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Once sound came in Hollywood, and the distinction of voice and accent and therefore cultural evocations suddenly mattered, Hollywood became Little Britain. It was instantly assumed by the studio heads (which were mostly Eastern European emigres, who personally had no dog in the race, so to speak) that Americans didn't want to hear any accent, not even a homegrown one, as much as a British one. Along with the (largely perceived) eloquence and authority of a refined Brit burr, then, Hollywood movies became intoxicated with all things British. Stage-trained British actors were hired where beautiful working-class schlubs from Dayton or Pittsburgh used to suffice, Brit plays and novels became prime projects, movies whose stories had no relation to England (think Animal Crackers , Frankenstein , Blonde Venus , Top Hat , etc.) were populated by officious British characters. Britishness itself was something of a prized quality, a nexus of signs indicating sophistication, credibility, glamour, and a sense of educated history, a useful hand of cards for any "crude and rude" American film save a screwball comedy to possess. Frank Lloyd's Berkeley Square (1933) is both saturated in this uninterrogated idea of uber-Brit refinement and takes it slowly apart, excoriating itself and our lazy daydreams about the poshness and delicacy of life in the old Empire.
The story and thematic thrust will immediately remind you of Woody Allen's recent hit Midnight in Paris (2011) - which also in its way entertained the grass-is-greener fondness for old Europe and past ages and then put those delectations under a hot magnifying glass. Here, we meet Peter Standish (Leslie Howard) first as a post-Revolution American visiting cousins in 1784 London - but as he goes to enter the house on Berkeley Square, the camera dollies across the room, loses focus, and then backs out again, and suddenly we're in 1933, when a new generation's Standish is obsessed to an unhealthy degree with the London house he's inherited and its history. This brooding fool is already losing his fiancée (Betty Lawford) and seeing the American Ambassador (Samuel S. Hinds) as a kind of therapy, but soon enough he transcends time, off-screen, and by sheer dint of will enters into the 18th century, to live the life of his ancestor.
There, he confronts his cousin's family and social whorl, impulsively proposes to the wrong sister (Valerie Taylor), and raises suspicions by way of his manners and speech. Eventually he comes around to the younger sister (Heather Angel), with whom he falls in love, but it's clear by then that Standish's dreams of the refined, beautiful life of 1784 are dissolving in their confrontation with reality. (His apparent foresight of things to come even gets him accused of witchcraft by the older sister, and he cannot help but admit that the 18th century just stinks.) Based on a hit play by John Balderston (who had a fabulous run as a screenwriter in the 30s, including Dracula ,Frankenstein , The Mummy , The Lives of a Bengal Lancer , and Mad Love ), Berkeley Square is gloriously stagy, utilizing a standard early-talkie two-shot in most scenes, a trope that today is so simple and clear it's refreshing. Lloyd, who'd win an Oscar® that same year for Cavalcade, and another in 1935 as the director/producer of Mutiny on the Bounty, was no self-conscious artiste, and in 1933 neither he nor his audience saw anything wrong with simply making the film of a hit play rather play-like - all the better to let the characters speak their minds and to let the tale roll forward.
There are moments when this classical strategy is disrupted - most memorably when Angel's dewy maiden learns the truth about her beloved and witnesses, by looking into his eyes, a furious montage of history leading from the 1800s through to WWI and beyond - a scalding vision for a cloistered British teen of 1784. Because his credits have never been finalized, this sequence may or may not have been engineered by one of Hollywood's most peculiar specialists: Slavko Vorkapich, a Serbian montagist who worked for years for various studios crafting transitional or expository found-footage montage scenes, with pacing and ingenuity no one could match. His name even became a noun in studio parlance, instead of "montage." Berkeley Square's frenetic summation of early 20th-century madness has Vorkapich's fingerprints all over it, but thanks to early studios' carefree way with employees' credits, for now its provenance must remain a mystery.
Of course stage-based projects like Berkeley Square depend on the personal energies of their casts. Howard, it should be said, is one of the 1930s' greatest enigmas, an effete but beloved movie star who has a very tough time translating to contemporary times. No arthouse theater in this country has ever held a Leslie Howard retrospective. Self-conscious and so British he practically curdles like old milk in tea, Howard appealed to the wispy Anglophile in Americans' hearts, particularly women, and although he always seemed too foppish to be truly modern (his inciting presence as Scarlett O'Hara's obsession in Gone with the Wind  is the only cast decision in that film about which we might scratch our heads), Howard had in fact a fascinating man's-man history, from his shell-shocking on the fields of WWI (and the subsequent decision to try acting as therapy), to his efforts to help England's cause during WWII, when in 1943 he eventually had his passenger plane shot down by the Luftwaffe. Knowing this context puts Howard's moody, peculiar escapist Peter Standish in a strange new light - especially when you consider how the ghost-memory of WWI haunts the film, just as it did Howard.
Berkeley Square is very much an artifact of its day, then, when nothing, it still seemed, could overshadow the traumas of The Great War. But in the end it exudes a jaundiced cynicism about nostalgia in general - which, it could be said, was a defining principle for the system of empires and treaties and gentleman armies that allowed the war to ignite in the first place. Just by visiting the 18th century Standish renders it for himself banal and frustrating, and arrives in his modern day just as Owen Wilson's hero from Allen's movie did 80 years later: with a Buddhist-like appreciation for the here and now, and no desire to look backward.
Producer: Jesse L. Lasky
Director: Frank Lloyd
Screenplay: John L. Balderston (screenplay and play); Sonya Levien (writer); Henry James (unfinished novel "The Sense of the Past")
Cinematography: Ernest Palmer
Music: Peter Brunelli, Louis De Francesco, J.S. Zamecnik (all uncredited)
Film Editing: Harold D. Schuster
Cast: Leslie Howard (Peter Standish), Heather Angel (Helen Pettigrew), Valerie Taylor (Kate Pettigrew), Irene Browne (Lady Ann Pettigrew), Beryl Mercer (Mrs. Barwick), Colin Keith-Johnston (Tom Pettigrew), Alan Mowbray (Major Clinton), Juliette Compton (Duchess of Devonshire), Betty Lawford (Marjorie Frant), Ferdinand Gottschalk (Mr. Throstle).
by Michael Atkinson