Berkeley Square (1933)
In 1929 Leslie Howard had played the role of Peter Standish on stage with an enormous success both in London and in New York. Actually, he had also co-produced and co-directed the play with Gilbert Miller, and his contribution to the rewriting and mise-en-scène of the play proved fundamental to the success.
The reviews were generally very positive, though some critics found the film adaptation too “theatrical”, too adherent to the stage play and lacking of action. Anyway, the praise for Leslie Howard’s interpretation was unanimous. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
The film was remade in 1951, starring Tyrone Power and Ann Blyth (title: I’ll Never Forget You or The House in the Square).
Berkeley Square was thought to be lost until it was “rediscovered” in the 1970s.
In 1784 Peter Standish, a young American arrives in England to visit his relatives Pettigrews and possibly marry one of his cousins. The Pettigrews, in fact, are overloaded with debts, and look at the possible marriage of Kate with her rich cousin as an advisable solution of their financial problems. At home, in Berkeley Square, London, they are anxiously waiting for Peter’s arrival.
The scene suddenly changes: the house is the same, but it is now owned by another Peter Standish, a descendant of the former Peter. Peter is an architect and is engaged with Marjorie Trent. Marjorie is worried at Peter’s behaviour: he is becoming obsessed with his ancestor’s diaries. When Peter meets the American ambassador for tea, he reveals his belief that when going home that evening, he will be taken back to 1784.
In fact, when Peter goes home, he finds himself at Pettigrew house, where his cousin Kate welcomes him. He then meets lady Ann and two other cousins, Tom and Helen. He soon realizes that he has taken the place of the original Peter, and decides to act accordingly because the history cannot be altered.
At first, Peter is very interested in the simple life his ancestors are living, but he soon starts to feel uneasy with several aspects of the life in the 18th century. Besides, several incidents happen when Peters inadvertently reveals his knowledge of future. The Pettigrews at first are amused by Peter’s unconventional manners, but become soon convinced that he is possessed by demons.
In the end, only Helen is sympathetic with him. They have fallen in love reciprocally, but Peter still fights against his feelings because he knows his ancestor had married Kate. When the situation becomes intolerable, Peter and Helen confess their love for each other. Helen is longing to know her lover’s secret, and she is able to see images of the future in his eyes. Peter is willing to stay with Helen though this means a change in history, but Helen persuades him to go back to his own time.
Peter reluctantly returns to the present. Marjorie and the Ambassador feel relieved, because they had been worried at his behaviour during the last few days. Peter understands that his ancestor has taken his place during his absence.
Peter then goes to Helen’s grave, and find out that she died in 1787, at 23. He says Marjorie that he cannot marry her: he will remain alone, grieving for Helen who assured him that they will be together “in God’s time”.
Berkeley Square is an imaginative, beautiful and well-handled production.
The atmosphere of Berkeley Square, London, is resurrected almost perfectly, as it is today, and presumably as it was in the 18th century. There’s a devotion to detail and atmospherics that is almost painfully exacting.
Leslie Howard in the same role he played on the stage (he produced the stage play [by John L. Balderston] himself) is as near perfection as can be hoped for in screen characterization. The rest of the cast is more than adequate.
Story of Berkeley Square is still another variation on Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Where Twain used the idea of flashing a character into another century for fun. However, Balderston takes the thing very seriously. Balderston’s character, Peter Standish (Howard) moves back into a spot used by one of his forefathers and falls in love with a gal of that period. It’s a new kind of love story.
Heather Angel, as the girl, turns in a splendid performance.
[…] In the matter of poetic charm, nothing quite like it has emerged from Hollywood. It is an example of delicacy and restraint, a picture filled with gentle humor and appealing pathos. […]
This sensitive and provocative story is admirably suited to a shadow entertainment, and Mr. Lloyd has not missed an opportunity to do justice to camera possibilities. […]
Except for excursions which can be taken in photography, the film echoes the play. It leaves you sometimes hungry for more of some scenes, but so did the stage work. […]
Mr. Howard revels in the rôle. He has done excellent work in other films, but it is doubtful whether he has ever given so impressive and imaginative a performance. He steps from modern attire to the clothes of the eighteenth century without any trace of awkwardness. Heather Angel is attractive and efficient as Helen.
(Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times, Sept. 14, 1933)
[…] One will not deny that “Berkeley Square” is refreshingly different from the customary run of pictures. There is novelty in the idea of a young man of today falling in love with a girl of the 18th century, a lover who, perforce, has to leave his sweetheart of 1874 and return to the times to which he belongs. Here is an idea which, we would say, is better suited to the more comprehensive medium of the screen than to the stage. But as the screen is, or ought to be, essentially a medium of pictorial movement, and as “Berkeley Square” is, for all its velvety charm, a play which talks a good deal more than it moves, it misses being a great picture. […]
Here is an idea which lends itself as readily to comedy as to tragedy and lavendered romance. Peter Standish, you see, having lived after his ancestors, knows what happened. At Lady Ann Pettigrew’s reception he talks to the Duchess of Devonshire as if she were long dead in her grave, and on another occasion he is complimented upon is rare humor for quoting Oscar Wilde before Wilde was born. This part of “Berkeley Square” is amusing and Leslie Howard is revealed here at his best.
In the role of the 18th century sweetheart, the part which Margalo Gillmore played on the stage, is Heather Angel. Valerie Taylor appears in her original role of Kate Pettigrew. […] Most of [the cast] act their parts with competence, lending excellent support to the flawless Mr. Howard.[…]
Yet, for all its virtues, this “Berkeley Square” misses being the important picture it might have been. It is charming in its way, but it is also dull. It moves too leisurely to be very stimulating as screen entertainment. We fear it is not destined to be a tremendous box-office success.
(Martin Dickstein, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sept. 14, 1933)
[…] The screen version of John Balderston’s play stands as a heartening proof that intelligence and sensitivity are not incompatible with the Hollywood standard, nor that a fine and considered piece of playwriting need necessarily be rendered in terms of “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse” in order to make it intelligible to motion picture audiences.
At the Gaiety last night, “Berkeley Square” came as refreshing evidence that the motion picture medium can play four square with the adult mind and still be good entertainment. […]
Leslie Howard, in his original stage role, plays with his accustomed skill and charm, and Heather Angel as Helen Pettigrew is lovely and alive. The rest of the cast, particularly Valerie Taylor and Irene Browne, is admirable. The costumes, settings and photography are of the highest order.
(Thornton Delehanty, the New York Evening Post, Sept. 14, 1933)
(Wilson D’Arne in Picturegoer, Sept. 2, 1933: view the post: “THE SECRETS OF BERKELEY SQUARE”
The real triumph of the film are in its settings, its atmosphere, and its acting.
it is difficult to think of any other actor who could have filled the very trying role of Peter Standish with the delicacy, subtlety, restraint, and sheer sensitivity put into it by Leslie Howard. His performance is near enough to perfection to be virtually above criticism.
Heather Angel, too, acts with remarkable power and considerable charm as the girl of the love story and there is a well-chosen supporting cast.
(Film Weekly, April 6, 1934)
Director: Frank Lloyd
Writers: John L. Balderston (original play), Sonya Levien
Producer: Jesse L. Lasky
Cinematography: Ernest Palmer
Film Editing: Harold D. Schuster
Music: Louis De Francesco
Set Design: William S. Darling
Costume Design: William Lambert
Leslie Howard (Peter Standish)
Heather Angel (Helen Pettigrew)
Valerie Taylor (Kate Pettigrew)
Irene Browne (Lady Ann Pettigrew)
Beryl Mercer (Mrs. Barwick)
Colin Keith-Johnston (Tom Pettigrew)
Alan Mowbray (Major Clinton)
Juliette Compton (Duchess of Devonshire)
Betty Lawford (Marjorie Frant)
Ferdinand Gottschalk (Mr. Throstle)
Samuel S. Hinds (American Ambassador)
Olaf Hytten (Sir Joshua Reynolds)
David Torrence (Lord Stanley)
Lionel Belmore (Innkeeper)
Hylda Tyson (Maid)