René Clair: It Happened Tomorrow (1944) | film poster
René Clair: It Happened Tomorrow (1944) | film poster (IMDB)

René Clair’s ‘It Happened Tomorrow’ Is the First Great Film About Time Paradoxes

Meant to divert wartime audiences with sheer escapism, René Clair’s ‘It Happened Tomorrow’ dives into a past where tomorrow looks troublesome.

It Happened Tomorrow
René Clair
Cohen Film Collection
18 May 2021

Films about time paradoxes are a dime a dozen nowadays. We could write the book on it, and perhaps tomorrow we’ll wake up to find we’ve already written it. If so, the first chapter will probably be devoted to the first great film on the subject, René Clair‘s delightful It Happened Tomorrow (1944), now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

The film opens with a throng of adult offspring, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren waiting in the hall of a mansion for a couple celebrating their golden anniversary. The family begins singing the nostalgic tune by Irish poet Thomas Moore, “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms”, a song that celebrates the lasting of love through time.

We can’t properly see the elderly couple, since they’re presented only in longshot–thus saving on the film’s makeup budget. We know only that they’re discussing the husband’s insistence on a magical thing that happened to him, which the wife either doesn’t believe or thinks nobody else will believe. The husband has written a manuscript about it, and as the camera dollies in to the document on a table, the film’s flashback begins to the 1890s.

Now we’re properly introduced to Lawrence Stevens (Dick Powell), a brash young journalist who’s finally graduating from writing obituaries and eager to start on real news. That’s one of the many details that acquires significance as the story progresses. While imbibing beer with his colleagues in the newsroom, Larry gets into a philosophical banter on the illusory nature of time with the aged Pop Benson (John Philliber), who maintains the paper’s back issues and who declares that past, present, and future all exist at once. This idea leads to speculation on the desirability of knowing the next day’s news in advance.

Leaving Pop to clear up and put out the lamps, the partiers travel to a nightclub where they witness the mind-reading act of the Great Cigolini and his beauteous entranced assistant in a black veil. In reality, Cigolini is one Uncle Oscar (Jack Oakie) and the assistant is his niece Sylvia (Linda Darnell). After one of those pestering manoeuvres that film heroes of the day play on initially reluctant heroines, she finds herself sufficiently charmed to accept a lunch invitation.

Mysteriously, Pop emerges from the shadows and fog of the gaslamps and offers Larry a newspaper, which he absent-mindedly puts in his pocket. Only the following morning does he discover the plot’s motivating device: he’s received the paper one day early, thus giving him a preview of the day’s events.

These events include a headline, written by himself, about a robbery at a concert given by soprano Nellie Melba (a good period detail). After a minimum of time wasted to be convinced of the fantastic reality, Larry copies his own future story word for word and submits it (a perfect paradox), then takes Sylvia to the concert to witness the foretold event.

Now the complications begin, for Larry’s uncanny knowledge convinces the police that he must be a conspirator. He’s dragged off to the police station until he gives up the other gang members and where they’re hiding. Meanwhile, Sylvia gets in trouble with complicated machinations to prove she can foretell the future.

This is only the first act of an increasingly complex plot delivered with lightness and clarity in a brisk 85-minutes, as each day’s events and predictions escalate the danger and suspense with lovely ingenuity. The two creators most responsible for this effervescent entertainment are director René Clair and his co-writer Dudley Nichols.

Clair, at this time among the most celebrated directors in the world for his sophisticated comic creations, had a strong line in fantasy and whimsy. While staying in Hollywood during WWII, he played that line to great effect with I Married a Witch (1942) and this follow-up, which has the more ingenious and airtight script.

The script provides no opportunity for Clair’s complex visual style, just as the studio-bound tale offers Archie Stout’s cinematography no chance for the outdoor work that made Stout’s reputation with John Ford. Even though magnificent photographer Eugen Schüfftan, another European refugee, receives credit as “technical director” (possibly a union rule), the effects are subdued to serve the story. Clair organizes the whole film to move his actors through that script.

The script is mainly the work of Nichols, one of Hollywood’s most illustrious writers of the age. A catalogue of his prolific and classic work would be fatiguing, but during the war, he worked especially well with European refugees from Hitler: Clair, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang.

Meant to divert wartime audiences with sheer escapism, the story is literally an escape into the past, albeit a past where suspense is generated by a clammy sense that time is catching up with our hero and that tomorrow may not be all it’s cracked up to be. As he comes to fear his own death, the comedy veers surprisingly close to a dark and existential turn, even though we know from the outset that he somehow survives.

It Happened Tomorrow never mentions war, but it was made by people who had war on their minds. Art director Ernő Metzner was another refugee, as was producer Arnold Pressburger; both had illustrious records in the German industry. Pressburger produced this for United Artists in between two other classics directed by refugees: Lang’s Hangmen Also Die (1943) and Douglas Sirk‘s A Scandal in Paris (1946). After the war, he returned to Germany and produced the only film written and directed by Peter Lorre, the underrated and under-seen Der Verlorene (The Lost One, 1951).

The busy credits to It Happened Tomorrow list three sources: a play by Lord Dunsany, a story by the team of Hugh Wedlock and Harold Snyder, and ideas by Lewis R. Foster. According to the American Film Institute, Frank Capra purchased the story from Wedlock and Snyder and also purchased the rights to Dunsany’s one-act The Jest of Hahalaba (1928) because it has similar ideas (future newspaper, forecast of death), and then sold the package to Pressburger. Foster’s contribution isn’t clear but he worked on lots of comedies and wrote the basis of Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Dunsany’s simple play involves no extravagant paradox but he deserves credit for thinking of an early “predicting the future” gag. It would be nice to know exactly how Wedlock and Snyder handled the notion. In elaborating upon the concept, Nichols and Clair fashioned an early classic that rings variations on paradoxes without actual time travel by the persons involved. It Happened Tomorrow is a fantasy, but the concept is logical and tight enough to count as science fiction if we feel like it.

Digitally restored from a 4K scan, this transfer looks and sounds perfect. We can judge its clarity by Larry’s checked suit, spiffy for the 1890s and the kind of thing that can blur like the dickens in faded prints. Look out–we can even spot the faint shadow of a boom mic in a mirror, the sort of detail that normally wouldn’t be noticed. What the viewer will notice is a comedy fantasy that–having already been set in a bygone era–hasn’t dated in its ingenuity. The disc offers no extras beyond a new trailer.