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It Happened Tomorrow (1944)

downloadStories 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.

download (1)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 NoneIt 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.

download (2)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).

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2016 in Movies

 

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Meet John Doe (1941)

downloadFrank Capra and Christmas go together like baked apples and cinnamon. Even some of his non-Christmas films have a Christmas vibe. But I’ve always had a slightly ambivalent feeling about Capra’s films, partially because I can never figure out exactly what he’s trying to say. There often seem to be contradictory messages. I like to be able to take the meaning of a film and crystallize it and no film defies crystallization more than Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe.

And after watching it this morning on TCM, I still can’t decide whether I like Meet John Doe or not. Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper are adorable together (two of my favorite actors), the cast is good and it is certainly a thought-provoking movie. Heart-warming, humorous, cynical, sentimental and totally irritating. I am eternally fascinated. It’s also a Christmas film.

When a newspaper is taken over by the wealthy business tycoon D.B. Norton, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) loses her job along with many other people. In revenge, she writes one last column, purportedly from a man threatening to commit suicide by jumping off City Hall on Christmas Eve in protest against the current state of society. The column causes a sensation, with people writing and calling in, begging “John Doe” not to jump and the paper is besieged with accusations that John Doe is a fraud. The frazzled editor Henry Connell (James Gleason) finally manages to find Ann, who tells him that she made the letter up, but she has an idea to capitalize on it. Why not find a man to play John Doe and milk the sensation for all it’s worth? If Connell isn’t willing, she threatens to tell their rival paper that it was all a fraud.

download (1)What they first have to do is find a man who looks like an all-American John Doe and Connell and Ann interview various tramps who show up at the newspaper looking for work or claiming to be the “real” John Doe. The man they ultimately choose is John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a baseball pitcher turned tramp who hurt his arm and is looking for work so he get can get enough money to have a specialist fix it. Ann talks him into being John Doe and they put him in a hotel, get him new clothes and coach him on how to act.

But John Doe fever catches on beyond anyone’s expectations, especially after he makes a speech over the radio (written by Ann) about the average guy. It causes such a sensation that J.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) takes notice of how people are reacting. Perhaps he can use the sensation for his own ends, riding the new John Doe wave to the White House, and maybe beyond. He enlists Ann to handle Willoughby, despite Connell’s growing discomfort with the direction the fraud is taking and the increasing complexity of the lie, which is only resolved in a riot and an attempted suicide.

The film’s message is all over the place.  It is a warning that fascism could come to America, media exploitation, a call to the working man to stand together, a protest against commercialism and greed, a tender romance. Capra believes in the common man’s capacity for kindness and at the same time their capacity for mobbing and naivete. He also seems to be warning against the danger of centering a movement on the appeal of one person (John Doe) and at the same time asking if an ideal or principle can still be valid when it is based on a lie. But Capra never seems to fully develop any of these themes.

Annex - Cooper, Gary (Meet John Doe)_03My biggest frustration with the movie is the character of Ann Mitchell: a living contradiction. She is part cynical newspaper exploiter and part sentimental idealist who supports her mother and two sisters. The reason she’s so desperate for work is because her mother is always giving away their money to help people. There’s some irony there. Her father was an idealist who was generous to a fault. Is her money-at-all-costs attitude a reaction against her father’s excessive generosity? This unspoken tension is never resolved. She seems to idealize her father. One moment she’s flatly telling Norton what she wants is money and the next she is starry-eyed with enthusiasm for John Doe and what he stands for. It’s like a reverse Pygmalion; she’s in love with the man she created…who she created somewhat in the image of her father.

Also interesting is that John Willoughby seems to lose his identity in John Doe. By the end, he believes completely in what John Doe stands for and that he really is John Doe. He has no identity apart from that and whether or not Ann loves him for being John Willoughby or John Doe is never answered. The ending is downright confusing. Even Capra said he tried various endings and never could figure out how to bring it to a satisfactory close. There are messianic overtones. Ann basically asks John to take on the mantle of John Doe; he sort of dies and is reborn on Christmas Eve as the man of the people.

The cast – as in all Capra films – is unmatched. Only someone as skilled and genuine as Barbara Stanwyck could make a mess of a character like Ann Mitchell still appealing and interesting. She’s especially great as the fast-talking journalist (listen to her try to sell Connell on her idea, talking a mile a minute…she sells him on it, too). Gary Cooper is earnest and sincere and has adorable chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck (I love them in Ball of Fire, too).

Edward Arnold, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan

Edward Arnold, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan

Walter Brennan plays the tramp who is a tramp by choice and doesn’t believe in civilization. He calls people helots, but even he can’t do without human connections and never does find it in his heart to abandon John, even when John becomes a tacit accomplice in the fraud. Edward Arnold is the would-be fascist with his brown-shirted motorcycle brigade, quietly menacing as he polishes his spectacles. And James Gleason is excellent as the hard-boiled newspaperman whose sympathy is with the people. Even smaller roles, such as Bert, the man who tells John Willoughby what the John Doe movement has meant for him, are well played.

Perhaps what the core of film is about is helping people. It sounds simplistic, but if every single person helped their immediate neighbor the world would be very nearly perfect. The John Doe movement was about the average person helping their neighbors, finding humanity, dignity and comfort among each other, apart from politics, government, the media or corporations. In one of John Doe’s speeches, he talks about what it would be like if the spirit of Christmas prevailed all year long. But Capra also recognizes the many conflicting realities of the world that prevents it. But that does not invalidate the principle. What Capra ultimately seems to want to convey is that no exploitation or lie can invalidate a true principle.

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2015 in Movies

 

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