The title tells all in this drama of a stage actress literally performing the passing year (1946) all over again. Sheila and Barney Page (Joan Leslie and Louis Howard) are dealing with a rocky marriage, thanks to Barney swingin’ with Paula (Virginia Field) a playwright. Meanwhile, Sheila is on poet William Williams’ (Richard Basehart’s) radar.
Sheila, by New Year’s Eve, has had enough ‘drama,’ and shoots her husband. Wouldn’t she want to do that fateful year all over again…After escaping the scene of the crime, she tootles off with William to producer John Friday’s (Tom Conway’s). Frazzled and contrite, Sheila discovers that the wish is father to the deed, as she gets to reboot 1946.
There’s a few questions posed by the premise: is a second chance really going to fix things? Another way to look at the fantasy element is: can things work out any differently? For instance, if Barney never goes to London for her new play, he won’t get so mixed up with Paula. That could bottle things up; but isn’t there another trap he could fall into with her?
The fantasy element is deftly handled; after some disorientation at John’s, Sheila quickly slips back into January, 1946–of course, the transition is helped by the fact that it’s exactly what she wants. At home, domestic and social comfort seems at first effortless.
William seems to be in a perpetual and paradoxical manic/zombie-like state. No wonder Sheila has to warn him that Mrs. Shaw (Natalie Shafer) plans to have him committed. It’s likely that Eloise Shaw should be committed too–manipulative, faux decorous, and sucking up all the air in the room. Anyway, Paula crashes the Page’s party, and starts chatting up Barney immediately. They’re even toasting each other. My first thought is that Pamela doesn’t upstage Sheila in any tangible way. For a triangle to work, there has to be some sort of mis-match, let’s say in looks or personality, which there is. It’s just that I don’t see any advantage here for Paula.
So much for the couple’s amity; Sheila and Barney jump right into a squabble over Paula–hmm, how could Sheila know so much about Paula? Only the Shadow knows, I guess; well, so does William. That’s because, as a creative sort, he has ESP as well (well, maybe folks thought so in ’46). Another thing that’s obvious is that Barney drinks too much.
Things are getting boring for Barney, so he goes to a more swinging party downstairs with Bess (Benay Venuta). Meanwhile, William comforts Sheila. Like most interesting triangles, this one is fleshing out into a rectangle. “Where can I go to escape?” she wonders aloud to William. When Barney gets back, there’s more of his drunk talk. “G’night William, you’re the only true friend I’ve got. And that’s embarrassing; because I don’t like you at all.”
She pries Barney away to California; an obvious way to cross-up the historical record. They get a book of Williams poems–of course there’s one dedicated to Sheila, we know that he’s got a documented crush on her.
Unfortunately, Barney gets an excuse to quit California. He gets a script, written by Paula, with a part set for Sheila. Of course, Sheila already knows the whole plot; and the larger plot, that is, taking the part would thrust them directly into Pamela’s path. He’s oddly complaining “I haven’t had a drink in three months! I’m so healthy, I stink!”
She initially blows off John, who’s trying to sell her on the play. “I don’t like that woman [Paula], she’s dangerous.” With his promise to keep Pamela away from New York, Sheila nonetheless agrees to the part. Barney, off the wagon, manages to describe both Paula and Sheila as “gorgeous, enchanting, [and] talented.” I’d say, even if you give them a wash on talent, Sheila exceeds in the other two qualities.
Back East, the players rehearse. Barney shows up, totally drunk, with Paula in tow. (So much for the banishment promise). She immediately butts into the production; Sheila wants to split the scene. Barney tries to sell Sheila that Paula is just there for the play; she means “nothing” to him, in addition, Paula has taken up with John. Oddly, Sheila buys it.
Pretty soon, Paula goes over the script with Barney. Viola! They’re making out (do they still mean “nothing” to each other?). Another layer of coincidence is that the play itself involves a love triangle. A hansom cab ride around Central Park for Barney and Paula. William hangs out with Sheila on her birthday; she remembers when Barney used to give her white roses–now she has everything but that. He more or less tries to tell her that Barney is no good; but she reminisces about their relationship, and vows to forge ahead with Barney.
Another wish becoming a fact–then and there, she indeed gets her white roses delivered. It’s Thanksgiving by now: a cast party. Barney’s already toasted. “Never marry an actress…they’re not real people.” Nice one Barney. Eloise offers that Paula and Barney are an item. And that William is “ungrateful.” Not satisfied with bargain-basement insults, She literally turns a stagelight on Barney and Paula making out. Barney, blabbing, is stunned, and falls through the stage.
Sheila quits the play to take care of Barney. Now it’s closing in on the New Year. Wow, Barney’s paralyzed–he could recover, or not. He’s practically comatose too. Mmm, is she better off with this result? Anyway, they bring him home. I’m predicting he’s going to find a way to die soon; will she–in effect–kill him twice?.
William gets shafted on Eloise’s orders somehow (I finally figured out that she’s his patron and he’s a kept man, so to speak). Sheila visits the asylum to see how he’s doing. She reassures him that the last time he had no trouble escaping; but, strangely he says he feels at home there. She confesses what she did to Barney the last time around.
Back at the Page’s, Sheila’s trying to cheer up Barney with the Christmas tree, but he’s still spaced out. When she leaves the room he can all of a sudden walk and talk. We see why he keeps the helpless act up for Sheila; he’s carrying on with Paula, this time above suspicion. What’s cool is that we know something dramatic is about to happen–but what?
Somebody’s probably going to die: Sheila? Paula? Barney (again)? Pretty much equal odds for each. Anyway, Paula comes calling. She’s leaving for London, and assumed he wouldn’t be up and around ever. It seems she doesn’t want to deal with an (even temporarily) handicapped Barney. Sheila confronts her, pretty much accusing her of trying to break up their marriage.
No bodies yet. He’s not faking it with Sheila anymore; bizarrely, he slaps his wife for sticking up for him. Ok, now it’s New Year’s Eve again. Sheila gets away from the play, insisting that John accompany her home. Good old Barney leaves her a Dear John letter; he then goes down to Paula’s boat, which is about to sail. What he hadn’t counted on is that Paula is surprised, and not in a good way.
He: “I didn’t come to see you off.” She: “It [their relationship] was all a mistake.” Appropriately, but perhaps incorrectly, she says she made a “deal” with Sheila; it’s the first decent thing she’s said. So, dejected, he leaves. I thought he’d fall or jump overboard, but, no, back to Sheila. Bad luck has Sheila send John away–the stage is set for aa fateful reunion with Barney…still, plenty of suspense.
Barney makes it back just before the stroke of midnight. Sheila gets out of bed. He throws the door open looking like Dracula stalking his next victim. Barney blames her for Paula taking off. After scaring Sheila, it’s clear that he intends to kill her. Just before he closes in, he’s shot. But not by Sheila, by an intruding William. Clever. The conundrum is that William, the only person who gets the time-travel deal, is the one that intervenes to alter fate. That makes sense; also, he has a motive–to free Sheila from her from her destiny. It works.
Repeat Performance works well overall. The suspense tightens up as we go deeper into the plot; Sheila is an incredibly sympathetic character who faces a dilemma, the solution of which lies almost completely beyond her comprehension. For all we know, 1946 might end exactly as it did initially. Or not. The weird thing is that it’s impossible to tell what history can be changed, and who has the agency to change it.
As noted, the fantastic element, while everpresent, is somehow unobtrusive. That, in turn, helps to sell the ‘wrinkle in time.’ The wildcard is William; but, even though his intervention is decisive, the others have changed things up as well. Barney wasn’t injured the first time around, Pamela and Barney never went to England together, etc. But the ingredients remained on-hand to put the Pages together that last fateful night.
That’s all that was needed. This is as good of a rendition of time-travel as any. After all, since we’re tying fantasy onto drama, there’s no correct path to follow. The plot could’ve disintegrated if there were too many options.
My only issues are not with the plot–rather with the characters. I’ve mentioned William’s awkwardness; and Paula’s archness–her downright meanness for the most part. Actually, though, Barney has a weak, repellent personality. With Sheila, he’s pretty much a complete jerk; and then again, he can’t stop fawning over Paula. In other words, I can’t see what either woman sees in him.
This was one of those better-than-I-thought-it-would-be treats. Unique, very entertaining. Some critics see it as film noir–yeah, it’s got two murders, of the same guy, no less–but I’d say it’s more of a psychological drama.
Farmermouse is all about revelry, so he’ll give Repeat Performance eight party hats, and a ton of confetti. 8/10.