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Berkeley Square (1933)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

BERKELEY SQUARE (1933)

Starring: Leslie Howard, Heather Angel, Valerie Taylor, Irene Browne, Beryl Mercer, Colin Keith-Johnston

Written By: John L. Balderston (also play), Sonya Levien Directed By: Frank Lloyd

The Short Version

Remade often, but this version’s a rarity.

The concept of time travel takes a very de-romanticized turn in the midst of a romance.

A rather influential writer counted Berkeley Square as his favorite film.

The story’s cooked unevenly, but the ending’s got punch.

If you do run across Berkeley Square, it’s worth your time to watch.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

RED LEICESTER.

Flavorful but a bit crumbly.  Interesting.


Pairs Well With...

NEWCASTLE BROWN ALE.

Also known as “one way to deal with unexpected time travel if you’re not the guy who planned the trip.”

“This was our parting.”


In 1933, a short story writer went to see a movie called Berkeley Square.  The writer was enthralled by the way that the film (itself based on a play which in turn was based on an unfinished novel by Henry James) dealt with the subject of time travel; particularly with how it could be accomplished through what amounted to two “souls” from different times exchanging bodies.  It was a theme that he’d already explored himself in a story about a character named Charles Dexter Ward.

The writer, of course, was HP Lovecraft, and though he considered Berkeley Square to be flawed, he never the less saw it four times, and counted it as his favorite film.  It was, he said, “the most weirdly perfect embodiment of my own moods and pseudo-memories that I have ever seen – for all my life I have felt as if I might wake up out of this dream of an idiotic Victorian Age and insane Jazz Age into the sane reality of 1760 or 1770 or 1780.”  He’d later go on to ‘correct’ what he considered the movie’s ‘conceptual flaws’ in a novella called “The Shadow Out of Time,” which was directly inspired by Berkeley Square.

Odds are that if you’d heard of Berkeley Square before coming here, it’s because of that Lovecraft connection, unless you’re a fan of actor Leslie Howard (who got a Best Actor nomination for his role in the movie) or of one of this film’s many remakes.  Indeed, for quite some time, this film had essentially disappeared.  It briefly re-emerged on what amounts to a bootleg DVD version, but that quickly dropped from print and from sight.  Only in 2011 did a newly restored 35mm print get to see the light of day at an HP Lovecraft film festival, and Ted Turner’s impressive library finally took it out for its first walk on television in 2012.  To the public at large, Berkeley Square has been what amounts to a “lost” film.

But if you do happen to find it, it’s worth having a look.  (And if you don’t mind less-than-pristine quality, you can do so on YouTube, where it turned up six months ago.)  Not because Berkeley Square is a great film – it isn’t – but because it’s an interesting film, and one that deals with a subject that has since become widely explored, but rarely from this perspective or coming to this story’s conclusions.

Our tale begins the year after the American Revolution has concluded.  Peter Standish (Leslie Howard, The Scarlet Pimpernel), who served in Washington’s army and has a rather large fortune at his disposal, has just arrived in London at the invitation of the family of a distant cousin, Kate Pettigrew (Valerie Taylor, Repulsion), whom it has been all-but-decided that he will marry.  He’s due to arrive at the family home on Berkeley Square (pronounced BARK-ly in the English fashion, rather than BERK-ly in the proper California fashion) at half past five in the evening…

Flash forward 149 years.  Peter Standish (Howard again), descendant of the man we just met, recently inherited the home on Berkeley Square from a distant uncle.  This Standish is himself engaged to be married in a month’s time, but since taking possession of the house, wedding jitters are the furthest thing from his mind.  Having found a vast collection of family documents, including the journal of his lookalike ancestor, he’s become fascinated by the bygone age of Old London, and wishes nothing more than to experience it for himself.  For him, though, this is no idle wish.  Standish is absolutely convinced that if he walks through the front door of the home at Berkeley Square at precisely half past five in the evening 149 years to the day after his own ancestor first arrived, he will be able to step into the past and take his ancestor’s place. 

So, at the precise moment the clock ticks to half past five, he goes through the door…

And what happens next both is and isn’t what most people would expect.  On the one hand, of course he does successfully manage to go back in time; after all, we wouldn’t really have much of a movie if he didn’t.  On the other hand, once the initial joy of having arrived wears off, it doesn’t turn out to be the beautiful experience he was expecting.

Therein lies the true appeal of Berkeley Square.  Yes, the film is unevenly cooked (too thick in some places, too thin in others) and indulges in fits of melodrama, but the base story is fascinating.  It puts forward many questions that other stories of the time – and even most modern ones – fail to consider.  The fact that it doesn’t bother to answer many of them (like the actual mechanism by which time travel is accomplished, for one thing; Standish just “knows” he can do it by going through the door at the right moment) is immaterial and indeed sometimes good;  just bringing up the questions at all is what makes the story interesting.

Consider: Peter Standish has the absolutely ideal backward time travel scenario.  He knows that he will be switching places with a lookalike, which means that he has a readymade identity.  The fact that this lookalike is a foreign newcomer should help with any quirks that he fails to suppress, and the fact that the lookalike is wealthy means that he has few barriers to his explorations.  As a bonus, he also has a complete journal and supporting documentation for what actually occurred during the period of his intended visit, so he knows what must be done to keep up appearances and not mess with historical events.  Aces all the way, right?

You’d think so, but…

What about when one notices that people in the late 18th Century tend to bathe just once a month, if that?

What about when one keeps slipping up by displaying knowledge of things that either haven’t happened yet or which are supposed to still be secret?

What about when others start to notice that one speaks as though everyone else is already dead, and those others start to keep their distance out of fear?

And what if, despite knowing everything that must occur, one continually breaks the chain, most notably by feeling no real attraction toward the woman who is supposed to be one’s betrothed, while being magnetically drawn to the woman’s sister?

Come to think of it, what about the poor sap whom one didn’t bother asking to trade places with ahead of time, and who just suddenly showed up in the future?

All of these points and more are brought up during the course of Berkeley Square, and the answers, when given, are rarely pleasant.  Indeed, even when good things do happen, the price that is paid afterward becomes overwhelming, to the point where when cannot help but conclude that travelling through time… well… sucks.

Rather thought provoking, that.

Certainly, some will be aggravated by the questions that aren’t answered – how time travel is accomplished, why things that should have turned into paradoxes don’t, etc. – but I think the story being told would have been lost had those details been bothered with.  The script for Berkeley Square takes its inquiries just far enough, and with one possible exception that I won’t discuss here for spoiler purposes, doesn’t oversell.

The same cannot be said for the director or the production at large.  Director Frank Lloyd (Mutiny on the Bounty), like many who came into the cinema game from the beginning (his first credit is from 1914), is prone to fits of melodrama, and despite being a fan of the period, I found it silly on more than one occasion.  Berkeley Square is also the victim of a horribly brash and often inappropriate score; again, the bane of many a film from the era, but especially grating given the metaphysical nature of the story being told on the screen. 

The acting from the supporting cast is by and large par for the course, and any problems I had with any portrayals (the obnoxious brother comes to mind) I can’t bring myself to blame the actors for.  On the plus side, Leslie Howard (one of the major heartthrobs of the day) more than holds his own in the starring role, and Heather Angel (Suspicion) is captivating as the leading lady, not only in standard terms for an actress playing the romantic interest, but also for how she conveys the metaphysical aspects of the story.  Indeed, she’s the one who carries them the farthest, and when all is said and done, it’s her performance that grabbed me the most.

The more I really think about Berkeley Square, the more I like it.  I admit that I was skeptical at first – the first few scenes can feel like slow going until one realizes how valuable their setup is after the fact – but by the time the credits rolled, that had changed, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the movie since.  It’s far from perfect; there are several things that grated at me, but I can easily set those aside for the thought-provoking stuff at this story’s core.

Bottom line, whether or not you’re intrigued by HP Lovecraft’s fascination with Berkeley Square, if you have any interest in classic cinema or in the subject of time travel, this movie’s worth checking out.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, July, 2012


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