Monday, June 25, 2012


The Great Depression must have left many people wondering what they would have done differently before the great crash, had they a chance. A fantasy story in which one man gets the chance, even if only in his dream, had natural potential in 1933. The comic potential is obvious, too, and that's why we have Lee Tracy starring in Edgar Selwyn's film, co-written by the director with ace scripter Ben Hecht. Selwyn counts as a singular Pre-Code fantasist for making this picture as well as the future-war prophecy film Men Must Fight, in which he visualizes the bombing of New York City. Tracy plays Joe Gimlett, who's struggling through the Depression running a cigar store and doing better than many. He and his wife have a few thousand dollars salted away, When an old buddy made good invites him to invest in a business proposition that could make him $20,000 in a year, Joe's wife vetoes the idea. Frustrated with his lack of progress in life, Joe dreams himself back into his past under anaesthesia after a car accident. Anticipating Peggy Sue Got Married, Tracy inhabits his younger self circa 1910, which makes for some cute initial confusion between Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt. Discovering that he seems to have a fresh chance, Joe accepts a business proposition he'd rejected in his past past and marries the vivacious girl who would have become his rich friend's wife, the friend marrying Joe's real-time wife instead. Joe is able to exploit his foreknowledge to some extent -- he strikes it rich by investing in trucking at the start of World War I -- but at other times his predictions and warnings only make him look crazy. Audiences in the last days of Prohibition would certainly laugh when Joe, noticing the open abundance of alcohol, talks about bootleggers and speakeasies to universal incomprehension. The fish-out-of-water angle becomes most bizarre, in retrospect, when Joe heckles some musicians performing at his wedding reception for singing old-fashioned songs. The singers are the unbilled Larry Fine and Moe and Jerry Howard -- the Three Stooges unaccompanied by Ted Healy, and the weird thing about their one scene in the picture is the way they play complete straight men for Tracy, baffled by his requests for songs as yet unwritten. Moe and Larry have tamed their signature hair into period styles, and none of the Stooges do anything characteristic -- no slapping or insults of any kind. This must have been the sort of work that made Columbia Pictures appealing to them.

Anyway, Turn Back the Clock acquires some bite whenever Joe gets to play a Cassandra, though you get the sense that Tracy could have attacked the material more strongly. A scene where he addresses recruits bound for the World War that he fought in his past/real life seems set up for an anti-war tirade, but Joe only offers a mild debunking of patriotic cliches, warning the troops to expect mud and cooties but also promising them their own private bonus from the local bank -- a telling promise when real veterans still hoped for early bonuses from the government. His ability to change history is thwarted by an often self-righteous and more often crazy-sounding foreknowledge; appointed head of war industries by President Wilson, he's fired shortly before the armistice for protesting too much against profiteering. Striking even closer to home for Depression audiences, Joe warns people against investing in the stock market, even though he doesn't remember the exact day of the Crash. The story seems to have come full circle when he simultaneously warns his dream wife against playing the market while making essentially the same invitation to his pal, who now has Joe's original place (and wife) in the cigar store, that was made to him. But the dream Depression is even worse than reality for our hero, whose wife had invested their entire savings in the market behind his back and whose bank board is setting him up to take the fall for their shady practices. He dreams all the way to the starting point of the picture -- the Bank Holiday of March 1933, immediately following FDR's inauguration -- and realizes to his horror that he can't predict the future anymore. Dream becomes nightmare at last as he tries to flee the country, is captured by police who form a firing squad and then a lynch mob -- but as you might have guessed, death is but a prelude to awakening and the summing up of lessons learned. In its eccentric fashion, Turn Back the Clock belongs to the same category of retrospective "what went wrong" films as William Wellman's Heroes For Sale and Midnight Mary. It's meant to be more lighthearted than either of those doomy films, and Tracy strives hard to milk humor from the fantastic situation, but the implicit message that foreknowledge could not prevent the economic disaster makes the picture somewhat less funny than the studio claimed. It may well have seemed less funny when it came out than it does now, but on the other hand Pre-Code audiences were a hard-boiled lot, we assume, so maybe they got some gallows humor out of it. Since we're more likely to think of this as a fantasy than as a comedy, we may judge it by a different standard that gives Selwyn credit for creativity, if his was as new an idea as the advertising claimed. Apart from its largely unacknowledged place in the history of fantasy cinema, Turn Back the Clock is an item of real historical interest for its commentary on the Depression and the generation before. It may have more historical than entertainment value, but for those who find this sort of history entertaining this picture is definitely worth a look.

Once again TCM comes through with the original trailer, including most of the Stooges' footage.

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