Based on an unfinished novel by Henry James and a play by John L. Balderston, an American interested in English history and his ancestor who lived in the same house travels in time back to the 1780s and impersonates his ancestor while knowing what will happen to these people.
A stage coach stops on the way to London. The American Peter Standish (Leslie Howard) drinks with Major Clinton (Alan Mowbray) and others to King George III because the war has been over for a year. They talk about how a Frenchman flew in a basket under a balloon of hot air. Peter says they will never live to see the age of speed. They get back in the coach.
Tom Pettigrew (Colin Keith-Johnston) comes home and is fresh with the maid, but his sister Kate Pettigrew (Valerie Taylor) complains. Tom and Kate talk to their mother Lady Ann Pettigrew (Irene Browne). Tom urges Kate to hook the Yankee Standish. Tom sees that Mr. Throstle (Ferdinand Gottschalk) is there, and he says he has 1,500 a year. Throstle comes in and says he met Major Clinton traveling with their cousin. Ann tells Tom not to call Americans colonials because they are independent now.
Throstle kisses the hand of Helen Pettigrew (Heather Angel) who tells him she will never marry. They hear thunder and go back to the other room. They hear a coach.
Peter Standish arrives in the rain. Tom opens the door but does not see him.
Inside Kate sees Tom come back and figures he must have gone around to the servant’s door. Kate curtsies as the door opens.
At Berkeley Square modern cars are driving around. Marjorie Frant (Betty Lawford) knocks, and Mrs. Barwick (Beryl Mercer) lets her in. Marjorie says she is engaged to marry Peter Standish. Mrs. Barwick tells her that Peter reads books and walks about. She hears him in the night. She says he was there a few minutes ago. Marjorie says this house has a queer hold on Peter. He comes into the room with a candle and looks at a painting. Marjorie asks him why he is using a candle. He says they used them. He explains that the crux ansata came with the house. He shows her a book which shows that the portrait of his ancestor was finished by Joshua Reynolds. He says he married Kate Pettigrew, but her sister Helen refused to be forced into a marriage. He asks her to imagine the five generations and that other time. He reads where Peter arrived on September 3 at 5 o’clock 149 years ago. She says he has not seen her for three days. He says Pettigrew would not have a phone in the house, and he kept it just as it was. She complains he is smoking too much and is nervous. She says she will be living there in a month. He asks to have that month there alone. She is willing to trust him if he will tell her what this is all about; but he says no, he can’t do that. He says the rain stopped. She tells him to come to tea, and he remembers the ambassador. He says he has to be back there at half past five. He says she does not want to marry him but to look after him. She says one goes with the other.
The American ambassador (Samuel S. Hinds) says he is getting used to tea. Peter says it is a charming rest period. Peter asks if the portrait is of John Adams. The ambassador says he came over there in 1784. Marjorie kisses Peter goodbye, and he warns her he may behave oddly the next time she sees him. He says goodbye. She tells the ambassador they must get him out of the house, and she says goodbye and goes out. Peter admits he has not been going out much. The house has been taking up his time. Peter says his ancestor built the place. The ambassador warns him that Marjorie is disturbed about him, and he advises him to get away for a while. Peter says there still are adventures. He says he believes that he will walk into the 18th century in that house and meet the people living there. He believes they are living in their own time. Peter uses the analogy of a river and what may be ahead around the bend in the future. He in a plane above can see it all at once. He says that proves that all times can be one, because real time is an idea in the mind of God. He asks him how he would like to walk the streets of London in the 18th century. The ambassador says he will make mistakes, and they would find him out. Peter says he has his ancestor’s diary. He realizes he is late and leaves in a hurry.
Peter walks in the rain and sees it is 5:30. He rings the doorbell. The door opens, and he goes in.
Inside Peter is dressed for the 18th century, and Kate says she is at his service. He takes her hand and kisses it. She welcomes him on behalf of her mother, and he realizes that is Lady Ann. He says she seems constrained, and she says he is not at ease. She asks if he had a tiring journey and refers to his letter. He says he just came over from America in 27 days. He sits down and says he met his betrothed for the first time. He says it has practically been all arranged in their letters. He kisses her, and she calls him audacious. She refers to Helen, and he knows she is his sister. They compare the manners of New York to London. He says the door was ajar, but she says his clothes are dry. In his pocket he finds a miniature portrait of her. He finds a bracelet and gives it to her. She asks if it is premature. He says he knows how the declaration is done, and he asks her to be his wife. She says he goes too far.
Tom comes in and bows to Peter. He offers him snuff. Lady Ann comes in with Mr. Throstle. Peter sees Helen and kisses her hand. Tom offers to show him the town, and Peter says he wants to see everything. Throstle offers to introduce him to Joshua Reynolds. Tom says his brother-in-law would paint him for less. Peter asks Helen about the cashmere shawl she received as a gift, but she says she has not even opened it yet. She opens the present and asks her cousin how he knew. Tom asks if he can read thoughts like his sister. Helen says Peter is not well, and he says he has a headache. Ann tells Tom to take him to his room.
Tom shows Peter his room and goes out. He knocks on wood and looks at himself in the mirror, surprised at his long hair. He looks out the window and opens it, seeing Berkeley Square.
At seven o’clock Peter hears a harpsichord and leaves his room and finds Helen playing it. He says as soon as he saw her, he felt that he could talk to her. He says this is all very strange, and he sees that she sees that. She says Kate will put him at his ease. He asks if she is engaged to Mr. Throstle, and she says no. He is glad but says he must not interfere with the things that happen. She says they will do anything he wishes. She wonders if she will marry him, and she says never. He asks why she is looking at him like that. He says he is nervous because he is an American. He asks her not to go because he has nothing in common with them.
At a club Tom tells men how Peter turned his back on the Prince of Wales because he blew his nose with his cape. Throstle says he is ignorant of many everyday things. Clinton says that does not sound like the man he knows. Peter comes in and does not recognize Major Clinton at first. Clinton says he does not seem the same man either. Peter says he has a sitting with Reynolds and walks off.
Joshua Reynolds (Olaf Hytten) is painting the portrait as Peter poses. Kate and Helen are there. Reynolds talks about the United States and says they expect to do great things. Peter quotes from the Declaration of Independence, but Reynolds says the proposition that all men are created equal is absurd. Peter admits it seems cock-eyed, and Kate wonders what that word means. Peter says they invented it in America. Joshua stops painting and says something in his face eludes him. He refers to his painting of the tragic muse of Miss Sims. Reynolds asks how he knew about this, and he shows them what he has done on it in one sitting. Peter apologizes for mentioning it before it happened. Kate goes out with Helen and Peter.
In his room Peter paces and looks out the window. He sees Helen go out to the park across the street. Peter joins her there. She is reading on a bench. He asks if she is afraid of him too. She says she feels sorry for him because he is unhappy there. She can’t imagine what America is like and says it must be so different. He says that is true. He says they like him until he says something wrong. She says it is because he sees through them, and she wishes she could help him. He says she does help him. He says the days are all right, and he likes London. When he lies in bed thinking, it seems like a nightmare. He says she is real, but she says she is Kate’s sister.
Kate and Ann see them from the window. Kate says he makes her afraid. When Helen is with him, she is afraid for her.
At night a coach arrives, and the Duchess of Devonshire (Juliette Compton) and Lord Stanley (David Torrence) go in the house.
Aristocrats are dancing a minuet. Peter tells Helen that their dances are modeled on those of the red Indians, though he had started to say the Negroes. Tom says they are crowding around Peter. He is talking with six women and says they ride in coaches. Tom tells men that servants have to take buckets of hot water up to Peter so that he can wash himself all over every day. Peter says bathing has not always been eccentric. The Romans bathed; but Throstle says only excessive when they became degenerate. Peter asks Kate to dance, but she says she promised this dance to Major Clinton. A man asks Peter what he thought of Samuel Johnson. Peter found him amusing. He says the British have an empire upon which the sun never sets. The man asks why the Americans went on with the war after they withdrew the tax on tea, and Peter says it was to make the world safe for democracy. Peter is introduced to the Duchess of Devonshire who congratulates him on marrying Miss Pettigrew. She refers to a faithless husband. He says fidelity is a strange thing. When we are young, we try to be faithful and cannot, and when we are old, we try to be faithless—and she finishes it with “and cannot” and calls it a delightful aphorism. Lady Ann tells Throstle that Helen is teasing him. The Duchess chats with Peter who impresses her with what he knows about her. He asks if Gainsborough has painted her, and she says yes. She wonders why he speaks of her in the past tense. She says he was talking about her as though she was already dead. She says he made an indescribable impression and leaves with Reynolds. Throstle tells Peter that his self-confidence is magnificent. He asks if he knows that Kate is going to break with him. Peter says he will marry Kate. Throstle asks him about his future with Helen, but Peter says he does not know the future. Helen comes to Peter and asks why the Duchess got so upset. He says he amused her with a witticism by Oscar Wilde, and she asks if he is from New York. Ann complains that Kate did not dance with Peter and that Helen has ignored Throstle. Tom tells Peter that Reynolds will not paint him anymore and will destroy his portrait. Peter predicts that his portrait will be completed. Kate asks how Peter first got into their house because no one saw him come in. A man says they are living in the 18th century, the age of Voltaire. They go out and leave Kate with Peter. He says they will be married, but she gives him the bracelet back. He says she cannot break off their engagement. She says she fears him like the devil. He says they will be married and will have children in this house. She tells him to go back to America. She has been afraid to look into his eyes. He tells him to look into her eyes and tell her that he loves her. He walks away and says the next time he may see her, he may seem changed. He tells her to help Helen then. Kate says she will need help if he is so interested in her. She goes out.
At midnight Peter hears a man call that all is well. The maid avoids him. He looks around, and Helen comes in. He asks if she knows. Helen says that Kate is not herself tonight. He says she found out that he does not love her. She asks if he wants to marry her, but he says he had to play his part; that is all. She asks how he can speak of things that haven’t happened yet. He says that things of tomorrow are as real to him as the things of yesterday. She says she wants to see ahead too. He says she is in love with the future as he was in love with the past. She asks him to tell her, but he says there are no words. She thinks she could see through his eyes. She stares at his eyes and sees the future with magic lights. He says all London is lit by one hand moving. He says the veil is thinning, but he tells her no more of this. She says she must see. She imagines the future with trains, tall buildings, racing cars, airplanes, steel ships, huge guns, police on motorcycles, gangsters shooting at police, soldiers fighting amid mustard gas with gas masks, and an explosion. She says they are devils and demons, not men. Peter says she saw the future. She says God would not allow it. He asks her to try to understand and says he came to her from that world. He says now she is afraid, but she says that is not true. They embrace, and he says he loves her. She says she loves him too. He says he is himself; it is not his world or hers. She asks him to take her with him, but he says he can’t. She asks him then not to leave her. He says he won’t leave her. He says when he kissed Kate, that was his kiss to his betrothed. He kisses Helen and says there has never been a kiss like that since the world began.
Peter and Helen come out of the house, and Throstle asks Peter if he likes their rides in his country. He helps Helen on to a horse.
Ann saw this from the window and tells Tom that the tongues of London are wagging. Tom says he is meant to have Helen after Kate broke with him. He tells his mother to press him, but she says she can’t force him to declare his intentions. He says she can, and they must marry at once. Throstle comes in and says there can be no comparison between his 1,500 a year and her cousin’s 10,000. Tom says he knows the world, and Throstle says he knows one corner of it fairly well. Ann says Helen and Peter were made for each other. Tom says Kate would rather be bored in the country than scared to death in town.
Kate arrives in a coach and goes into the house.
Peter and Helen are riding horses.
Kate tells Tom that he would see his sister damned. Throstle says Peter is no fit mate for any mortal woman, and Kate says that he knows. Throstle says that heaven would not permit it. Ann tells Kate to return to the country.
Peter and Helen come upstairs, and he kisses her. She says it was the most lovely day of all.
Peter comes into the room and hears Kate say that she returned to save Helen. She asks Peter if he came from America. He says that is true. She made a list of ten words he used, and she stopped at the legation. She asks if Mr. Adams should know what words he used in New York. Peter says he is from Massachusetts. She asked him, and he never heard of one of the ten words. She says they are not used in America nor in this world. She says he stole his body, and she asks what became of his soul. He sings “John Brown’s body lies a moldering in his grave.” He says a new fire of London is needed there and that the 18th century stinks. He says Kate is a fool, but he loves her for trying to save Helen. He tells Ann he saw her in Sheridan’s plays and read about her in Jane Austen’s novels. She knows what she wants and plows through everything to get it like a tank. He tells Kate she now has an eleventh strange word from the lexicon of Beelzebub. He tells her to ask Charles Francis Adams, but he says he is the grandson of John Adams and is not even born yet. He will not be minister there until 1861 during the Civil War. He asks what one more blunder will do. He says he came from New York on the Mauretania. He asks if he should make more blunders. He asks if he should sell his portrait by Reynolds. He says they are dead and rotted in their graves. The women cry and leave. Throstle is scared and takes two candlesticks and crosses them. Peter scares him out of the room.
Peter is left alone and says he is to be imprisoned for life in this filthy pigsty of a world. Helen comes in, and he says Kate knows and Throstle too. She says he can never see them again. He says they can go away to America. She says people will hate him. He says he will face them all because she belongs to him, not to them. They kiss. She tells him not to make her weak again. Each night she says he must go back, but each morning she likes being with him. She says they have been chosen to have a love that is more real and is a miracle from two different times. She says they will always be together in God’s time. He says he wants her now and asks if she loves him. She says she does with all her soul. He says he will stay here. She says in her world he would have a living death and be mad. Because he loves her, he is condemned to that. She tells him to leave her while their love is still beautiful for her sake. He hears thunder. She says he has his own life to live. He tells her not to be sad about someone who has been dead for so long. She says he can visit her grave. She will ask for a stone with letters cut deep so that they will not wear away. She tells him to come alone. If he loves that other girl, he must marry her. She says he cannot live in this house with only that old woman to look after him. He says he loves her only now and in his own time and in whatever other times may come. She believes him. She would like him to take back with him one thing that is hers. She gets the crux ansata, and he recognizes it. He says that was his long ago when he first entered this house in future. She says this is hers while she lives and his in that world that she will never see. She says this is their parting. He leaves the room and closes the door. She looks at the crux ansata and puts it down.
The room has modern furniture, and Peter comes in wearing a modern suit and tie. He is reading a paper and picks up the crux ansata.
Marjorie and the ambassador have come in, and Mrs. Barwick says that Peter just got back from the cemetery. He asks if anything unusual has been happening, and she says that Peter has been drinking quite a lot. She says he told her he came from the 18th century. She says now he seems like his old self, quieter. Marjorie says she will go up to him to see for herself.
Marjorie comes in, and Peter calls her name. She is glad that she knows him. He says that Peter Standish has been giving her a lot of trouble. He says they were going to be married, but it seems long ago. She says if he remembers her, he cannot still think he is him. He says something has happened, and he has to live there in this house alone. He will keep this room just as it was always. She asks what the paper is he has. He says it is an epitaph of a girl who died 146 years ago. He says she was the cousin of Peter Standish. She says it is Latin and asks what it means. She sees he is crying. She asks who she was and tells him to speak to her. She asks if he knows her. She asks if he wants her to go. He says nothing, and she goes out. He reads the Latin and translates Helen’s epitaph who departed life June 15, 1787 at the age of 23. He hears Helen’s voice that they will always be together in God’s time.
This fantasy compares the cultures in the same building in two different eras of time. The man who loves to study the past is attracted to a woman who envisions the future, and in their love they transcend time; but in the earthly world they have little time together. The story shows how fast technology has advanced in less than a century and a half.