Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Anybody who says, "I have no regrets" is either a liar or Ivanka Trump, who made that grand pronouncement at the age of 17. (Being born to a multi-millionaire and whose future was assured when she was still an embryo -- and she had no regrets?  My hat's off to her.) Everybody plays the old "what if" game. I do it all the time. What if I hadn't started losing my hair 30 years ago? What if I had become an over-priced plumber instead of a blogger? What if I had been one of the cool kids instead of watching old movies that no one else my age had the slightest interest in?

At this point, my wife is probably wondering, What if I had thought twice about accepting a first date with my husband? And so the fantasies begin, spinning like a pinwheel, creating a new life where all is perfect, every move is charmed and each strand of hair in place. In movies, however, the fantasies turn out badly so as to make the audience feel better about themselves -- and the moviemakers better about their great lives. I can't swear Turn Back the Clock was the first "if I could do it all again" picture, but I'd have to go back in time to be sure.

Joe Gimlet, the owner of a cigar store, is visited by an old friend, Ted Wright, now a multimillionaire banker married to Joe's former girlfriend, Elvina. When Joe's wife, Mary, refuses Ted's offer to invest their $4000 savings for a
"There's no place like the past... there's no place
like the past..."
"guaranteed" $20,000 return, Joe walks out and is hit by a car. While under anesthesia, Joe gets his drunken wish to live his life over again.
(The visuals for Joe's trip to dreamland would be replicated in The Wizard of Oz six years later -- minus the tornado and Toto.) If this had happened to me every time I was visited by a rich friend from the old days, I'd have my own wing at New York Presbyterian Hospital. That's why I stay home and curse the bathroom mirror.

Joe gets to return home and get nagged
by Mom all over again.
One by one, Joe's wishes come true. He marries Elvina, becomes a partner in her father's real estate business, and focuses on making money. Lots of money. Enough to give away a million dollars to veterans, which doesn't sit well with Elvina. Joe's predictions of World War I land him a job as a presidential advisor... which he loses when he starts stepping on the toes of war profiteers. (Presidential advisors have not repeated that mistake since.) But so busy has he been trying to make money that Elvina begins an affair with a banker named Holmes, with whom she secretly invests her and Joe's life savings right before the '29 Crash -- the Crash that Joe warned her was coming. Message to you ladies out there: Your husband knows best. Listen to him.

Joe, by the way, figured out that Elvina was having an affair when he found one of Holmes' shoes in their living room -- which means the guy must have walked out with one shoeless foot. Speaking strictly as a movie fan, this was a plot device, I believe, that could have used a little work.

"You dressed a little better
when we were married, but
I forgive you."

Joe finally realizes how how badly he's messed up his life when he drops by his old cigar store -- now owned by Joe Wright, who's, of course, married to Mary. Joe, it seems, never really quite stopped loving Mary. And it's Mary he turns to when his banking partners, who have been ripping off the business, hang him out to dry when the Feds come calling. That's like a man, right? When the chips are down, go back to the woman that you dumped for the hot cookie. Joe wants her to run away with him to Athens (Athens?), but Mary -- who's always loved him -- refuses to leave her stogie-salesman husband. Message to the men: You're all the same, you bastards.

The Cabinet of Dr. Gimlet
In the resulting nightmarish, layer-upon-layer montage that wouldn't have looked out of place in an old Ufa psychological drama, Joe is chased by what appears to be every Tommy-gun-toting cop in New York. After escaping a firing squad, Joe runs into a cabal of cops who proceed to beat the living crap out of him... just as he awakens in his hospital room with Mary, Ted and Elvina at his side. Relieved that he's still married to Mary, he sighs, "I wouldn't change places with Ted Wright for a million dollars." Easy for the writers to say.

Much of Turn Back the Clock's success is attributable to Lee Tracy (as Joe Gimlet), the cynical, fast-talking actor previously discussed in Washington Merry-Go-Round.  Tracy, while forgotten by all but the most die-hard movie fans, is ironically probably the most representative of the early '30s acting style: snappy, sardonic, self-confident -- James Cagney without the rough edges. Somebody give this guy a film festival.

Not just knuckleheads.
A welcome surprise is the brief appearance by The Three Stooges as the singing trio performing at Joe and Elvina's wedding -- a rare M-G-M appearance without their mentor, Ted Healy. It's the closest they came to a "straight" part -- no comedy, just the three-part harmony Stooges fans will recognize when they would occasionally break out into "You'll Never Know Just What Tears Are," a parody of barbershop-harmony tearjerkers they wrote with Healy. Here, Moe and Larry sport early 20th-century haircuts while Curley, as usual, is tennis-ball bald.

At least one star of Turn Back the Clock, Peggy Shannon (Elvina), might have wanted to turn back the clock herself. Her entry on imdb.com is something out of Hollywood Babylon: "From 1937, her career was increasingly afflicted by alcoholism. On May 11, 1941, Shannon's second husband, Albert G. Roberts, and his friend found [her] slumped over the kitchen table dead with her head down on her arms, a cigarette in her mouth, and an empty glass in her hand. 19 days after Shannon's death, Roberts fatally shot himself right on the spot where she died."

Turn Back the Clock's cast and fascinating script (by Edgar Selwyn and Ben Hecht) are superlative, even if its basic storyline contains nothing really surprising: Man is tired of his middle-class life, wishes he could live it all again a different way, realizes he had it better before. You could reach into a box of Twilight Zone episodes and find the same thing. It's the movie's little details still ring true today: Discussions regarding high unemployment, low wages and war profiteers. Investors ripping off their clients. The lead character complaining, in the very first line of dialogue, about the President fixing the economy by "trying to get the banks out of a jam -- what about the rest of us?" If nothing else, Turn Back the Clock proves that absolutely nothing has changed in the last 80 years. Message to everybody: We're screwed.


To read about Lee Tracy's savage political exposé Washington Merry-Go-Round, click here.

No clips of the Stooges' appearance in Turn Back the Clock are online, so here's a montage of some of their performances of "You'll Never Know Just What Tears Are" throughout the years:

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