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Made during French director Rene Clair's extended sojourn in Hollywood between the years 1935 and 1945, It Happened Tomorrow (1944) returns to the fantasy realm of the director's most popular American films, The Ghost Goes West (1935) and I Married a Witch (1942). The story opens with the framing device of a golden wedding anniversary celebration where the couple, Larry and Sylvia Stevens (Dick Powell and Linda Darnell), recall a miraculous event that occurred fifty years earlier. In flashback, a tale unfolds in which Larry, an obituary writer for the Evening News, complains to co-workers about his unexciting position and wishes he could see into the future so he could use his prophetic talent to become the paper's top reporter. He gets his wish, granted by a guardian angel who remains anonymous at first, and achieves almost instant success which confounds him almost as much as it does his employer and rivals. As expected, his gift for predicting the future comes with its own set of complications and when he learns of his own death in the line of work, he finds himself powerless to change the course of events despite a valiant effort.
The screenplay credit for It Happened Tomorrow lists both Rene Clair and Dudley Nichols and a notation that it was "based on originals by Lord Dunsany, Hugh Wedlock and Howard Snyder, and ideas of Lewis R. Foster, with additional dialogue by Helene Fraenkel." According to Clair, the acknowledgement of various contributions was due to the fact that "In Hollywood, they are very cautious about story ideas because of the legal entanglements that can ensue if you get caught copying -- or even appearing to have copied. What happened here illustrates that point. In the early forties, Frank Capra had bought a screenplay...from two writers. Before he went any further on the project, he had the legal department research the property. They went over everything they could think of, and finally they came to just the sort of thing they had been looking for. It was in a one-act play by Lord Dunsany that had been put on in London by Ronald Colman in the early twenties. The two scripts had the same device: the possibility of reading tomorrow's newspaper today. Since Capra knew very well that the Dunsany estate could have made trouble for him, he bought the rights from them...Eventually Capra sold the rights to Arnold Pressburger, who asked me to take over the project. At first I refused, but then I reconsidered and Dudley Nichols and I redid the whole script from scratch. Even so, those two scriptwriters and Lord Dunsany got their screen-credit for the 'original material.'" (from The Films of Rene Clair by R.C. Dale, Scarecrow Press)
In writing their version of the screenplay for It Happened Tomorrow, Clair and Nichols decided to avoid any mention of the current World War and set the picture in the 1890s. They also altered the original concept of Dunsany's play in which the reporter made a deal with the Devil, instead of being granted his wish by a recently deceased newspaper employee. Clair stated in The Films of Rene Clair that "...Dudley and I were very pleased with the solution we finally found to the plot. We didn't want the man to die, as he had in the play, and we finally hit on an idea that came out of our common experience as former newsmen: the early edition had been wrong. The idea isn't even far-fetched -- one of your biggest American newspapers once proclaimed the wrong man had just been elected president by a landslide, when the landslide actually had gone the other way. And that's not all. I myself once lost my first job as a reporter for being responsible for such a mistake happening, when I filed a story that I had made up in some cafe, while precisely the opposite had occurred in reality."
The collaboration between Clair and Nichols was a good one though Clair admitted that his partner's "power of concentration was such that we could work nine hours at a stretch and talk of nothing other than It Happened Tomorrow. I've never known a worker like him. So, in three weeks the decoupage and dialogue were finished. But the mental tension that he demanded of me was such that I was dead tired." (from Rene Clair: Un maitre du cinema by G. Regent and R. Charensol, editions du La table Ronde ).
Initially, Clair had hoped to cast Cary Grant in the role of the reporter Larry Stevens, a part that eventually went to Dick Powell who was just about to break away from his screen persona as a leading man of lightweight musical-comedy films. Just a few months after It Happened Tomorrow, Powell would go for a tougher, much grittier screen image starting with his unglamorized take on detective Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (1944), followed by several other first rate film noirs including Cornered (1945) and Pitfall (1948).
Clair was never particularly fond of It Happened Tomorrow although he did admit that "The last twenty minutes are the best thing I did in Hollywood." Nevertheless, the film was a popular success for United Artists and garnered two Oscar® nominations; one for Best Music Scoring (by Robert Stolz) and one for Best Sound Recording. Most reviewers were favorable in their assessment of the film, though many, such as James Agee in his review, preferred Clair's earlier, more innovative French films, writing "Students of cinematic style will find many shrewdly polished bits in It Happened Tomorrow to admire and enjoy; and Dick Powell's graceful sportiness and Linda Darnell's new-minted loveliness are two arresting samples of what wise directing can do. But by and large the simple comic pleasures of the picture lose themselves in intricate artifice, until the last half-hour. Then, with the crowded, horse-playful racetrack scenes and with the long, romping cops-and-robbers chase which ends the picture, cinemaddicts will know for sure that this film is the work of Rene Clair, the French cinemagician whose Le Million , Sous les Toits de Paris  and A Nous la Liberte  are among the most inspired screen comedies ever made."
Despite the complimentary but reserved response of the American press, It Happened Tomorrow was a major critical success in France where this excerpt of the review by Carlo Rim in Le Courrier de Paris was typical of the glowing praise it received: "It Happened Tomorrow can shake hands with his [Clair's] best French films...This time, Rene Clair wasn't satisfied with directing a fairytale vaudeville, with applying his rigorous aesthetics of the watchmaker-poet to this or that farce-pretext. Instead, he bravely attacked a subject that Voltaire or Chamisso would have liked, a subject that could equally well have served as a theme for some somber film with philosophical pretensions....Never before has Rene Clair's precise and winged talent been exercised with such mastery. In a balletic rhythm, all the gears mesh perfectly, everything becomes ordered, everything works out with a clarity and an apparent simplicity...A little wine from home that doesn't lose anything in travel."
It Happened Tomorrow would later be adapted for radio on Lux Radio Theatre in 1944 with Don Ameche in the leading role.
Producer: Arnold Pressburger
Director: Rene Clair
Screenplay: Rene Clair, Dudley Nichols (adaptation and screenplay); Helene Fraenkel (additional dialogue); Lewis R. Foster (ideas); Hugh Wedlock (story); Lord Dunsany (play); Howard Snyder (novel)
Cinematography: Eugen Schufftan, Archie Stout
Art Direction: Erno Metzner
Music: Robert Stolz
Film Editing: Fred Pressburger
Cast: Dick Powell (Lawrence 'Larry' Stevens), Linda Darnell (Sylvia Smith/Sylvia Stevens), Jack Oakie (Uncle Oscar Smith aka Gigolini), Edgar Kennedy (Inspector Mulrooney), John Philliber (Pop Benson), Edward Brophy(Jake Shomberg), George Cleveland (Mr. Gordon), Sig Ruman (Mr. Beckstein), Paul Guilfoyle (Shep), George Chandler (Bob), Eddie Acuff (Jim).
by Jeff Stafford
SOURCES:The Films of Rene Clair by R.C. Dale, Scarecrow Press
Rene Clair: A Guide to References and Resources by Naomi Greene, G.H. Hall
Rene Clair by Celia McGerr, Twayne Publishers
Agee on Film, Modern Library
Rene Clair: Un maitre du cinema by G. Regent and R. Charensol, editions du La table Ronde