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Turn Back the Clock

Turn Back the Clock(1933)

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teaser Turn Back the Clock (1933)

If movies can be enjoyed as wish fulfillment, few have a concept more appealing than this 1933 fantasy starring hard-living leading man Lee Tracy. Here he stars as Joe Gimlet, a poor tobacco store owner run with his wife, Mary (Mae Clarke). After reconnecting with old friend Ted Wright (Otto Kruger), now wealthy, and his wife (and Joe's former flame) Elvina (Peggy Shannon), he is struck by a car and sent two decades into the past. Still armed with knowledge of what is to come, he gets to relive his golden years by marrying Elvina and embarking on a path to riches and happiness only to find it may not be all it's cracked up to be.

Tracy and Clarke were already an established screen pair by this time, having both starred in the vaudeville-themed early talkie Big Time (1929). Throughout the 1930s Tracy's contract moved through multiple studios including Fox, Warner Bros. and MGM, with titles including Doctor X (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933). Unfortunately his stardom would prove to be short lived as a demonstration of public obscenity involving a Mexican military parade (the exact details of which remain in dispute) while filming Viva Villa! at the end of 1933 ended his days as a leading man. As a result MGM sent him packing back to the stage , television, and the occasional character role in films, most notably an Oscar-nominated turn in The Best Man (1964).

This film also marked a reunion of sorts for Tracy and writer Ben Hecht, who co-wrote the play The Front Page (later famously filmed many times) with the actor originating the role of Hildy Johnson on Broadway. The final film credits the screenplay to both Hecht and director Edgar Selwyn, though earlier drafts in May of 1933 were written separately by John Howard Lawson and Harry Hervey. The final shooting script credited to Hecht and Selwyn was hammered together from June 5 through June 16 that same year, with the film shot and edited quickly enough to open by the end of August. Already an Oscar winner for his screenplay for Underworld (1927) and firmly established with his work on Scarface (1932), Hecht would also pen such films as Nothing Sacred (1937), Wuthering Heights (1939), and Notorious (1946).

Tying everything together, Clarke also had a connection to The Front Page, having starred in the 1931 Lewis Milestone film version opposite Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien. That year proved to be a remarkable high point as she also got a grapefruit in the kisser from James Cagney in The Public Enemy and headlined two James Whale films, the original (very pre-Code) version of Waterloo Bridge and the horror classic Frankenstein. Hollywood would prove to be equally perilous for Clarke, whose career declined around the same time as Tracy's after she suffered from a nervous breakdown and a much-publicized car crash. Similarly, she kept working for decades in less prestigious roles during the enforcement of the Production Code but her best days were clearly at the advent of the sound era.

Making his sound feature debut here is Otto Kruger, a very busy character actor who had mainly established himself as a stage actor by this point. Often cast as urbane villains, he flourished in such films as Dracula's Daughter (1936), Saboteur (1942), and High Noon (1952), among many others.

Besting all of the actors in the colorful life department was Selwyn, who made the leap from Broadway actor to hit playwright and Hollywood director. In what shouldn't come as a surprise by this point, he also has a connection to The Front Page; he and his brother founded 42nd Street's Times Square Theater in 1920, where the play first opened in 1928. Some of Selwyn's more notable achievements as a theater producer included the original productions of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Strike Up the Band, while his film work included The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), for which Helen Hayes won a Best Actress Oscar. However, it's tempting to tie this film to a famous incident early in his life, way before showbiz fame and fortune, when financial and romantic troubles prompted him to attempt suicide by leaping from a bridge into the Chicago River. Instead he landed on ice and returned to shore, only to be held up by a robber with whom he quickly struck up an unexpected rapport.

As for the film itself, the most unusual aspect today is an unexpected cameo appearance in the form of those three wedding singers; it's actually a famous comedy trio whose first names are Curly, Moe and Larry, christened by Columbia Pictures one year later as the Three Stooges.

At the time of its release, Turn Back the Clock received generally positive reviews with more than a few critics noting its similarity to Berkeley Square, a popular play whose film version opened one month after this. Both are fascinating now as early examples of cinematic time travel films, with this one in turn establishing an approach that would be maintained for decades at least through Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). Inevitably, it also seems more bittersweet now as we can see it more remotely with many decades in between, with all of the principals having now completed their own journeys forward through time.

By Nathaniel Thompson

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