If John L. Balderston is remembered at all, it’s thanks to screenwriting credits on 1930s Universal horror pictures (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein) which were multi-authored and owe little of their personality to the writing. He went to Hollywood off the back of Broadway success and was often assigned theatrical or classic adaptations like The Prisoner of Zenda, The Last of the Mohicans and Gaslight. In 1933, he scripted this version of his biggest stage hit, a timeslip historical romance (based on the unfinished Henry James novel The Sense of the Past) which has entered the genre gene-pool to influence Jack Finney, Rod Serling, Richard Matheson and many others.
Mounted for Fox with then-prestigious Frank Lloyd (coming off the Oscar-winning Cavalcade) as director and hot import Leslie Howard (who’d done the play) to star, it’s coffined by respectability in a way that, say, Frankenstein isn’t. It feels as if Balderston took the movie money and made as few changes as possible to the play, though a prologue which slightly confuses things is an addition and there’s one cinematic montage as an 18th Century woman has a vision of the hectic years to come. Snipping news footage and headlines together to provide a sense of the world speeding through history towards disaster has been done many, many times since – and the convention almost certainly begins here.
The prologue introduces periwigged, monied American patriot Peter Standish (Howard, not even trying to modify his Anglo-Hungarian cut-glass accent), who has just crossed the Atlantic from the newly-independent United States, intent on meeting and probably marrying Kate (Valerie Taylor), daughter of well-born, financially struggling Lady Ann Pettigrew (Irene Browne). The Pettigrews at least have a good address, and a younger daughter Helen (Heather Angel) pursued by a middle-aged, reasonably affluent creep Mr Throstle (Ferdinand Gottschalk). Then, in a sudden segue that Lloyd doesn’t make as magical as it should be, we clumsily leap to the present day and Peter’s like-named, lookalike descendant (Howard again) in the same house, regarding a Reynolds portrit of his ancestor and out of sorts with the times and his modern fiancee Marjorie (Betty Lawford).
Like Lost Horizon and Brigadoon and several other popular fantasies, this has a get-away-from-the-miseries-of-civilisation theme prompted by lingering memories of world wars – which are made explicit in the montage – though the upshot here is that would-be escapees learn that their fantasies become problematic when they get their wish. Modern Peter somehow exchanges places with his ancestor (inhabiting his clothes if not his body) and shows up at the house in Berkeley Square, dry despite the rain outside, in 1784. He throws time on a different track by falling in love not with the suspicious Kate, who comes to think that he’s a wicked wizard, but the more unconventional Helen, which scandalises the family, and prompts Throstle, Lady Ann and others to plot against the obviously odd Peter.
Subsequent time travel stories have made much more of change-the-past paradoxes, and what actually goes on with the fabric of time here is vague (Balderston wasn’t competing with J.B. Priestley, H.G. Wells or J.M. Barrie in that arena) but the love-across-time theme always plays well. Here, Peter wishes for a more genteel era, then finds that he doesn’t like it very much: the money-grasping marriage-arranging world of Jane Austen is nastier when he has to live in it (he writes off Johnsonian witticisms as platitudes), the hygiene standards of 18th Century aren’t to his taste (he goes on about the smell, a detail that would have been cut after the production code came in) and attitudes he didn’t even know he had render him an outcast and a freak in the past.
Howard was a heart-throb in the 1930s, but seems simply whiny now – though the underrated Angel is winsome and winning as the heroine. The big, satisfying scene comes when Peter gets drunk and rails against the 18th Century, letting slip secrets about the future, gets Howard out of his well-spoken smarm mode, and triggers a reverse timeslip. When things are reordered, there’s a hint we could have had an alternate jape about the 18th Century Standish’s exploits in 1933 (running up gambling debts) but – having set him up in the opening – we don’t get any more of this character.
It’s a shame Balderston didn’t have a James Whale to nag him into making his material more cinematic because, for its era, it’s full of cutting edge ideas which would all be elaborated on time and again (including in Jack Finney’s novel Time and Again). The supporting cast makes room for fussy, likeable character bits from Lionel Belmore, Alan Mowbray (as Major William Clinton), Samuel S. Hinds, Beryl Mercer, Olaf Hytten (as Joshua Reynolds) and Juliette Compton (as the Duchess of Devonshire, the Keira Knightley role from The Duchess). The property was remade with Tyrone Power in 1952 as I’ll Never Forget You (aka The House in the Square) and on TV four times in the 1950s with Stanley Ridges, Richard Greene, John Kerr and David Knight — but has since fallen into disuse.