Turn Back the Clock (DVD Review)16 Dec, 2013 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Lee Tracy, Mae Clarke, Otto Kruger.
You can’t watch this Depression-influenced sleeper without thinking of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, though the premise here could have served as well for, say, one of the hour-long “Twilight Zone” episodes — long enough, that is, to sustain the story’s march through economic and political history predating World War I. Lead Lee Tracy was always the kind of nuts-and-bolts actor one doesn’t associate with fantasy, but the character he plays here wisecracks, drinks too much and can be, at times, a blowhard. So this puts the role directly in the wheelhouse of an actor who, most of the time, seemed to be playing big-city reporters on rags that would today be owned by Rupert Murdoch.
In this case, Tracy’s in New York — but running a cigar store while a wife with whom he shares the business and adjacent apartment socks away a small but sturdy nest egg that she is conservatively using to keep tough 1933 times away from the door right after FDR’s first inauguration. The latter role adds to a surprisingly wide array of castings afforded top Mae Clarke in the early ’30s: taking the eternally famous James Cagney grapefruit in Public Enemy; headlining the superb but under-seen James Whale version of Waterloo Bridge; and being, of course, part of the Whale “Frankenstein” family. All of which makes one wonder if a Clarke screen heroine is ever going to catch a break with love.
Alas, the couple quickly fight over whether Tracy will be allowed to invest the their modest savings in a get-rich-quick scheme promoted by an old friend (Otto Kruger) who seems to be living high enough on the hog with his flashy wife (a onetime Tracy squeeze) when we are, after all, into the fourth year of the Hard Times. She nixes his wishes, and this leads to personal second-guessing and the inevitable revaluation of past life choices — the kind that make a person mournful that he or she didn’t take another road in life, which, in Wonderful Life fashion is what ends up happening. Suddenly, Tracy is projected back to his youth where he can court the old squeeze (Peggy Shannon), enabling her well-heeled father to jump-start his career in finance. Of course, with knowledge of future events at his disposal, Tracy already has an advantage — though colleagues aggressively mock the off-the-wall predictions he makes that also affect his business decisions: ridiculous-to-fathom things like World War I and the stock market crash.
This is a fairly irresistible hook, especially for a movie of this vintage, and writer-director Edgar Selwyn (though Ben Hecht had a co-hand in the screenplay) applies something of a jaundiced eye in the portrayal of Kruger’s wife, who then becomes Tracy’s when the story pulls its switcheroo. I don’t know much about actress Shannon, who died at 34 of a heart attack possibly exacerbated by alcohol abuse. But she puts a fairly distinctive spin on a character both attractive and rotten to the core; significantly, she cheats on her spouse when married to both Kruger and Tracy. And the movie isn’t reticent to show Tracy’s character as an occasionally overbearing pain in the behind (even to Woodrow Wilson, who’s a character here) — though you can see how frustrated someone might get with complacent buffoon/grafters who ridicule his warnings about what’s about to come down in terms of war and the stock market.
Predominantly a writer, Selwyn only directed eight features. But on the basis of this, the futuristic Men Must Fight, also The Sin of Madelon Claudet (an Oscar for Helen Hayes, who still has some classic scenes affecting scenes with Robert Young) and the pre-Code jewel Skyscraper Souls, I’d like to get a look at the other four. There’s almost no way you can like time travel movies in general and fail to enjoy this one at least to some extent, especially once things begin falling apart catastrophically for a protagonist who thinks he’s been blessed with a second chance. There’s also a wedding scene here that somehow manages to include a spot for the pre-Columbia (and thus pre-stardom) Three Stooges, though they are actually calming influences at a reception where Tracy gets loaded and then gets out of hand. This is not exactly the way casting directors saw them when they hit their heyday not all that long after Clock’s release.