These notes accompanied The Crank’s screening of It Happened Tomorrow on October 4, 2015. The film, an American production by the masterful French director René Clair, is out of print on DVD in the United States and has been preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
THE CRANK PRESENTS:
IT HAPPENED TOMORROW (1944). Arnold Productions, Inc. DISTRIBUTED BY: United Artists. PRODUCED BY: Arnold Pressburger. DIRECTED BY: René Clair. SCREENPLAY: Dudley Nichols and René Clair, based on originals by Lord Dunsany, Hugh Wedlock and Howard Snyder, and ideas of Lewis R. Foster. PHOTOGRAPHY: Eugen Schüfftan and Archie Stout. EDITOR: Fred Pressburger. MUSIC: Robert Stolz. ART DIRECTOR: Ernö Metzner. CAST: Dick Powell (Larry Stevens), Linda Darnell (Sylvia), Jack Oakie (Cigolini), Edgar Kennedy (Inspector Mulrooney), John Philliber (Pop Benson). FORMAT: 35mm. RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes. ORIGINAL RELEASE: May 28, 1944.
After the release of his second Hollywood feature, I Married a Witch (1942), French director René Clair turned down a succession of pictures at Paramount, where he was under contract. These included Ministry of Fear, which ultimately went to Fritz Lang, and Frenchman’s Creek, which went to Mitchell Leisen. Reluctant to direct war films, Clair preferred to stick to fantasy, but he noted that “Americans are a bit frightened of fantasy — they’re afraid to let themselves go.” One project that did pique Clair’s interest was a story that Frank Capra had purchased about a reporter who has access to tomorrow’s news before the events come to pass. Paramount was not interested, but independent producer Arnold Pressburger bought the rights, and Clair and his friend Dudley Nichols completed the screenplay for what would become It Happened Tomorrow.
Larry Stevens (Dick Powell) is an up-and-coming reporter who expresses to his newspaper’s archivist, Pop Benson (John Philliber), a wish to know the next day’s news before it happens. Pop warns Larry against this, but later that night, he gives Larry a copy of tomorrow’s paper. The next day, when Larry realizes that his wish has come true, he starts to report on the events that are about to happen. Although this reporting boosts his status at the newspaper, it also leads to trouble, as his knowledge of a robbery committed that day arouses the suspicions of the police inspector (Edgar Kennedy). Further complicating matters is Larry’s budding romance with Sylvia (Linda Darnell), who performs in a clairvoyant act with her overbearing uncle, Cigolini (Jack Oakie).
Clair and Nichols establish the philosophical question at the heart of the film — what if you could know tomorrow’s news today? — in the early scene with Pop and the reporters. Pop argues that the old newspapers that he archives are just as interesting and important as today’s news; the only difference, he says, is time. This subtly establishes the rather ingenious twist that Clair and Nichols came up with based on their prior experiences in journalism: reporters are fallible, and thus the newspaper accounts can be wrong. The “early editions” that Pop gives to Larry are not omniscient or magical in themselves; they are simply transposed in time.
Clair found great success with the cast of American actors in It Happened Tomorrow. He was particularly pleased with Jack Oakie’s “comic overreaction,” seeing him as a kindred spirit to Paul Olivier, who had acted in several of Clair’s older French films. Oakie “was one of my old characters, only American,” said Clair. Although Clair never realized his expressed desire to work with the Marx Brothers, It Happened Tomorrow provided him an opportunity to work with one of their most memorable foils, Edgar Kennedy, who had played the exasperated lemonade vendor whom Harpo and Chico antagonize in Duck Soup. A master of the comedic “slow-burn,” Kennedy exercises his craft well under Clair’s direction; E. A. Cunningham, in the Motion Picture Herald, wrote that he “fumbles with splendid aplomb.”
Although It Happened Tomorrow is less famous today than I Married a Witch or Clair’s subsequent and final Hollywood film, And Then There Were None, critics at the time, as well as biographers later during Clair’s lifetime, heralded it as his best work in Hollywood. While some English-language critics like James Agee tempered their praise by saying the film was not as good as Clair’s earlier French masterpieces, French critics declared that It Happened Tomorrow was just as good, and just as French, as Clair’s best work in his native country. Jean Mitry stated that the film contained “the movement, the rhythm of Le million which had been absent from almost every film made since…” Carlo Rim even compared Clair to Siegfried, conquering the Hollywood dragon while maintaining his French integrity — “it’s the American machine that has obeyed his caprices, that has buckled under to his charming genius.” Even if such praise seems overblown from a current critical standpoint, viewers can still find joy in the film and appreciate its approach to the idea of destiny. It is hard to disagree with this statement from Rim: “It Happened Tomorrow can shake hands with [Clair’s] best French films. The happy little jig dances on.”
Cunningham, E. A. “It Happened Tomorrow: Variations on a Theme.” Motion Picture Herald, March 25, 1944.
Dale, R. C. The Films of René Clair. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1986.
McGerr, Celia. René Clair. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.