I just finished reading Ben Fountain's remarkable book "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk", about a heroic solider home from the war in Iraq, and the titular character tells a story by way of someone else about an Inuit Shaman who could purportedly foretell the day of your death, only not to reveal that day because, as Billy puts it, if the bullet's gonna get you, it's already been fired. And in a way, that same idea drives René Clair 1944 film "It Happened Tomorrow", one that original feel-good fabulist Frank Capra optioned before deploying to WWII and selling the rights to another producer. And the WWII connection interests me. WWII would have been foremost on the mind of virtually every American in 1944, and many of those Americans would have known someone deployed on the other side of the globe, stricken by wondering whether or not they would come home, and if you asked them if they could know when their loved one would return, or if they would return, I wonder what they might have replied.
"It Happened Tomorrow" argues that it's best not to know your fate, even if it conveys that argument less in a metaphysical way than a comically screwball way, since perhaps Clair figured that most people headed to the theater in 1944 were searching more for diversion than rumination. The film centers around Lawrence Stevens (Dick Powell), a struggling newspaper columnist in 1890's desperate for a scoop who is approached by Pop Benson, the apparition of a once heralded journalist who claims he can give Lawrence tomorrow's news......today. Indeed, he can, and though he provides the standard issue warning that knowing the future might entail more danger than one thinks, Lawrence ignores this warning to gather up the scoops, only to inadvertently become entangled in a robbery he predicts before it happens, a suicide attempt he knows will take place, and then, as he must, coming to know the date and time of his own earthly demise.
Clair wraps all these fortune-telling hijinks around a subplot about a fortuneteller, Oscar Smith (Jack Oakie), whose niece/assistant is Sylvia (Linda Darnell), and with whom Lawrence obligatorily falls in love. This romantic affair bears all the unfortunate traits of the time. Though Lawrence's love is certainly portrayed as being true, their relationship revolves less around expressions of that love, or even the tried-and-true playing hard to get by Sylvia, as it does Uncle Oscar providing a staunch roadblock to their marriage by ensuring that Lawrence can "support" Sylvia. Apparently she can't support herself, despite having this plum job as his assistant, and so Lawrence sets out to prove his bread-on-the-table worthy by placing five straight bets on horses at the track that he wins because he knows the results.
This bit is the typical sort of I-know-the-future nonsense, sure, no different than the sports almanac in "Back to the Future II", and yet this is the one sequence where Dick Powell truly gets to the burden of future-knowing. By the time he's placing the last bet, he's consumed with depressed resignation. Where's the fun when you know everything? Which is why it's unfortunate that the film eliminates its most suspenseful question of whether or not Lawrence's untimely demise will actually come true. We already know it will not come true, and that's because Clair opens the film in the future, at the 50th wedding anniversary of Lawrence and Sylvia. By giving away the end at the start, suspense is siphoned off in the name of a satisfied smile.
Still, some of those smiles really can be satisfactory, brought home best in the early scene when Lawrence squires his future wife to an opera not to see the soprano but to be there for when the robbery he knows will happen does. Sylvia, however, immediately taken with the show, just wants to listen, while he can't stop blathering about what's going to happen. As he blathers, a guy down front keeps shushing him. And boy, I have never been more proud of a shusher. Hush up, son, and just enjoy the moment.