The now classic Somewhere in Time was released in 1980 in the midst of a Screen Actors Guild strike. Although the movie starred Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymore, they were barred from promoting the film due to the strike. Along with negative movie reviews at its opening, the film quickly sank in obscurity until its revival in later years on cable television.
This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association “Fun in the Sun” Blogathon, May 17-20, 2022.
Somewhere in Time was directed for Universal Pictures by Jeannot Szwarc. It is based on Richard Matheson’s novel Bid Time Return. The late Matheson was a well known writer of fantasy and science fiction books and stories such as I Am Legend and The Omega Man. He also wrote the teleplays for many episodes of the Twilight Zone – including classics such as Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, Death Ship, and Nick of Time (the diner with the fortune-telling machine). The romantic Bid Time Return’s idea came to him when he saw a striking photograph of the early 1900s actress Maude Adams. He then spent several weeks at the 1887-built Hotel del Coronado and developed the plot for the story of a modern man crossing an emotional path with history based on such a photograph.
But rather than being filmed at the Hotel del Coronado, an old hotel modernized to keep up with tourism and conventions, the Grand Hotel on the lakefront of Michigan’s Mackinac Island was chosen. This remote site on Lake Huron did not even allow cars. Permission had to be secured for specific filming times when cars needed to be in the story.
The costume designer chosen for the film was Jean-Pierre Dorléac. He was well known for his Battlestar Galactica series (where he had previously worked with Jane Seymour) and the later Quantum Leap series. In preparing for designing Somewhere in Time, he suggested to the producer and director that the costumes for women would be less confining in the pre-World-War I period than in the original story’s 1896 period when Richard and Elise meet back in time. Producer Stephen Deutsch and director Jeannot Szwarc liked the idea and moved that setting to 1912. Dorléac designed the men’s costumes as well, with Reeve’s period costume being purposefully out of date since he purchased it at an Antique Store in his preparations to go back in time. Dorléac was also able to add a very special touch to Jane Seymore’s costume. Knowing that he was searching for a special piece of jewelry, his friend Edith Head gifted him one of her own vintage pieces — a cut-crystal necklace that had belonged the stage actress Ethel Jackson and worn when she played The Merry Widow in 1907. Each stone was faceted differently and glistened brightly. Now that he had this key piece in hand he scouted a vintage clothing bazaar to find the dealer who would supply him with over $5000 in vintage lace.
Christopher Plummer joined the cast as the manipulative manager of Elise/Jane Seymore. Susan French played the older Elise and Teresa Wright played her companion and aide.
The movie starts in contemporary time at a party where Reeve/Richard is celebrating the performance of his first play. In the crowd an elderly woman approaches him, hands him a pocket watch and whispers, “Come back to me.” She returns to her room at the Grand Hotel in Mackinac and listens to a record of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” while reclining on her rocking chair. Years later in Chicago after Richard and his girlfriend break-up, he drives off aimlessly but decides to visit the Grand Hotel. There he decides to spend the night, and visits the hotel’s history room, where he becomes entranced by the vintage photograph of a beautiful young woman. The bellhop informs him that she was Elise McKenna, a famous stage actress who had once starred in a play at the hotel’s theater in 1912. Richard is so smitten that he researches her at the local library, and even finds a photo of Elise as an older woman – the same woman who gave him the pocket watch, with her resounding words, “come back to me.” This sets Richard off on a mystical journey through time, endurance, and the multi-dimensional power of love.
John Barry composed the music, and selected the film’s haunting theme music, the eighteenth variation of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” This was not Barry’s typical film music, but both his father and mother had died within months of each other before he worked on Somewhere in Time, and this was an emotional time for him.
Somewhere in Time made the cover of the July 1980 edition of American Cinematographer, including an article. The film’s cinematographer was Isidore Mankofsky. Film director Szwarc’s concept of the film was to have very different looks between the contemporary part of the film and the period era. Mankofsky stated that, “… in order to make the film work dramatically, we had to make sure that, in terms of visual presentation, these two periods would not look the same. The objective was to carry the audience back in time subtly, but with a definite difference in the ‘look’ from one era to the other.” “We used Eastman color negative for the contemporary sequences, because it tends to be a little harder in the shadows and to have a crisper, more solid look to it. It seems to resolve better and to be sharper all the way through. Likewise, we decided to go with Fuji color negative for the period sequences because it seems to be a bit more pastel. It doesn’t appear to have quite the resolving power of the Kodak stock or the really black blacks.” Of course this was still in the days of using film rather than digital photography.
Szwarc and Mankofsky used Death in Venice as a guide, along with art books featuring paintings of Manet and Monet. Szwarc added, “For the sequences in the past we would use Fuji stock — which is a little bit softer and less contrasty — and go for wide-angle lenses and diopters and deep focus and a very pastel look. “We followed that concept through in everything — in set dressing, the colors of the walls of the sets, and also in wardrobe.”
In Richard Matheson’s story as in the movie, Richard Collier is given a condition for being able to go back in time to seek Elise. In the ancient tradition of mythology and the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the good looks of Orpheus and his enchanting music allowed him to pass the monster Cerberus and got Hades to permit him to take back his dead love Eurydice from the underworld – on condition that he not look back at her until they exit. Fearing he is being tricked, Orpheus looks back to see if Eurydice is really behind him as they near near the exit, at which point she is trapped there forever — and the fate of Orpheus is to later die of sorrow wanting to join her in death. With the handsome Richard, good with words, he is warned when he goes back in time that he must not bring anything with him from his modern life. At the very moment when he believes that he and Elise have found true love and can have a life together – he finds a modern coin in his pocket, and is thrown back into modern times, never able to return to Elise.
Somewhere in Time was not well well reviewed. It was a science-fiction movie without any science – a “Time Machine” without the machine or any monsters. It was low budget without any special effects. Then and now some consider it too sappy. Yet the movie has its own fan club, INSITE, active since 1990. As a love story with wonderful period detail, it is as great as any, and Jane Seymore and Christopher Reeve actually fell in love while filming it. Somewhere in Time, fun in the all too short sun of a few days in 1912.