Sort of a pre-Code precursor to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), with Lee Tracy wishing he could go back and do it all over again, not to save himself, but to to make himself rich. It’s March 6, 1933. FDR has just taken office, the bank holiday is on, and old hometown acquaintance Ted Wright (Otto Kruger) happens upon Joe Gimlet (Tracy) behind the counter of his cigar store. Ted winds up making Joe an investment offer he can't refuse, not this time.
Joe does all right for himself. He has his little cigar shop in New York City; a loving wife, Mary (Mae Clarke); and $4,000 in savings, at a time so many movies followed characters who could barely scrape together four cents. But Joe made a mistake once—at least that’s how he sees it—and let common sense get in the way of a million dollar opportunity. Ted’s visit reminds Joe of his past, especially since Ted has married Elvina (Peggy Shannon), the hometown girl whose father had offered Joe opportunity when he was a youth. Ted offers him another chance, an opportunity for Joe to turn his $4,000 into $20,000, maybe even $100k in just a few more months. Joe is sold on Ted's offer, but Mary puts the brakes on the idea.
The more Joe drinks, the more insistent he is about Ted’s offer, but Mary refuses to relent. Back in their little apartment over the cigar store, Joe cuts into Mary, telling her he gave up everything for her and accusing her of being afraid. “If I had my life to live over again,” Joe says, “I’d go after the dough, that’s what I’d do. Get myself some real happiness.” He stumbles out of their apartment and into the city streets, where he's run down by a car.
Joe continues to mumble about what might have been as he's anesthetized at the hospital. He full of anger and regret as he goes under, plus there’s that booze, and the trauma from the accident, all swirling around Joe’s head and over our screen, as he gets his wish and is taken back in time. He arrives at his boyhood home about twenty years younger, his hair darker, his mother (Clara Blandick) in the kitchen, and the other Roosevelt President. He’s quickly aware of what’s happening, to a degree at least, believing it’s really his second chance and determined to make good this time. He remembers events, even if he’s a little hazy about the dates, and he uses this foreknowledge to make himself rich, presuming happiness will follow.
Turn Back the Clock is a 79-minute movie, and Joe spends about an hour of that in the past, beginning at the fifteen-minute mark.
His first order of business is to accept the opportunity that Elvina’s father (George Barbier) offers. At first he mocks the idea, it still doesn't sound quite right to him, but he catches himself in time to invest everything he has in Evergreen Development. This land deal leads to his marrying Elvina instead of Mary, who winds up hitched to Ted Wright in this version of events. “I can’t afford to make the same mistake twice,” Joe explains to Mary, but Joe is the only one clued into his dream state, so much of what he says sounds strange to others. Even so, Mary still has sense enough to warn him, “Money won’t bring you happiness, Joe.”
But Joe’s well on his way to being a big man now. He parlays his earnings from the Evergreen property into commercial air travel and then, after a meeting with Mr. Henry Cord (Carl Stockdale), whose name and ideas sound familiar (I imagine MGM's legal department turned Ford into Cord), makes a fortune in automobiles.
On the eve of the First World War, Joe makes a deal with Holmes (C. Henry Gordon), a business acquaintance of his father-in-law, to buy up trucks for use in the coming war effort that only Joe yet knows about. Holmes begins an affair with Elvina, but Joe is wise to his wife’s infidelity from the start. On the verge of a split, the White House calls. President Wilson recognizes Joe as a visionary and appoints him head of the War Industry Board. Now Joe is stuck with unfaithful Elvina, unable to afford a scandal because of his new position.
Life moves forward with Joe taking advantage of every potential profit-making scheme that he can recall from his advantaged position. After the war he becomes a banker, riding the wave of national prosperity to even greater fortune. Elvina never takes him very seriously, close enough to recognize Joe as void of actual skill or insight, just a common man with the dumbest luck imaginable.
Towards the end of the decade Joe runs into Ted, living Joe’s old life at the cigar shop in New York, with Mary tucked away in the apartment above the store. He makes Ted the same investment offer that Mary wouldn’t let him accept, only this time she leaps at the opportunity. As their lives touch again, Joe begins to see what he gave up in order to chase the dollar.
When 1929 rolls around Elvina pays only the slightest lip service to Joe’s warnings about the stock market, and initiates a personal financial disaster that turns Joe’s dreams into a nightmare, worsening as the calendar pages flip closer to that inevitable date, March 6, 1933, when Joe began this journey.
An unusual role for Lee Tracy, who usually just had to talk more and talk louder to plow his characters towards their goals on their own terms. In Turn Back the Clock the accident takes control away from Tracy, and his usual tricks only drive his character towards the ultimate realization of the error of his ways. He’s still a loudmouth, a braggart, even a drunkard, but Tracy’s Joe Gimlet already has what he needed from the start of Turn Back the Clock: his wife, Mary. Given an opportunity to improve his station, even in a dream state, Joe can only bully his way so far. He can’t buck the truth. He was cut out for exactly what he got the first time through, he just needed a little help seeing that was the case, and that it was good.
The Three Stooges, Larry, Curley, and Moe, show up for a brief, non-comedic bit, singing at Joe and Elvina's wedding.
Ben Hecht is co-credited on the screenplay along with director Edgar Selwyn, a fascinating figure from stage and screen history.
While Selwyn directed a handful of interesting films at MGM in the early ‘30s, titles like War Nurse (1930), The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), Skyscraper Souls (1932), and Men Must Fight (1933), his origins were Broadway, where he was a major actor by the turn of the century, then also playwright, director, and producer. He and his brother, Arch, formed a partnership with Samuel Goldfish in Hollywood, combining their motion picture production companies, and names, to form Goldwyn Pictures Corporation in 1916. Mr. Goldfish wound up co-opting the company’s name as his own. By the time of his death in 1944, Selwyn had been working for MGM sixteen years, still writing, producing, and directing films. More on Selwyn through some vintage clippings here.
Framing its passage back in time with the contemporary tumult of the bank holiday and FDR's first few days in office, Turn Back the Clock offers a unique perspective of the preceding twenty years from the eyes of a Great Depression everyman, who still has something, but wonders if there should have been more. Joe Gimlet is better off financially than typical downtrodden Depression-era movie heroes, doing about as well as many of the paying theater customers. He’s common, the average man of his time, surrounded by panic and chaos (even if it's of his own making), but surviving. Still, what if he had the chance to do it all over again?
My IMDb rating: 8/10.