Thursday, February 7, 2013

Berkeley Square

Last July when Leslie Howard was TCM Star of the Month, I briefly mentioned the movie Berkeley Square, which I had not seen before. It's not available on DVD, so you're going to have to catch it whenever it shows up on TV, which is quite infrequently. Indeed, I can't remember ever seeing it in the Fox Movie Channel schedule, and I think last July's TCM showing was a premiere for TCM. It's getting another airing on TCM tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM, and is well worth a viewing if you didn't catch it back in July.

Leslie Howard stars as Peter Standish, who at the beginning of the film is an American just arrived in the UK in 1784, which of course is just after the Americans finished winning the war for independence against the UK. Peter's survived the war well and come out of it fairly wealthy, but he's got family in the UK who haven't. They, however, have something Peter doesn't have, which is high social standing, which is why he's come to London to see them and perhaps find himself a high-class wife. In fact, Lady Kate (Valerie Taylor) is being persuaded by the rest of her family that Peter would be a good man to marry if he should propose to her. Kate's got a sister Helen (Heather Angel) who's also being pursued by a wealthy man, Mr. Throstle (Ferdinand Gottschalk). Throstle isn't exactly the man any woman would want to marry, but he's got money, and that would solve the family's financial problems.

All of a sudden, the movie fast forwards to 1933, which is the present day in that Berkeley Square was released in 1933. Another Peter Standish, again played by Leslie Howard, is in the same house as the one the Standish of 1784 was on his way to to see his British relatives. In the meantime, modern-day Peter Standish has inherited the house. Having inherited it, he's interested in the history of he place, specifically what happened with all those relatives back in the 1780s. His fiancée Marjorie (Betty Lawford) is concerned with Standish's interest in the past, in that it seems as though he's more interested in the past than the present day. It turns out that she has good reason for her concern. Modern day Peter believes he might actually be able to travel back in time to those days in the 1780s.

Sure enough, he does. The scene flashes back to 1784. Everything looks much as we left it when the film jumped from 1784 to 1933, with one big exception, which is Peter. The Peter Standish now in 1784 isn't the original Peter Standish of 1784, but the Standish of 1933, who has all of the knowledge of the 150 years between those two dates. This is a big problem, because of course modern-day Peter doesn't belong in 1784. He doesn't talk like a man of the 18th century, and having read the diaries that his 1780s relatives left, he can see the future, which unsurprisingly frightens them. Worst of all is the fact that 1933 Peter falls in love not with Kate, but with Helen.

Berkeley Square is a film with an interesting premise. Howard does quite a good job with what is for all intents and purposes a dual role. Everybody else is OK, but they're all on screen in service of Howard. The one real problem Berkeley Square has is that, based on a stage play (and adapted for the screen by the playwright himself), it sometimes comes across as stagey and hidebound, much like Howard's earlier Outward Bound. But at least Outward Bound had the excuse of having been made back in 1930, which in many ways was still the infancy of the sound film era, when filmmakers were still figuring out how to use the medium to best advantage, and there were still technival problems. Berkeley Square, on the other hand, was released in the same year as Dinner at Eight, which I believe doesn't have a single exterior scene but still doesn't feel very much like a stage play. But that's a minor flaw. Berkeley Square is very much a worthy movie.

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