Cast & Crew
While tending his cigar store, middle-aged New Yorker Joe Gimlet runs into his boyhood friend, Ted Wright, now a prominent bank president. That night, Ted and his wife Elvina, who also grew up with Joe, dine with Joe and his wife Mary, another former resident of Corliss, Ted's home town. As the evening progresses, Ted, a longtime admirer of Mary, confesses to Joe that he envies his simple home life and offers his friend a chance to invest his $4,000 in savings in an aluminum underwriting scheme. Although Joe jumps at the idea, the more prudent Mary ignores her husband's pleas and refuses to part with the family savings. Determined to have his way, Joe gets drunk and insinuates to Mary that he would be a happier man if he had married the wealthy Elvina twenty years before. After Joe tells Mary that he will continue to drink until she says yes to Ted, he leaves the apartment reeling and is hit by a passing automobile. As he is about to be operated on, Joe succumbs to the effects of ether and has the following dream: Joe wakes to discover that physically he is a young man again and is living with his mother in Corliss. Because he still has his middle-aged mind, however, Joe blurts out several facts about the future, causing his mother concern about his sanity. After the family doctor advises him to keep his crazy ideas to himself, Joe goes to his soda jerk job at the local pharmacy, where he meets a young Elvina. When Elvina's rich father proposes to Joe that, if he wants to marry his daughter, he should invest his $400 in savings in a land investment scheme, Joe accepts the offer, remembering that in his prior life, he had said no. Although his engagement announcement crushes both his mother and Mary, who warns him that money cannot buy happiness, Joe goes ahead with his plan and marries into the Evans family. Guided by his knowledge of the future, Joe quickly becomes a millionaire, investing in such businesses as Henry Ford's automobile plant and the trucking industry, while Mary weds the more humble Ted. Joe also "predicts" the start of World War I and becomes known as an eccentric visionary. Moved by memories of his own post-war problems, Joe pledges one million dollars of his profits to help the country's returning veterans. While Joe's generosity angers Elvina, President Woodrow Wilson hails Joe as a hero and offers him a job as the head of the War Industry Board. To avoid scandal, Joe drops plans to divorce the adulterous Elvina and throws himself into his new assignment. Joe's belligerent policies regarding war loans, however, eventually cost him his post and earn him Elvina's ridicule. Many years later, on the brink of the 1929 stock market crash, Joe goes into a cigar store and sees Ted working there. As before, the two couples dine together and talk about their lives. After Joe deduces that Mary is unhappy in her marriage, he offers Ted a chance to invest $4,000 in a safe venture, unaware that Elvina has secretly put all of their savings into the stock market. To Joe's surprise, Mary approves of the idea, causing Joe to make a cryptic reference about his poor judgment regarding love and money. Ruined by the stock market crash, Joe, who is now a bank president, denounces Elvina as a cheat and divorces her. On March 6, 1933, the same date of his automobile injury, Joe learns that his employees have plundered his bank and that he will held accountable for their actions. No longer able to "see" into the future, Joe rushes to Mary and begs her to run away to Greece with him. After Mary tells him that she cannot leave Ted, Joe is pursued by a horde of policemen and, after a desperate chase, is apprehended. At that moment, Joe wakes up in his hospital room and is relieved to discover that Mary is still his loving if poor wife.
C. Henry Gordon
Turn Back the Clock
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
Turn Back the Clock
Turn Back the Clock on DVD
While this narrative conceit has been done to death over the years, in movies and stories like It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol and innumerable others, there's a freshness here and a particular fascination at play, as the film hurtles from one major historical event to another. Tracy's knowledge of World War I, of the stock market crash, and of what to invest in and when, makes him wealthy and gives him political influence that reaches all the way to the White House -- a fantasy scenario that is shown convincingly and becomes ever more intriguing.
And it's a great showcase for Lee Tracy, a part that allows him to play a range of emotions, though most of the time he channels his brash, self-confident, loud-talking persona. But he handles scenes of touching drama very well, too, and has a wonderful moment where he is forced to smile for some photographers while posing with his wife who he has just discovered has been cheating on him. Otto Kruger, Mae Clark and especially Peggy Shannon are all excellent in their supporting roles, and the Three Stooges even pop up, uncredited, as wedding singers in one of their first feature appearances.
Director Edgar Selwyn, who wrote the screenplay with Ben Hecht, keeps the pacing at a good level and employs some nifty effects like multiple exposures, slow-motion, and expressionistic angles and lighting, reaching a pinnacle at the climax and looking almost like '40s film noir. This was Selwyn's seventh film as director, and he would direct only one more. But as good a director as he was, with fine films like The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), Skyscraper Souls (1932), and The Mystery of Mr. X (1934) to his credit, he also was a notable producer and writer who made important contributions to the development of the entire Hollywood studio landscape. Selwyn had started in the New York theater world in the 1890s, rising from usher to actor to playwright to producer, and in the 1910s he formed his own motion picture production company. In 1917 that company merged with Samuel Goldfish's studio to become Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, which later on helped form the basis of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Selwyn, then, was directly responsible for the "wyn" in Goldwyn and partially responsible for the "G" in MGM!
In a sign of the high standing he achieved in Hollywood, the honorary pallbearers at his 1944 funeral included such luminaries as Louis B. Mayer, Arthur Freed, Ira Gershwin, Samuel Goldwyn (previously Goldfish), Cecil B. DeMille and Harry Cohn.
Warner Archive's DVD-R of Turn Back the Clock shows the film in perfectly decent shape and includes an original trailer.
By Jeremy Arnold
Turn Back the Clock on DVD
According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Harry Hervey was to write the screenplay for this film. Hervey's contribution to the final film, if any, has not been determined. Hollywood Reporter and Film Daily news items announced Edward Gargan, Colleen Moore and John Halliday as cast members. None of these actors, however, appeared in the final film.