Monday, March 04, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Repeat Performance (1947) at the UCLA Festival of Preservation

REPEAT PERFORMANCE was the second film on the double bill at this evening's UCLA Festival of Preservation screenings.

REPEAT PERFORMANCE was my kind of movie, a noirish yet warm-hearted fantasy which provided the perfect antidote to the brutality of TRY AND GET ME (1950). In his introduction, Eddie Muller likened the film to an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, also commenting that it was the noir version of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), with a dash of ALL ABOUT EVE (1950).

For my part, I mentally likened REPEAT PERFORMANCE to GROUNDHOG DAY (1993), with the lead character miraculously able to repeat a moment in time until she gets it right.

Joan Leslie stars as Broadway actress Sheila Page. It's New Year's Eve, and as the film begins, Sheila has just shot her husband, Barney (Louis Hayward), an alcoholic playwright.

Sheila flees her apartment in a nightgown and a fur coat, instinctively turning to the two friends she knows can help her: William Williams (Richard Basehart), a poet, and her producer-director, John Friday (Tom Conway).

As Sheila and William climb the stairs to John's apartment, Sheila laments that she wishes she and William had the past year to live over and make different choices...and when she enters John's apartment, she discovers William has disappeared, she's dressed in last year's New Year's Eve gown, and it is, indeed, one year earlier.

The overjoyed Sheila races home to Barney and the delight of going back to a happy time in their relationship. This time around Sheila vows she won't go to London to do a play, and Barney thus won't meet and fall for playwright Paula Costello (Virginia Field). However, Sheila soon finds that though she can make different choices, perhaps it's not possible to completely trick fate.

This is the type of relatively unknown film which I love to discover at the annual Noir City Festival. It probably played on TV years ago, riddled with commercials and seeming like nothing particularly special. Yet seeing it blown up in a pristine 35mm print, the viewer is transported back in time to a '40s New Year's Eve and...magic happens, in the film and for this viewer.

I've always liked Joan Leslie a great deal, and I enjoyed her enormously in this. She's a charmer, and while she perhaps should have conveyed a bit more shock at her unexpected time travel, the audience greatly enjoys her utter relief at not having killed her husband and the prospect of a "re-do" on a critical year in her life. She's incredibly tolerant of her troubled husband, but we also see how she relies on John and William, which will once again prove to be important as the year goes on.

Tom Conway has become a great favorite due to the FALCON series, and he's perfect as the quietly efficient producer who does everything he can to make Sheila's life easier. It's soon clear he's carrying a bit of a torch for Sheila, and the fact she turns to him when she's in trouble is also significant.

Basehart, in his film debut, is excellent as the poet, and he has some of the film's best moments. He's the only person Sheila tells about reliving the year, and I liked the fact he doesn't question it; in fact, he wants to know if something he had tried had worked the previous year, in order to gauge whether he can do it again successfully in the new year. This leads to a most interesting, and perfect, ending. Once again, it's New Year's Eve, and William and John are there for Sheila.

My one criticism of the film is that while Hayward initially exhibits the charm that drew Sheila to him, and believably conveys his character's frustration at his inability to write another good play, by film's end he's become such a monster that it verges on being over the top. Part of this is how the role is written, and part may have been Hayward's increasingly wild performance.

That said, his unpleasant character certainly explains how Sheila came to shoot him in the first instance and makes his ultimate, shall we say poetic, fate appropriate.

This film has a great sense of mood, straddling the worlds of noir and fantasy, with a touch of the holiday season thrown in. It would be wonderful to have this little-known film join the rotation of New Year's Eve themed movies shown in December on Turner Classic Movies.

UCLA notes that REPEAT PERFORMANCE was the biggest-budgeted picture up to that time from the "Poverty Row" studio Eagle-Lion Films. The movie was directed by Alfred L. Werker, with black and white cinematography by Lew W. O'Connell. The screenplay by Walter Bullock was based on a novel by William O'Farrell. Joan Leslie's fabulous wardrobe was by the great Oleg Cassini. The movie runs 91 minutes.

Southern Californians will have another opportunity to see this film at next month's Noir City Festival in Hollywood. I've felt a warm glow all day thinking of this movie, and I welcome the chance to see it again soon...though I confess I hope I don't have to sit through TRY AND GET ME again in order to do so! :)


Blogger barrylane said...

Eagle-Lion was funded by J. Arthur Rank and was most certainly not a poverty row studio. They weren't in the hunt all that long but while they were they paid big bucks Louis Hayward, for example, received a fee of $100,000.00. That isn't PRC or Monogram. Nor should Republic be classified in this manner.

6:19 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

And it is John Ireland doing the narration.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Aubyn Eli said...

I was drawn to your review by that eye-catching poster and I'm glad I stayed to read it. Fantasy and film noir, it sounds like a great mash-up to me. Normally I like Louis Hayward and Tom Conway so their presence is welcome. I've never had an opinion one way or another about Joan Leslie, but I'm glad she's got an interesting part here. I'll definitely try to see this one when it's available.

8:52 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

There is a gay subtext. In the original material Basehart's character wasn't William Williams but William and Mary. And, despite the times, I think they managed to get some of that across.42 mjeGM

9:06 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...


Should you be so inclined there is a fine comparison between novel and film on Mystery File August 22,
2011 with a moderately extensive comments section in which I participated.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Gosh, another film completely unknown to me! Thank you for your review. Great cast.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Barrylane,

Many thanks for mentioning the Mystery File post, which other readers can find here. I have enjoyed other posts by Dan Stumpf and also enjoyed the comments. Thank you! Also appreciated your mentioning John Ireland's narration which was quite effective.

It's interesting, I've come across a couple different online discussions in recent weeks about what accurately constituted "Poverty Row." (Have also come across similar discussions about the definition of "B" movies. Fun stuff for film fans to haggle over.) In this case I was repeating the descriptor as it was used in UCLA's program notes. I appreciate your input on the budget and salaries at Eagle-Lion, that's very interesting.

Aubyn and Vienna, really hope you can catch this one. It's a fun, interesting film with great mood which deserves rediscovery.

Best wishes,

1:38 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...


The term B-Picture actually has a meaning. It is not an opinion. B films go to the production costs coupled with how the final product is sold or exhibition. .A films are distributed on a rental basis; B at pre-determined or negotiated set fee. Poverty Row was a grouping of very small production companies making quickie westerns, mysteries and comedies. Best of the bunch probably PRC but the term goes back a to the twenties. Republic rolled a group of them into its studio and Eagle Lion absorbed PRC. Now working at Republic, in addition to John Wayne, you can find popping in and out: Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray, Raoul Walsh, John Ford, Joan Crawford, Ray Milland, Maureen O'Hara, and goshes...many, many more. Not poverty row type people.

2:51 PM  

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