The 1965 film The Yesterday Machine opens with dancing!
Well, okay, actually, it opens with two college students out in the middle of nowhere, listening to an old radio. Howie Ellison (Jay Ramsey) is working on his car, trying to get the engine to work again. Margie de Mar (Linda Jenkins) is working on her baton twirling, as one tends to due when stuck out in the middle of nowhere.
As soon as the film started and I got one look at the barren landscape, I knew that it had to have been filmed in my part of the world. The whole thing just screamed Texas/Oklahoma border. Then I saw Margie’s boots and then I heard Howie and Margie’s accents and I yelled, “OH MY GOD, THEY FILMED THIS IN TEXAS!”
And, indeed, they did. The Yesterday Machine is a regional production, through and through. Nearly everyone in the film has a strong accent and the North Texas landscape is notably flat. (The film’s harsh black-and-white cinematography actually gives it something of a apocalyptic feel.) After I watched this film, I did some research and I discovered that this film was shot in Dallas. Director Russ Marker was a Texas filmmaker and actor. He apparently directed two films over the course of his short career, this and The Demon From Devil’s Lake. He also had an uncredited role as a bank guard in Bonnie and Clyde.
(There were actually quite a few low-budget filmmakers working in Texas in the 60s. The best-known, of course, would probably be Larry Buchanan. But, at the same time that Russ Marker was shooting this film, Hal Warren was filming Manos: The Hands of Fear.)
Anyway, Howie and Margie are supposed to be heading to a college football game but it turns out that Howie is totally useless when it comes to fixing cars. So, instead, they leave the car and go looking for help. After wandering around for a bit, they run into some soldiers who are dressed in Confederate army uniforms.
“Those are some crazy threads, Dad!” Howie says.
Having no respect for Howie’s beatnik ways, the soldiers shoot him and then kidnap Margie.
What’s going on, you may ask. Well, fear not! Lt. Partane (Tim Holt) is on the case! And yes, classic film fans, you read that actor’s name correctly. Tim Holt, star of both The Magnificent Ambersons and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, lends his gravitas to The Yesterday Machine! According to the imdb, Holt grew disillusioned with Hollywood in the 50s and gave up the movies, retiring to his ranch in Oklahoma. He only came out of retirement to play Lt. Partane in this film and Agent Clark in Herschell Gordon Lewis’s moonshiner epic, This Stuff’ll Kill You. According to imdb, Holt only came out of retirement as a “favor for his friends.” So, in other words, Tim Holt probably did this movie to be nice.
Helping out Lt. Partane is a reporter named Jim Crandall (James Britton) and Margie’s sister, a singer named Sandy (Ann Pelligrino). Working together, they investigate why Confederate soldiers are wandering around North Texas and what they discover is that it’s because a fugitive Nazi scientist, Dr. Blake (Charles Young), has built a time machine! He’s planning on using it to go to the past and help Hitler win World War II!
However, before he does that, he wants to make sure that everyone knows how time travel works. This leads to a — I kid you not, dear readers — TEN MINUTE LECTURE IN FRONT OF A BLACKBOARD, during which Dr. Blake goes into meticulous detail about how he can travel in time! It’s interesting because you can tell that the filmmakers actually did go to the trouble of researching all of the theories about how time works and how man might be able to travel into the past and it’s also obvious that they really wanted to show off what they had learned.
But, here’s the thing. It’s totally unnecessary. We’ve already seen the Confederate soldiers. If we’re still watching the film by the time that Dr. Blake shows up then it’s safe to assume that we’ve suspended our disbelief enough to accept that time travel is possible. There’s no need to convince us. And, since Young wasn’t exactly the best actor in Texas, having him spend ten minutes madly lecturing the audience wasn’t exactly going to convince anyone that time travel was a plausible reality. Instead, it just brings the entire film to a halt and kills the small amount of narrative momentum that it had going for it.
Anyway, once Dr. Blake finally shuts up, it’s time to stop his nefarious plans and hopefully make the world safe for college football games.
The Yesterday Machine is a really bad movie but I have to admit that I always kind of enjoy watching these regional oddities. There’s something touching about everyone’s attempt to turn The Yesterday Machine into a “real” movie and, at its best, the film features the type of enthusiasm that you can only get from a low-budget amateur production. If nothing else, this movie about time travel is a real time capsule. Movies like this are about as close to real time machine as we’ll ever get.