders. At this point, however, she still doesn’t quite know how to deliver a line or modulate her voice.
Linda Darnell’s career as an actress is a curious one. She began so young (and was initially cast mostly on the strength of her astonishing beauty) that one can literally track how her acting improved through the years. She made her first movie at fifteen (playing a society woman who was supposed to be married to Tyrone Power for three years!) and initially played beautiful ingenues in films like The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand.
It is in the late ’40s that she really comes into her own with films like A Letter to Three Wives (a personal favorite), No Way Out, and Unfaithfully Yours. By that point, she also seems to have learned how to use her voice as an asset and not just as a means of delivering lines. She’s especially good at conveying world-weariness with her voice (and uses her voice in A Letter to Three Wives to conceal her vulnerability). Sadly, her career began to peter out at just the age (late twenties) that most great actresses come into their own (like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck).