“You only live once” is not a phrase that applies to Joe Gimlet (Lee Tracy), a middle-aged New York man who runs a cigar shop.

(Image via eBay)
(Image via eBay)

One day, his shop is visited by Ted Wright (Otto Kruger), an old friend from childhood in the small town of Corliss. Ted has had much better fortune than Joe and works as a bank president.

Ted and his wife Elvina (also a former Corliss resident, portrayed by Peggy Shannon) host dinner for Joe and his wife Mary (Mae Clarke) that night. When Ted learns that Joe has a savings of $4,000, he offers to invest it an earn five times that amount for Joe within a few months.

Mary isn’t crazy about the idea; she and a drunken Joe argue about it when they return home, and he storms out. When he wakes up, he’s in his childhood home… and seems to have travelled back in time to when he was a young man! With the chance to do it all over again, what will he do differently?

Edgar Selwyn directs 1933’s Turn Back the Clock. Selwyn also co-wrote the script with Ben Hecht.

Films following characters who have the chance to re-do their lives aren’t exactly uncommon. The idea is fascinating to explore, and it has been explored many times by Hollywood. Turn Back the Clock does a nice job with the concept, from Joe’s inability to keep his mouth shut regarding the future* to showcasing the impact his changed decisions have on his life and happiness.

*Joe “predicts” a second Roosevelt president and a World War in conversation after going back in time, much to the confusion of his family and friends.

The plot has an element of fantasy as Joe is given the opportunity to hop twenty years back in time, but there are no frills or fancy special effects used to portray his journey, which makes it seem much less like a dream. Lee Tracy portrays Joe at all ages, for example, as opposed to using a younger actor with voice-over narration of the thoughts running through his middle-aged brain. Throughout most of the film, we’re just watching his day-to-day life as he finds the wealth and power he thought he wanted; the telling of his tale is very straight-forward, with the focus on drama rather than the fantasy element.

(Image via Hollywood Revue)
(Image via Hollywood Revue)

In terms of performance, none of the film’s players are particularly powerful, though they all fill their roles well. The film could benefit from a greater level of emotional impact — and perhaps a different leading man, since Tracy’s performance came across to me as quite average. The women in Joe’s life (Mae Clarke and Peggy Shannon) have much more charisma than their leading man and deliver performances suited to the subtlety of the storytelling.

Turn Back the Clock could be better, but it isn’t a bad watch. This will be of particular interest to those who enjoy the “life do-over” niche of the fantasy genre, for it tells a familiar story with a familiar message, but doesn’t feel like a carbon copy of any other film. The score: 3/5