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Fantasia Obscura: ‘I’ll Never Forget You’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you can bring a favorite of yours up-to-date…

I’ll Never Forget You [aka The House in the Square and Man of Two Worlds] (1951)
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Directed by: Roy Ward Baker

“What, again…?”

After a while, most folks who watch movies will say this with annoying regularity. There may indeed be nothing new under the sun, but after a while, the number of remakes foisted onto you gets to be wearying, especially when they retitle the remake.

It’s easy to avoid any remake that uses the same, but all those switch-and-bait retitles, not so much. Somehow, we get The Bishop’s Wife as The Preacher’s Wife. Despite our best efforts, we get Wings of Desire as City of Angels. There’s really no reason why we needed to have The Absent-Minded Professor again as Flubber.

However, you can also have some successes, like The Seven Samurai giving us The Magnificent Seven, Mystery of the Wax Museum inspiring House of Way (just the first one, not the remake of the remake), or Yojimbo leading to Last Man Standing.

Which makes every second trip a film maker takes to the well such a crapshoot. Will it be a cheap cash grab, or a film that can stand on its own?

How about something that just lands in the middle that manages to justify itself at points, like this one…?

We open after the credits in the present day at a nuclear research facility in England. We watch as an experiment is carried out to assess whether two unnamed radioactive elements can exist in close proximity to each other without breaking down.

The scientist in charge of carrying out the work, Dr. Peter Standish (Tyrone Power), is a brilliant physicist who’s there after establishing himself at MIT and Los Alamos. Brilliant, but a bit of a loose cannon; in the middle of the experiment he’s conducting with his colleague Roger Forsyth (Michael Rennie), he ignores warnings from his supervisor not to proceed with the test, as you really can’t move fast and break things when working with radioactive isotopes…

The results of Standish’s actions are that he gets his data without blowing up the facility, and suspended from doing any more experiments so that he doesn’t get another shot at doing so. His supervisors pull Forsyth aside and ask him if he could persuade Standish to take a few weeks off, as he’s the chap who is closest to him. Forsyth agrees, even though “close” is a relativistic concept regarding Standish…

Forsyth drives Standish to his place, where we discover he lives in a swanky townhouse on Berkeley Square in the West End. Standish notes that the house was left to him by an ancestor, named Pettigrew, who kept the place most of it the way it was in 1784, consenting only to plumbing and electrification.

When Forsyth comments about the portrait above the fireplace looking both a lot like Standish in the style of Joshua Reynolds, Standish shares his plans: He is taking a few weeks off… to go back to 1784! Claiming that time is not strictly linear and invoking special relativity, he believes- no, knows that he’s going back there very shortly. And he’s looking forward to the time displacement, having studied extensively everything he could about his ancestor, including a copy of the diary the 1784 Standish kept.

A storm rolls in, cutting the power. Standish knows he’s going back soon, though not how. He says goodbye to Forsyth and sees him to his car, ignoring his colleague’s please not to go back into the house. When Standish is alone, the door to the house blows shut just as he’s struck by lightning, and faster than you can sing “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” we’re in an entirely different place.

Not only is Standish now dressed as someone from 1784, he’s in color! Why we get the film’s present in black and white and then go to Technicolor from this point forward is an interesting directorial choice, but what it implies isn’t entirely clear. (Reportedly, Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck acknowledged that yes, he was inspired by The Wizard of Oz to have the film do this, so for all we know it may have been an act of the production company’s whimsy…)

Standish enters the house, now very much in both the 19th Century and Technicolor, where he follows the outline of his ancestor’s history. He’s come to the house fresh after his sojourn to America, the residence of Lady Anne Pettigrew (Irene Browne). According to the diary, Standish’s itinerary in London includes meeting and marrying Lady Anne’s daughter Kate (Beatrice Campbell).

One thing he doesn’t count on, however is meeting Kate’s sister Helen (Ann Blyth). While the OG Standish had written down a lot about Kate and her rakish brother Tom (Dennis Price), he never gave the younger sister much thought, which leaves the future Standish unprepared as he falls in love with her. This gets even more convoluted, when faster than you can sing “Satisfied” from Hamilton, we find out that she feels the same way about him.

This is just one more complication atop many others Standish faces during his trip to the past. He’s not prepared for how filthy London is in 1784, nor how backwards people are around him. And when he gets a chance to do one of the items on his “must-do” list, having a conversation with Dr. Samuel Johnson (an uncredited Robert Atkins), in the company of the Duchess of Devonshire no less (an uncredited Kathleen Byron), he makes them uncomfortable with his reverence of them from the future, coming off like a fanboy camped out in Hall H at SDCC…

Standish, seeing the past up close and not liking it, does what any good time traveler does and leaves to go back to his own time tries to bootstrap Georgian England. He works on trying to build Atomic Age inventions out of the materials at hand, at one point showing off to Helen how he’s going to rock her world in more ways than one…

Speaking of major changes, this is one of the many ways this story differs from the source materials. The film is a remake of the movie Berkeley Square from 1933, which ironically also had Irene Browne playing Lady Anne, the only direct connection these two films share. The 1933 movie starred Leslie Howard, who had the role of Peter Standish in the 1929 Broadway play of the same name. These in turn were adaptations of The Sense of the Past, an unfinished novel by Henry James published after his death in 1917. (Henry James gets a shout-out in I’ll Never Forget You when Standish misattributes a simile to the author while discussing time travel with Forsyth.)

In this version of the story, the science fiction elements figure more prominently. In fact, the “how” and “why” were barely touched upon before 1951; in those, Standish just switched places with his ancestor with less fuss than Sam Beckett leaping into another body in the past. While retaining the original works’ comedy of manners and wistfulness for the past, this film tries to deal with some considerations about time travel, such as:

How did Standish find the way to just will himself back to that time? If it was just intense study and force of will, inferred from the way he discusses his plan, does that mean anyone can just move through 4D?

(Insert reference to Somewhere in Time here…)

If Standish was able to go because he felt he had to follow his ancestor’s diary, does he have room to actually change the past? If he tries, wouldn’t causality prevent him from doing so, lest he’s unable to unlock the secret to time travel in the first place?

And what happens if he can change the past, especially by introducing advanced technology to an empire about to fight Napoleon, and along the way the U.S. for a second time?

Speaking of dangerous second encounters, the film has little time to consider these questions, much the same way that the movie had a very brief release window. Fox pretty well buried the picture, coming as it did to a studio famous for their “feast-and-famine” performances during a lean time. Critics who still thought fondly of Leslie Howard would go out of the way to point out that the 1951 movie was nothing like the prior production, calling the later film inferior.

But when you ignore the comparisons to the 1933 film, the movie finds its own legs and can be seen on its own terms. It has a supporting cast that is quite game and makes up for some of the lack of engagement Power and Blyth have with their parts, and the script by Ranald MacDougall is treated well under Baker’s direction. If anything, one’s more likely to enjoy the film if you forget or were never introduced to Berkeley Square.

The movie, a solid if incomplete time travel story, is certainly good enough as is, worth at least one viewing. Whether you want to see it again, or not, well-l-l-l…

 

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