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2008 Films 5) Time Flies

5) Time Flies (1944)

I acquired this as part of one of my current Speshul Prodgekts; also because my father occasionally reminisced about seeing it as a teenager when it first came out. It is a very early example of an explicitly sfnal British film; I have seen it claimed as the first ever commercial movie featuring time travel a time machine - my cursory researches so far haven't turned up any earlier example, but I'm sure someone will put me right.

The film is basically a vehicle for Tommy Handley, who ruled supreme as the best known British radio comedian of the 1940s. The script is by three standard Handley writers, Ted Kavanagh, J.O.C. Orton and Howard Irving Young (Young's other credits, interestingly, include a 1931 play about television and a 1950 film called The Flying Saucer). This one was not a huge success, and helped kill the career of director Walter Forde and ensured that Handley stuck to radio. It was also the last film ever made by leading lady Evelyn Dall, who is one of the best things in it; apparently she is still living in Arizona, aged 90.

Handley stars as a disreputable Englishman in New York in 1943, who together with two American showbiz friends gets swept back to Elizabethan England in Professor MacAndrew's Time Ball. There is so much here that seems like a taproot text for Doctor Who that I am really surprised not to have seen it mentioned anywhere else. Felix Aylmer, as Professor MacAndrew, is closer to Peter Cushing than William Hartnell, but the resemblance to both is unmistakeable. As the Time Ball takes off, its passengers collapse, incapacitated, just as Ian and Barbara do in An Unearthly Child. There are scenes with Shakespeare, and Queen Elizabeth I, which must surely have been at the back of Terry Nation's mind as he wrote The Chase.

Having said that, this is a 1940s film, and our protagonists several times escape certain doom by breaking into song, helped by the fact that one of the local troubadours looks like jazz violinist Stéphane Grapelli (because he is jazz violinist Stephane Grapelli). I was quite impressed by the attention to scientific and historical detail in the first half of the film - MacAndrew's mutterings about space-time curvature are perfectly respectable, and Shakespeare is accurately depicted working on Romeo and Juliet immediately after Love's Labour's Lost - but then they bring in Pocahontas and Captain John Smith twenty-five years too early, which rather kills any pretensions to accuracy but possibly helped it in the American market.

The film is a curio. The spell of Tommy Handley as a cult figure dissipated almost six decades ago, and today's viewer will wonder why we are supposed to think it is funny. But anyone interested in the development of sf, especially in Britain and/or the cinema in the 1940s, should seek it out.

Quotes from the film (courtesy of IMDB)

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drasecretcampus
Oct. 19th, 2008 11:17 am (UTC)
Wordsworth Donisthorpe - a textile magnate who almost certainly filmed in Trafalgar Square in 1890, five years before the Lumiere brothers developed their camera - saw film as a time machine. In 1898 he writes:
Shall we never be able to glide back up the stream of Time, and peep in the old home, and gaze on old faces? Perhaps when the phonograph and the kinesigraph are perfected, and some future worker has solved the problem of colour-photography, our descendants will be able to deceive themselves with something very like it: but it will be but a barren husk, a soulless phantasm and nothing more.

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