Reeling Backward: It Happened Tomorrow (1944)

Dick Powell and Linda Darnell star in this time-twisting romance about a journalist who sees the next day's newspaper and tries to use this foreknowledge to his advantage.

“It Happened Tomorrow” combines several of my favorite things: movies, journalism, romance and the supernatural.

Dick Powell plays Lawrence Stevens, a young newshound who magically starts receiving the next day’s newspaper and tries to twist this foreknowledge to his advantage — especially with regards to wooing his new lady love, Sylvia Smith (Linda Darnell), who ironically stars in a stage show in which she pretends to go into a trance and predict the future.

She’s a charming faker, but everyone knows it and enjoys the deception, while he’s telling the truth, yet no one believes him.

Fast-paced and filled with rapid-patter dialogue, it’s part “Groundhog Day,” part “His Girl Friday,” a dash of “It Happened One Night” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with a little vaudeville blarney thrown in. It’s typical B-movie mid-century cinematic fare, featuring middling stars and production values. 

It’s amusing and worth a look, though not a film to linger long in the memory. It’s out in a handsome new Blu-ray edition from Cohen Media.

It was directed by René Clair from a screenplay he wrote with Dudley Nichols — both former newspapermen themselves — adapted from an unproduced script by Howard Snyder and Hugh Wedlock, which may have been “inspired” by a one-act play by Lord Dunsany from 20 years earlier.

Clair wanted Cary Grant for the lead role and couldn’t get him, and the project knocked around Hollywood a bit before finally getting made as a downscale production. At 85 minutes, the movie moves along quickly, almost in a hurry.

As the story opens Larry has just completed his 500th obituary for The Evening News, marking his elevation from newsroom lackey to journalist. After a celebration of hard drinking, he is surprised to see the elderly clerk, Pop Benson (John Philliber), back at the office and is even more startled when the old fellow hands him a copy of tomorrow evening’s edition with Larry’s byline on the lead story about the opera being held up. 

However, Pop — who is later revealed to be a ghost or angel a la Clarence from “Wonderful Life,” having passed away that first night — repeatedly warns that even knowing what the future brings will not win Larry the advantages he thinks.

The subtext is hard to miss in the middle of World War II is hard to miss: having all the pleasures and advantages you desire will not guarantee you happiness.

Larry uses the paper to force a raise from his editor (George Cleveland), since he always seems to be where the news is happening, and win the admiration of the more seasoned reporters. Brimming with newfound confidence, Larry pitches woo at Sylvia after catching her act with her uncle, Oscar Smith (Jackie Okie), who goes by the stage name Cigolini and wears some tremendously ostentatious outfits, even when he’s not performing.

A framing story is set in 1944 when Larry and Sylvia are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary surrounded by a huge family gathered in their mansion, so we know from the start things turn out well for them. Larry wants to tell the truth about his magic newspapers, though Sylvia is worried their loved ones will think he’s a loon.

In 1894, people get around in horse-drawn cabs and telephones are the two-piece kind, often with a crank for electricity. The mores are a little more restrictive too, as in a scene where Sylvia gets drenched in the rain while out with Larry so he loans her one of his old suits to wear. The old biddies at the boarding house where she lives see her sneaking in the window and think a male masher has made his way in for a dalliance. 

Cigolini arrives to protect her honor but, seeing the suit stashed under the bed, thinks Larry has run off without his clothes determines to shoot him the next time they meet.

There’s also a fun sequence where Larry finally thinks to place bets on the winning horses at the races the next day, quickly amassing a fortune with which he and Sylvia can live happily ever after. Unfortunately, by this time he has seen the third day’s paper announcing his death in a shootout on the front page. So he’s actually depressed when each horse wins, seeing it as more evidence of the surety of the newspaper’s predictions and another nail in his coffin.

But it turns out to be a case of mistaken identity. The thief who took off with the $60,000 Larry won at the races — just shy of $2 million in today’s dollars — is the one who gets gunned down, misidentified by having Larry’s wallet on his person. So Larry and Sylvia get their happily ever after, after all.

I liked “It Happened Tomorrow” well enough, though it’s a bit slapdash and superficial. I would’ve liked to have seen another version played for pathos, with Larry haunted by the tragedy of always knowing the future, never being able to stop it. But this movie ain’t that animal.

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