Thursday, September 05, 2013


In 1784, Peter Standish, who took the side of the colonists in the American Revolution, is in London to visit his cousin Kate Pettigrew, to whom he is, more or less, arranged to be engaged. The family needs money, and her younger sister Helen is fighting off the advances of a much older suitor. On a stormy night, Peter heads to her family home in Berkeley Square; he is seen getting out of his carriage but when the front door is opened, no one is there. Exactly 149 years later to the date, in 1933, Peter Standish, a descendent of the 1784 Peter, has taken possession of the Pettigrew house and has been poring over the diaries of his ancestor, becoming obsessed with the past to the point where his fiancĂ©e Marjorie is worried about his well-being. A somewhat dazed Peter tells the American ambassador that he is convinced that if he arrives at the house at 5:30 that afternoon, he will walk into the house as it was in 1784 and appear as the 1784 Peter. Sure enough, that's what happens. At first, a comedy of errors plays out as Peter gets used to their unusual customs—they don't shake hands, they take snuff—and occasionally makes a fool of himself when he seems to know things about the future (he mention Kate's birthday present of a shawl before it is given to her, and refers to tanks, which haven't been invented yet). He passes off a series of Oscar Wilde's aphorisms at a party to appear witty, and quotes Abraham Lincoln in conversation. Knowing the diary by heart, he tries to make sure that he doesn't change history in any way, but he falls in love with Helen, even though he knows that Peter is fated to marry Kate. When Peter tells Helen his story, she looks into his eyes and sees a montage of future world events which scares her. Eventually, Peter is acting so strangely that one character approaches him with two candles in the form of a crucifix, to perform an exorcism. Peter decides that since he can't have Helen, he will go back to 1933; she gives him an Egyptian ankh of hers to take back, something he remembers seeing back in the house in the present, and tells him they will meet again "in God’s time." When he returns, he decides not to marry Marjorie, and instead to live alone until death at which point he will be reunited with Helen.

This rarely-seen film, thought lost until the 70s, is a gentle, occasionally whimsical, romantic, melodramatic fantasy (enough adjectives for you?) along the lines of the later PORTRAIT OF JENNIE. No explanation is given for how Peter travels in time—he presents to the ambassador a view that time is like a river and events can be returned to—and the presence of the ankh would seem to indicate that his adventure wasn't just a dream. Peter comes to realize that the past, without modern customs and conveniences, isn't quite as appealing to live in as he thought it would be. But he also essentially gives up on life to await death and a possible though not guaranteed reunion with his would-be love—to be in love with an idea or a memory is easier than with a real person, a philosophy also touched on in JENNIE. The film jolts back and forth between humor and pathos, but the prevailing tone is a kind of amorphous tragic sadness. Leslie Howard is very good as both Peters, and Heather Angel (pictured with Howard) is equally fine as Helen. Valerie Taylor is fine as Kate, and Colin Keith-Johnston is amusing as the obnoxious Pettigrew brother, who tells his sister that "[all you women] are alike in the dark." A must-see for fans of gentle, whimsical, romantic, melodramatic fantasy. [TCM]

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