(4/10) In a nutshell: In this breezy 1944 musical comedy from Britain, four friends accidentally travel to 16th century London where they meet William Shakespeare and try to sell America to Queen Elizabeth. Petite American jazz singer Evelyn Dall is the real star of this B movie, since radio comedian Tommy Handley’s horrific puns get old even before they get going. Good production values, the lighthearted tone and nice musical numbers make it worth a watch. Not, however, as often claimed, the first film featuring a time machine.
Time Flies (1944). Directed by Walter Forde. Written by Ted Kavanagh, J.O.C. Horton, Howard Irving Young. Starring: Tommy Handley, Evelyn Dall, George Moon, Felix Aylmer. Produced by Edward Black for Gainsborough Pictures. IMDb score: 5.4
Filmmakers in the United Kingdom were certainly not too hot about science fiction in the thirties and the forties. Most British sci-fi in the thirties was co-produced with either Germany or France, other films just slightly dipped their toes in sci-fi matter. Science fiction guru H.G. Wells momentarily awakened the British film industry’s interest in the genre with his extremely expensive Things to Come in 1936 (review), directed by William Carlos Menzies. Although it was the most lavish sci-fi production in the world since Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis (review), audiences and critics panned the sluggish and moralistic script and the partly wooden acting brought on by the bombastic, long-winded dialogue. The film nearly bankrupted the studio and made the British industry shun sci-fi for one and a half decade.
Nevertheless, some films were made that played with the idea of sci-fi, but given the American interest in the genre, it’s a bit surprising that it was actually the Brits who introduced the English-speaking audiences to the concept of the time machine with the musical comedy Time Flies. This 1944 film is often cited as the first film in the world to introduce the time machine as a concept but this is incorrect. As a matter of fact, the Hungarians beat the Brits to the mark by two years, with the film Sziriusz (1942, review), directed by Deszö Ákos Hamza and starring the enigmatic Hungarian superstar Katalin Karády.
The idea of time travel, of course, can be traced back to old mythologies and folk tales, but the notion of using some sort of technology to propel yourself backwards and forwards in time started appearing as late as the 1880s in literature, and it was of course the great H.G. Wells that cemented the idea with his seminal 1888 novel The Time Machine. In film, time travel had been covered before in one form or the other. One of the most common form of ”time travel” in films was some sort of cryogenics, i.e. concerning a person who has been frozen and is thawed out in the future. Harry Houdini did it in The Man From Beyond (1922, review) and Boris Karloff in The Man With Nine Lives (1940, review), and, in a manner of speaking, every time the Frankenstein monster was frozen, it ”travelled in time”. It was done with medical precision in the abysmal American 1930 musical comedy Just Imagine (review), with gadgetry made by Kenneth Strickfaden that would later grace the screen in Henry Frankenstein’s 1931 lab and in dozens if not hundreds of science fiction films and serials. French director René Clair didn’t so much have his characters travel in time, but in his 1924 short film The Crazy Ray (review) he invented a machine that stopped time. Some may argue that it was actually stop-motion master Willis O’Brien that invented the cinematic time machine (a pair of binoculars) in his short film The Ghost of Slumber Mountain as early as 1918 (review), although it is unclear if the binoculars used to take the watcher back to the age of the dinosaurs worked through some sort of science or just plain magic.
Anyway, regardless of whether the idea of time travel in Time Flies was novel or not, the film was never going to go down in history as a sci-fi classic anyway. At heart the film is a jolly, silly, upbeat wartime B musical comedy, more based on separate comedic skits than any coherent plot. Fast-talking valet and good-hearted small-time swindler Tommy Handley (as himself) and American music hall performers Susie and Bill Barton (Evelyn Dall and George Moon, the latter was actually British) befriend a professor (Felix Aylmer), who presents to them his invention, a sphere of metal that can travel through time (and in outer space as well, as would be demonstrated. Through a number of developments and mishaps the four accidentally end up inside the time machine and travel back to London in the 16th centrury, where the professor is put in the Tower of London for his blasphemous talk of time travel, Tommy devices a plan to sell America to Queen Elizabeth, Susie sings a jazz number with William Shakespeare and Bill tries to find a way to get back home. Along the way the group also have to deal with obstacles in the form of people like Sir Walter Raleigh, Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, as well as a soothsayer and his son in the form of the comedy duo Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt.
One does wonder whether someone at Gainsborough Pictures had managed to see the Hungarian film Sziriusz, since the setup is quite similar: both films involve a group of people travelling back in time, upsetting the society they end up in, and both are taken back to an era of swordfights and castles. Both feature nutty but kind-hearted professors who have created metallic time travel machines invoking the image of space ships, and both machines fly in the air as well as travel in time. Then again, these sort of things were quite prevalent in sci-fi literature and comics, so it is possible that the similarities are coincidental. But it does seem as if time travel was a popular theme during the war years. Not only did we have Sziriusz in 1942, but only in 1944 did we get Time Flies and another British time travel comedy, Fiddler’s Three, where three sailors get caught in a time warp at Stonehenge, and in the American animated short The Old Gray Hare Elmer Fudd travels to the nineties. Of course, with war and horrors going on in your own time, movies were a wonderful source of escapism, and what better way to escape the terror of your own time than to simply transport into a completely different age.
With the exception of Evelyn Dall, Tommy Handley and Felix Aylmer, none of the people involved in the film have put any greater dents in the history of motion pictures. Most of them, including director Walter Forde, were seasoned veterans in British B comedy movies. Art director John Bryan did have experience from large productions and historical costume dramas like Pygmalion and Adventures of Tartu, and would go on to design sets for films like Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), Great Expectations (1946), for which he won an Oscar and Becket (1964), for which ge won a BAFTA, and Great Catherine (1968). Costume designer Doris Lee likewise had experience from large historical productions, and the sets and costumes belong to the film’s strong points. Forde’s direction is sure-footed and professional, even if it isn’t in any way exceptional.
Tommy Handley was a popular radio comedian famous for his puns and quick remarks. Unfortunately he is a bit like a fish out of water on the screen, and it seems as if he is scraping the bottom of the barrel with his puns. We get painfully bad jokes, like when he is examining a diamond and says ”It’s 10 carat – and you know what one can do with a carrot these days”, or when Bill at one point remarks that they can see the Far East from the spacecraft/time machine, and Handley replies ”And there’s Mae West!” His jovial nature does pull him through the film, though. This was his last of only four films.
Evelyn Dall was a middle-tier jazz singer in New York in the mid-thirties when she was invited to the United Kingdom to front a dance band in London in 1935. The petite blonde singer’s good looks and strong personality, as well as an obvious comedic talent, quickly had her performing in musical comedies, often alongside her house band led by Bert Ambrose. All the while she was performing with her band and in different musical shows. She was quickly paired with radio comedian Arthur Askey, with whom she made a number of musical comedies from 1936 to 1943, providing ”chirpy” support. Dubbed ”the original British blonde bombshell” (although according to The Guardian’s obituary she was ”cute, rather than sexy”) she came into her own during WWII, as The Guardian puts it, for bringing ”an element of Hollywood glamour to breezy, morale-boosting, wartime British musicals”. During this time she would also do up to five different music shows on stage a week. Dall certainly carries her weight in Time Flies, and she is not without acting talent. One hight point is her musical number with William Shakespeare, another when she impersonates John Smith in front of the queen. Time Flies was her last film before she returned to the United States in 1946, where she soon married and retired. She passed away in 2010. Here you can watch a fun little featurette from 1946, where British Pathé conveniently catches up with the blonde bombshell in the swimming pool and follows her on a shopping trip on the way to the music hall.
The professor is played by Felix Aylmer, one of the most respected stage actors in Britain, and no stranger to film screen. Aylmer was especially known for his unique distinguished and learned delivery, which was often imitated and lovingly mocked by comedians and impersonators like Kenneth Williams and Peter Sellers. Aylmer starred in over 170 films, many of them first class historical dramas, like Henry V (1944), Quo Vadis (1951) Anastasia (1956) and Becket (1964). He did numerous Shakespearean films with Laurence Olivier, but also played many professors, barristers or other learned men in other genres. Fans of genre film may have seen him as the archaeologist who suffers the curse of the mummy in Hammer’s 1959 version of The Mummy, starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. As far as I can tell, Time Flies was his only sci-fi. He doesn’t make much of an impact in Time Flies because of all the silliness that goes on around him, but is very pleasant as a calming element in the midst of it all.
Time Flies is a rather forgotten film today, and that is not surprising. The plot is whimsical and incoherent, and 95 percent of the humour is painfully bad, often involving horrible puns and Tommy Handley’s culture clash with Elizabethan Britain, or rather the other way around. What few jokes that work are repeated so many times over that they bludgeon themselves to death. As is often the case in British cinema, the acting is good across the board, even though there is a lot of the forced over-acting that was so prevalent in the comedies of the day. The set pieces of 16th century London are so impressive that one wonders if the team re-used sets from some other production, and the costumes are so impressive that they almost must have come from straight from the rack at Gainsborough’s costume department. I hardly think they would have had hundreds of Elizabethan costumes whipped up solely for the purpose of a cheap musical comedy like this.
One of the best aspects of the movie is the musical numbers. Unfortunately I can’t find any clear answers on whether the song numbers of the film are composed by the film’s original music composer Bretton Byrd or if they are reused. On the downside, the portrayal of Pocahontas comes dangerously close to slipping into the realm of casual racism, but somehow the movie manages pull out just before the plunge. Special effects, such as the time machine floating and glowing and disappearing through a wall, and our heroes floating weightless in the machine are adequately done for a B film like this, but the black screen and wire techniques used were already 50 years old at the time, and were better implemented even by Georges Méliès in the beginning of the century. Special effects engineer Jack Whitehead also did the effects for the British version of The Tunnel (1935) and Devil Girl From Mars (1954, review)
In all, it’s a mixed bag. Despite the bad humour, the light and jovial tone of the movie is contagious and there are some moments of pure comedic delight. The idea of going back in time to sell America to the British is delicious, but seems a bit squandered as there is too much else going on for the plot device to really pay off. Way too much screen time is given to Handley, who simply doesn’t know what to do with it all, and the ”cheeky” cockney humour grows tired early on. I personally think that George Moon and Evelyn Dall could have carried this film on their own.
Time Flies (1944). Directed by Walter Forde. Written by Ted Kavanagh, J.O.C. Horton, Howard Irving Young. Starring: Tommy Handley, Evelyn Dall, George Moon, Felix Aylmer, Moore Marriott, Graham Moffatt, John Salew, Leslie Bradley, Olga Lindo, Roy Emerton, Iris Lang, Stephane Grappelli. Music: Edward Byrd. Cinematography: Basil Emmott. Editing: R.E. Dearing. Art director: John Bryan. Costume design: Doris Lee. Sound supervisor: B.C. Sewell. Special effects: Jack Whitehead. Produced by Edward Black for Gainsborough Pictures.