Monday, March 21, 2011

Reeling Backward: "It Happened Tomorrow" (1944)

I first heard of "It Happened Tomorrow" when a local blogger and former colleague at The Indianapolis Star, Ruth Holladay, approached me asking for names of newspaper movies for a post she was writing. She already had this 1944 picture starring Dick Powell and Linda Darnell on her list, and I admitted I'd never heard of it before.

Perhaps it's because "Tomorrow" is less a movie about journalism than a fantasy-slash-morality tale. An enterprising young reporter receives the next day's paper a day early, and uses that information to advance his career and love life. It's amusing enough, but I suppose because I was expecting something completely different, it underwhelmed a bit.

The film opens with a clumsy framing device. An old man and woman are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in a grand mansion. Rows of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are lined up to greet them when they begin arguing over a newspaper. Powell and Darnell -- shown only in long shot to disguise an inept attempt to age them up -- talk about an article he wants to publish about his life, and she forbids it to save him embarrassment.

It brings a note of awkwardness to the film's opening and closing, and I don't see what it really adds.

Powell -- who directed last week's classic film subject, "The Enemy Below" -- was at this time a song-and-dance man who had grown tired of being cast in lite musicals and comedies. After "Tomorrow," he refused his next assignment and broke his contract to star in the film noir "Murder, My Sweet."

The setting is turn-of-the-century New York. Powell plays Larry Stevens, a young reporter for The Evening News who's just written his 500th obituary, and has now graduated to full-scale reporter. He and several colleagues are celebrating with some two-fisted drinking in the newsroom after closing out that evening's edition -- a much more common practice in the trade than is generally known

(By the time I broke into newspapering in the 1990s, overt imbibing had disappeared, but a few old-timers were known to keep a bottle somewhere in their desk. And I saw more than one editor put together the next day's section in a red-eyed, bleary state.)

Stevens and the other fellows josh around with Pop Benson (Hoosier actor John Philliber), the ancient curator of the paper's morgue, who tells them that every day's edition contains both the past and the future. Larry offhandedly claims he'd give up 10 years of his life to see the next day's news ahead of time. Pop, who we later learn actually died that night, appears to Larry over the next three days to hand him a copy of the following day's Evening News.

Larry uses the information in the manner of any hungry reporter: To be present wherever the next day's biggest news is going to happen so he can get the front-page scoop. Of course, when Larry gets the paper it already has the story under his byline, so he doesn't even really have to write it, just copy it down.

His first blockbuster is a shoot-out a the opera house between some bandits and the police. Interestingly, Larry makes no attempt to stop any untoward behavior, but simply uses it to make a name for himself.

If you think that's ethically shaky, it's also not unusual in the hyper-competitive world of newspaper reporting, where front-page bylines are the mark of relevance. When I moved from my first job at a tiny newspaper to my second at a middle-sized one, I heard tell of one unscrupulous reporter who brazenly stole from her own colleagues. The editors asked each reporter, before they left for the night, to enter what they planned to work on the next day in a shared file.

This newshound made it a habit to show up early every day, scan the list of proposed articles, and start working on the most promising idea -- whether it infringed on another staffer's beat or not. When the other reporter showed up later that morning or afternoon -- a typical schedule for that ilk -- the editors would invariably say, "Well, she's already deep into it, so we'll let her finish." She had a lot of front-page stories, and few friends.

Any way, Larry becomes enchanted with Sylvia (Darnell), a girl working in a magic act with her uncle Oscar, who goes by the stage name of Cigolini. He pretends to put her in a trance, while she stands out in the audience and makes predictions about the future. Cigolini/Oscar is played by Jack Oakie, who was known for doing a tongue-twisting Italian accent, despite being from Oklahoma by way of Missouri. He used this same skill in his most famous role as Benzino Napaloni, the caricature of Mussolini in Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator."

The Larry/Sylvia romance is one of those swept away deals where they're getting married two days after meeting. By this time Larry has received the last day's early paper, with his death notice on the front page. Morose, his only goal is to marry Sylvia, win a bunch of money at the horse track, and leave her with a comfortable inheritance.

Reticent before to change the future, Larry now does everything in his power to avoid being at the appointed time and place of his demise. Of course, events conspire to bring him there anyway, where he learns the paper had his death wrong. The thief who made off with the $60,000 he won at the track is shot dead by the police, who find Larry's wallet on him. The error is not discovered in time before the first edition of the Evening News goes out with the incorrect identification.

This begs lots of metaphysical ponderables: Was Pop always bringing Larry the first edition? Why not the last, most factually complete one? What kind of slipshod ghost/guardian angel is he?

And why exactly is Pop's ghost passing out newspapers a day early? He says something about not being able to change the future despite knowing it in advance, but it seems to have a major impact on Larry's life. Also, if Larry lost his winnings -- the cash is missing when the wallet is recovered from the thief -- how did he ever become rich enough to afford the mansion we saw?

More a daffy comedy than a true newspaper movie, "It Happened Tomorrow" left me with more questions than answers.

2 stars out of four

(I couldn't find an embeddable clip from the film, but Turner Classic Movies has one here.)

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