Can we change the past by reliving it?
US / 92 minutes / bw / Bryan Foy Productions, Eagle–Lion Dir: Alfred Werker Pr: Aubrey Schenck Scr: Walter Bullock Story: Repeat Performance (1942) by William O’Farrell Cine: Lew W. O’Connell Cast: Louis Hayward, Joan Leslie, Virginia Field, Tom Conway, Richard Basehart, Natalie Schafer, Benay Venuta, Ilka Gruning.
Every now and then one comes across a movie that ought to have the status of at the very least a minor classic yet has somehow been largely forgotten. Repeat Performance is such a movie. It tells a highly intriguing, emotionally involving story and, in so doing, hardly puts a foot wrong.
It’s a few minutes before the start of 1947 and the streets of New York are full of merry celebrants. In her luxury apartment nearby, however, famous Broadway actress Sheila Page (Leslie) stands over the corpse of husband Barney (Hayward); in her hand is the gun with which she’s just shot him. What could have brought her to this pass?
There’s a thunder of fists on the apartment door and a chorus of shouts from beyond it. Casting the gun aside, Sheila flees—out into the streets and to a club where her friend, the poet William Williams (Basehart, whose first screen role this was) is drinking with actress Bess Michaels (Venuta) and English playwright Paula Costello (Field). Sheila tells the sympathetic William what she’s done, and he suggests they go ask the advice of Broadway producer John Friday (Conway), a kind and generous man who’s an angel in more senses than one . . . especially to Sheila, whom he clearly adores from, figuratively speaking at least, afar.
Paula (Virginia Field) tries to pretend she and Sheila are all pals together.
However, as Sheila and William approach the door of Friday’s apartment, she wishes aloud that 1946 had never happened at all, that she could relive it avoiding all the pitfalls that made it such a rotten year for her—and, in fact, for William. She turns on the stairs to discover that William is no longer with her.
And, speaking moments later with a bewildered Friday, she slowly begins to cotton on to the fact that the new year that’s just beginning isn’t 1947 after all: it’s 1946. Just as she wished for, she’s been given the chance to relive the year.
John Friday (Tom Conway) is bewildered by Sheila’s claims that it’s 1947.
What errors will she avoid making? For one, she’ll refuse to go to London for a season in the West End there; that’s what she did in 1946 the first time around, and it left husband Barney fully exposed to the charms of playwright Paula Costello. Second, she’ll warn friend William to steer clear of controlling socialite Eloise Shaw (Schafer), involvement with whom during the year led to his incarceration in an insane asylum. She’ll think of more mistakes to avoid in due course; two’s enough to get started with.
Sheila (Joan Leslie) finally realizes that she’s living the start of 1946 all over again.
In the meantime, though, she’s got to get through the drinks-until-breakfast party that she and Barney are hosting. A presently abstaining alcoholic—his alcoholism is the reason he’s never been able to finish the follow-up to has smash-hit first play, the one that made Sheila a star and brought them together—he initially resigned himself to ginger ale for the night. However, when Paula Costello crashes the party and he sets eyes on her for (for the rewound-1946 version of him) the first time, the electricity between them is obvious. Sheila sees Paula off, but an angry Barney starts hitting the bottle.
Barney (Louis Hayward) tries to persuade Sheila (Joan Leslie) that this time, this time, he’s dry for keeps.
Friday tries to put Paula off, too:
Friday: “Mr. Page doesn’t have anything to do with my show. He just happens to be married to my star.”
Paula: “Yes. Isn’t that unfortunate?”
Also at the party is Mrs. Eloise Shaw. Despite Sheila’s having warned him to steer clear of the woman, William is easily enough lured into her web. After all, what poet could refuse the offer of financial sponsorship, whatever the unstated (but perfectly obvious) price he will be expected to pay?
William (Richard Basehart) recognizes the name as that of his nemesis-to-be, Eloise Shore, but cannot avoid the woman herself.
Eloise (Natalie Schafer) chats up another potential prey (uncredited).
And so 1946 begins to replay itself for Sheila. Whatever she tries to do to forestall the dire events of her first experience of the year—such as refusing to go to London—circumstances manipulate themselves to produce the same consequences. In the matter of London, Paula’s play, Say Goodbye, is instead brought to Broadway and, while Friday promises Sheila he’ll make sure the playwright herself remains in the UK, she arrives anyway . . . and soon her affair with Barney is in full swing.
Bess (Benay Venuta) is keen to be everyone’s friend.
In a drunken moment, though, Barney manages to fall from a balcony and paralyze his lower limbs: he may recover, or he may never walk again. Sheila quits the play to look after her husband, but all she gets by way of gratitude are sullenness and silence. As New Year approaches once more . . .
. . . there’s a different ending to 1946 than there was the first time around. Different, at least, in some important ways:
William: “Destiny’s a stubborn old girl, Sheila. She doesn’t like people interfering with her plans. But we tricked her, didn’t we? Anyway, I don’t think she cares about the pattern so long as the result is the same.”
I’m sure that some people will already be thinking of Groundhog Day (1993 dir Harold Ramis) or even the excellent 12:01 (1993 TVM dir Jack Sholder)—both of which tell time-loop tales like this one—but I think the real parallel here is with Ken Grimwood’s World Fantasy Award-winning novel Replay (1987), for whose earlier stages, over and over as I watched Repeat Performance, the movie seemed almost like a dry run. You could argue that the movie is less ambitious than the novel; you could also argue that it is all the better for that.*
Paula (Virginia Field) is affronted to be confronted by a wrathful Sheila.
The nihilism inherent in Repeat Performance’s conclusion—that you can change the small things but the irresistible force of destiny will ensure the big things go unaltered, and the big things are usually the catastrophes—has led to the movie being sometimes described as a film noir, and I think this is a reasonable case to make. At the same time, there’s a sense that, after the closing credits roll, the wholesome central characters of the tale—Sheila, Friday, William—will in due course prevail, that the nihilism is only a temporary condition, that the friendships between those three are more powerful in affecting destiny than the destructive instincts of Barney and Paula can ever be.
Tom Conway was the brother of George Sanders, and it shows. He was also on occasion used in casting as a substitute for his brother, most notably in the 1940s B-movie series The FALCON, a ripoff of The SAINT (the Saint’s author Leslie Charteris successfully sued), where Conway, as the Falcon’s brother, took over from Sanders after the first couple of movies. Incidentally, Hayward, another star of Repeat Performance, took the leading role in two movies in the Saint series.
Barney (Louis Hayward) turns uglier.
There’s a piece of voiceover narration at the start of the movie, giving us the setup. The uncredited narrator is that noirish (and Noirish) favorite, John Ireland.
The movie seems to be far more highly regarded by modern viewers than it was by the critics at the time of release. Here’s Bosley Crowther at the New York Times:
Not only is dramatic credibility completely lacking in all this stew but the whole thing is done with such pretension that even the possible salve of ridicule is missed. And such a mood of complete irascibility has seldom been sustained on the screen. Joan Leslie plays the tortured female with childish anxiety and Louis Hayward plays her no-good husband in the heaviest melodramatic blackguard style . . .
I’d agree to an extent with Crowther in that Hayward is certainly the weakest of an otherwise extremely strong central cast, but the critic vastly overstates his case on this aspect of the movie. What really seems to offend him, though, is the time-loop theme, which he apparently finds an assault upon reason. I was about to type that today we’re more au fait with such ideas, but then I realized I was giving Crowther an excuse he doesn’t deserve. Just to pluck two examples out of countless that come to mind, had Crowther really not encountered Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) and even Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), both of which play around with ideas of the malleability of fate? I think that, even in 1947, audiences were easily sophisticated enough to follow the concepts and tale of Repeat Performance, even if Crowther himself wasn’t.
Joan Leslie turns in a striking performance as Sheila.
Repeat Performance was remade as Turn Back the Clock (1989 TVM) dir Larry Elikann, with Connie Sellecca and David Dukes; Joan Leslie, star of the original, had a cameo role. As you’ll imagine, this is a movie I’d very much like to see.
* Disclosure: Years ago I wrote the foreword to a German edition of the Grimwood novel.
This is a contribution to the Happy New Year Blogathon, hosted by Steve at MovieMovieBlogBlog. Click on the image below to go to the site and discover links to all sorts of other essays on New Year’s/Hogmanay-themed movies.