|Mary Gimlet / Mary Wright
|Released by MGM | Directed by Edgar Selwyn
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- “As the lady said to the sailor, nothing’s stopping you.”
- Drunk Tracy is clearly checking out Clarke’s rear when she insists that he comes to bed.
- The soldiers and Americans got a bum deal in the first World War. But more on that below.
Turn Back the Clock: If I Could Turn Back Time
“Gosh darn this gettin’ rich. Harder to do than I figured.”
I’ve always had a problem with the nostalgia bug. I know, it’s hard to believe a guy who runs a blog about movies from the early 1930s would have a fascination with the past, but ever since I was a kid, the idea of traveling through time and seeing the push and pull of history as it unfolded held a singular thrill for me. Look, my favorite movie was Back to the Future when I was a kid, and it wasn’t just for Lea Thompson.
Turn Back the Clock may do something as simple as take a reversed Rip Van Winkle approach to the world, but it’s clearly excited to do what a lot of people fantasize over: redoing the big decisions and trying to see if you can use your knowledge to save mankind from itself and maybe profit a bit in the process. Here we have Joe Gimlet (Lee Tracy), a cigar store owner with a dowdy wife named Mary (Mae Clarke, looking about as dowdy as you can make Mae Clarke look.). Joe is bitter over his poor finances, even though they have $4,000 in the bank ($75,000 in today’s money). Back in the day, he had been given a prime opportunity to marry a beautiful girl named Elvina (Peggy Shannon) and the chance to invest his money in something turned out dividends, but picked Mary instead. Now his old friend, Ted (Kruger), ended up with Elvina and the wealth Joe yearns for. Frustrated by Mary’s refusal to turn over their nest egg to Ted because he so desperately still wants to be rich, Joe goes on a bender and is hit by a car.
He wakes up in 1910, in his old bed room with his mother making breakfast downstairs. He remembers everything he knew about the future, but now it’s the morning he fatefully turned down Elvina and his chance to be a big man in the world. He won’t pass it up again.
There’s a lot of fun to be had in the premise, and writer Ben Hecht and director Edgar Selwyn enjoy teasing the past when they can choke down their frustration. Besides the moments where Joe gets confused on which Roosevelt is in the White House, he’s forgetting that people in 1910 are completely baffled when you ask if a liquor is bootleg. There are other sweet touches, too, as Tracy marches through his old town square. He remembers some people, can’t put a name to others, and finds things that have always been there and then things that are just completely alien. The square is dotted with dozens of horse drawn carriages– an automobile pops up with its occupants thrilled that it made an entire full trip to town without breaking down. In a nice touch, as he makes his way through his town of old, he whistles, “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” a deft hint that he’s feeling both nostalgic and ambitious.
While the movie certainly gets tickled by the idea of hitting the reset button on 20 years, there’s also a thick layer of bitterness to be found. Joe’s wedding to Elvina sees him getting hammered as he watches Mary waltz off with Ted– Joe may be on the verge of being rich, but he ain’t going to be content.
As the years tick by and Joe’s wealth grows– he makes a deal with a gentleman named ‘Henry Cord’ whose car revolutionizes the industry– he finds that the money isn’t making him happy. His wife is engaged with an affair with a slimy blue blood named Holmes (C. Henry Gordon), and he still can’t get Mary off his mind, though she’s married Ted and disappeared from his life. Though he’s rich, he’s shunned by the wealthy, seen as a bit of a loon for his ability to predict the future. Worse, no one takes any of his predictions seriously, even when they come true.
One prediction he makes involves buying into a truck manufacturer shortly after Archduke Ferdinand is shot. Joe had fought in the first World War back in the original timeline, and it’s clear that the experience has affected him deeply. This time around, his money and power shield him from the draft, putting him in a cadre of old blue bloods eagerly wishing the men off to war while they’ll be making bank in their stead. That’s why when Joe’s asked to give a speech before a battalion of departing soldiers, he breaks out of his all-consuming greed for a painstaking moment, reflecting on his own experiences, knowing not only what horrors await these gathered men in Europe but on also upon their return home.
“Gee, fellas, I wish I was going with ya, but I guess it ain’t in the cards. I’ve been listening to these orators standing up here telling ya about the glories of fighting for democracy… made me feel a little sad. It’s alright to talk about glories, but what you’re going to find is mud…. and more mud. And cooties and lots of other things that ain’t so nice. You’re going to cross the seas and you’re going to go charging through barbed wire, and muck, and weeds, and you’re going to chase those heinies out of gas. Then you’re coming back here…. most of ya… and when you do, maybe you won’t find so much cheering and band playing. And maybe you’ll have just a little trouble finding a job. I ain’t sayin’… but, maybe.”
Distraught over his speech, Joe siezes upon inspiration– he’s going to put a million dollars in the bank, promising every returning veteran a chunk of it for when they return so they can get back on their feet easier. It’s an inspiring moment, one of the most humanizing of the picture and still resonates today. The other assembled rich congratulate Joe on his generosity, of course– but none of them do the same.
The move ostracizes his wife even further, as she can hardly believe he’d waste his money in such a manner. But people farther up on the totem pole take note of his actions, and Joe gets a call from President Wilson. He heads to Washington and outlines to the President how the U.S. should avoid a number of upcoming disasters by not loaning out quite so much to the allies. Wilson doesn’t take him very seriously but does appoint him the head of a war committee– at least until his fight against war profiteering sees his swift dismissal.
Though he did his best, Joe’s learned the hard way that one good man can’t stop the hideous tide of history. Everything will be the same, and he grows embittered even as he grows richer through the 1920s. He finally finds Mary again, with Ted now running the cigar shop that Joe himself had helmed in a different lifetime.
Joe still lusts for Mary, but finds himself set up as the Crash happens and he’s wiped out– despite his warnings, his wife had secretly kept their money in the stock market. The bank he heads decides it needs a patsy for their embezzlement, and he’s left a fugitive. Will he escape? Or at least wake up?
Turn Back the Clock is yet another pre-Code that asserts wealth and sophistication is bullshit, a product built and sold by WASPs to an unsuspecting middle class. For all his (admittedly foreknown) business acumen, Joe’s inability to care for the social rituals of the rich leave him an outcast. His wife runs around with other men, and Joe is seen as a Cassandra– someone not to be taken seriously despite almost always being right.
The movie is a peon to love over money, sure, as the solution to all of his problems is him overcoming his greed and recognizing his deep, abiding love for his wife. But there’s also a deep anger present. Tracy’s Joe is frustrated at the way fate dealt him cards in both timelines, and it’s about overcoming the bitterness and accepting that he made the right choices before– it’s just that the world he inhabits is one of greed and anger. Separating himself from that means he can finally appreciate the beauty of his life with Mary.
Director Edgar Selwyn gets to be playfully surreal with the time travel segments, and crafts some fabulous visuals, including a fever dream nightmare as the police hunt down Joe in the final moments and kill him for living a life of capitalistic excess.
The acting is fine across the board. Tracy has his usual motormouth persona, but it’s tempered with more pain and fear than we’re used to. That wedding night where it finally clicks that he’s lost Mary is both amusing and terrifying, as he screams and cries with drunken sadness. Mae Clarke, called upon to be the unwitting object of a time traveler’s affections, manages to create a character whose age and experience defines her differently across timelines. The moment where Joe offers Mary the same deal that Ted had offered them in the original timeline only to see her enthusiastically take it is very sweet– in either version of reality, she’s keeping Joe at the front of her thoughts.
Turn Back the Clock is a fascinating piece for modern audiences to navel gaze at the Depression through, even though it’s not expressly about it. It’s about many people like Joe who were trapped in bad situations beyond their control and how they parted ways with good luck through no fault of their own. Watching Tracy’s silly but frustrating leap to the past is chock full of smart cynicism and warm humor in a time that undoubtedly earned both.
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Trivia & Links
- Talkie film debut for Otto Kruger.
- Mordaunt Hall gave this a glowing review, though, as usual, beware of plenty of spoilers.
- Joe’s meeting with with Wilson has the President entirely captured from the back so that we never see his face. I was struck by how much the uncredited Wilson stand-in looked and sounded like George Arliss, but, since the star was under contract to Warner’s at the time, there’s no way that that’s him. An homage to the actor, perhaps?
- At Joe’s wedding to Elvina, eagle eyed– okay, well, anyone might recognize The Three Stooges playing a trio of wedding singers. Amusingly, they’re the straight men to Tracy’s antics in the scene.
- Mick LaSalle, in his chapter on Tracy in Dangerous Men, talks about this one as the last great Lee Tracy film.
Like a lot of Tracy’s movies, Turn Back the Clock dealt with the question, “Whats’ more important, worldly success or love?” […] Turn Back the Clock called for a mellower Tracy. The huckster/public man aspect of the character was there, but there were also quieter moments calling for subtlety and feeling. Early in the film, he wakes to find that, somehow, he is in his boyhood room of thirty years before. He goes to the mirror, sees a young man staring back at him, and just touches his face with wonder. […] Tracy’s speed as an actor was not just a matter of machine-gun patter. His transitions were fast and his emotions were genuine.
- Mondo 70 is a little more hesitant in their enjoyment of the film, but smartly nails its place in history:
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.
- The TCMDB article talks about how Tracy, Clarke, screenwriter Ben Hecht, and director Edgar Selwyn were all connected to the play The Front Page in one way or another (seriously, it’s kind of funny). But this anecdote is the best piece
However, it’s tempting to tie this film to a famous incident early in [Director Edgar Selywn’s] 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.
- Here’s the trailer over ye olde YouTube:
Awards, Accolades & Availability
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Lesley · August 14, 2015 at 10:25 am
I like this movie a lot; it’s got Tracy and Clarke and that Hecht script going for it. What I seem to have forgotten until reading your review is that Tracy setting up that bonus for the returning WWI vets is yet another contemporary reference to the Bonus Army (the two I usually cite are “Remember My Forgotten Man” and in Gabriel over the White House). Seems like the Bonus Army’s plight and the shameful way they were routed by MacArthur under Hoover wrapped up a lot of people’s feelings about how veterans were (mis)treated and how the Depression had destroyed people’s lives into a single story.
Lee Tracy was a great actor. I love him in his emblematic roles but also in his subtler character turn in Dinner at Eight. Had he been less of a drunk and a handful he could have gone on in Hollywood and broken out of his Pre-Code stereotype.
Danny · August 16, 2015 at 1:15 pm
Tracy really gets to step out of his element a bit here and really works as an every man. I don’t know how he would have dealed in the code-enforced world, but it’s nice to imagine if he hadn’t torpedoed his career, he may have gone far.
And, yes, there’s a lot of bitter WWI sentiment in the early 30s which feels very honest and vital, far different than the simplistic stereotypes we’re sold today.
La Faustin · August 15, 2015 at 2:29 am
He got a fantastic final bow in THE BEST MAN (1964) — check it out! And there’s another Bonus Army/Lee Tracy connection: WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND.
Danny · August 16, 2015 at 1:09 pm
I’ve really got to see both of those. Thanks for the reminders!
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