Peter Standish (Leslie Howard), an American, is heading to England in 1784 to marry his cousin. He hears of a miraculous balloon crossing of the English Channel by a Frenchman, and expresses a bit of dismay over the fact that he won’t live to see all of the future’s marvelous inventions.
Flash forward to 1933 and Peter’s ancestor, also named Peter Standish (and also portrayed by Leslie Howard), has just inherited a house in London’s Berkeley Square. Discovering his ancestor’s diary, 1933 Peter becomes obsessive and is convinced that he will soon travel back to 1784.
His outlandish prediction is correct. He opens the door to the home and is taken back to he 1700s, where he finds the Pettigrews – Lady Ann (Irene Browne), Tom (Colin Keith-Johnston), Kate (Valerie Taylor) and Helen (Heather Angel) – who owned the house at that time. Kate is the cousin that 1784 Peter was meant to marry, and the family is anxious to meet Peter, hoping that he’ll save them from their financial woes.
Peter attempts to follow the old journal so he doesn’t accidentally change the course of history, but a hitch is thrown into his plan when he ends up falling for Helen. His ancestral relatives also become increasingly suspicious of his lack of knowledge of 18th century customs (which leads to both hilarious and dramatic reactions to his presence).
Frank Lloyd (1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty, 1940’s The Howards of Virginia) directs Berkeley Square, a fantastical, funny romance based on the play by John L. Balderston.
Based on my own viewing experience, it seems that time travel wasn’t too common a subject in Hollywood in the 1930s (though it is possible that I just haven’t discovered those films yet!), which makes the premise of this film highly intriguing. Luckily, the film does live up to the potential of its premise. Rather than going super sci-fi and falling into a vat of cheese by favoring flashy special effects, time travel is treated as a simple procedure – as simple as walking through a door. The mood is one of charm and excitement rather than so-bad-it’s-hilarious fantasy.
The potential for sci-fi cheese is also squashed by Howard’s understated performance, for which he secured an Oscar nomination. His face shines with the wonderment and excitement of the scenario, but he doesn’t go over-the-top, which increases the believability of the unbelievable situation at hand. The performances of the entire cast are solid, but with Howard’s star shining so bright here, there is little room for stand-out performances aside from his own.
The premise also sets the film up for a bit of suspense, which lurks in the back of the viewer’s mind throughout the film’s duration. Will Peter be found out? If so, how long will it take, and how will the Pettigrews react? Will he accidentally change the course of history?
Also a plus are the wardrobes, styling and set design which are perfectly suited to both of the film’s respective time periods. The 1700s sets and costumes are particularly eye-catching, often featuring elaborate detailing.
I’m not well-versed enough in 1700s fashion to determine the historical accuracy of these costumes, but there are a few nice touches in the film that put the attitudes and ideas of that time period on full display. One such is the treatment of Howard’s character as a sorcerer or “man of the devil” as the family becomes suspicious of his actions. It was common in many periods of history, before science and knowledge became so widely available and advanced as they are now, to blame anything out of the ordinary on the supernatural, or on the devil.
Berkeley Square is an underrated, forgotten and nearly lost film that is well worth the viewer’s time. The unusual premise is backed up successfully by a fun, witty script with hints of drama throughout.
The score: 4/5