by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The “feature” Charles and I watched last night was This Is the Night, a quite remarkable 1932 Paramount farce best known as the feature-film debut of Cary Grant. (Earlier he’d appeared in the short Singapore Sue, starring Chinese vaudevillian Anna Chang, in which Grant and Millard Mitchell are two Anglo sailors who try to pick up Chang, but she gives them the cold shoulder and sticks with her Chinese boyfriend, Joe Wong — whose own number is quite the best part of the little film and proves that you didn’t have to be Irish to be an Irish tenor.) I remember seeing this in the 1980’s on American Movie Classics, back when they actually did show American movie classics instead of becoming the all-John Wayne or James Bond all the time channel and later developing highly regarded original series like Mad Men. Back then it was entirely in black-and-white; this time around every scene taking place outdoors at night (including almost the whole first reel of the film) was tinted deep blue, a common effect in the silent era but virtually unknown in the talkies.
This Is the Night had a complicated story evolution reflecting Paramount’s willingness — more than any other studio — to take stories from European plays, and what’s more to leave them in their original European settings rather than rewrite them to take place in the U.S. The play this was based on was something called Pouche, written by René Peter and Henri Falk and premiered in Paris in 1923. Two years later, Avery Hopwood — best known as the writer of the play The Gold Diggers, which launched the cycle of Warners musicals with the world “Gold Diggers” in the title — did an English adaptation called Naughty Cinderella, and a year after that Paramount bought the movie rights and filmed it as Good and Naughty with Mal St. Clair directing and Pola Negri, Tom Moore, Ford Sterling, “Miss DuPont” (the pseudonymous actress who played the female lead in Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives) and Stuart Holmes.
In 1932 Paramount decided to remake this story with sound and cast Roland Young in the male lead as attorney Gerald Gray, who’s having a torrid affair with Claire Mathewson (Thelma Todd) even though she’s married to Olympic javelin thrower Steve Mathewson (Cary Grant). Steve is introduced strolling through the corridors of the apartment building where all the principals seem to live, having arrived home unexpectedly soon from the 1932 L.A. Olympics, and he inadvertently receives from Gerald’s friend and comic-relief sidekick Bunny West (Charlie Ruggles) a pair of tickets from Paris (where the film opens) to Venice (where it quickly relocates) on the Orient Express. Realizing that he is caught, Gerald decides to lie his way out of it and say that Claire’s ticket was supposed to be a single and his two tickets were supposed to be for himself and his wife. Steve decides that in that case he’ll buy a ticket of his own and they can make it a foursome, and since Gerald doesn’t actually have a wife, that means he’ll have to hire somebody to pose as her for the duration of the trip. The somebody he has in mind is actress Chou-Chou (Claire Dodd), but she’s not interested — though Germaine (Lily Damita, the first Mrs. Errol Flynn, top-billed here), grabs at the chance for a trip to Venice, especially when she realizes she can get a huge wardrobe out of the bargain and Gerald will pay for it all.
The result is an occasionally sloppily paced but mostly quite entertaining film that pushed the limits even for the so-called “pre-Code” era of lax Production Code enforcement — not only was the basic situation built around an adulterous relationship and the efforts of its participants to conceal it, but the jokes really pushed the raciness, especially the scene in which Gerald and Bunny, thoroughly “in their cups” at a sidewalk table in Venice, declare their love … for each other. Eventually, and predictably, Gerald falls in love with his pretend “wife” Germaine — the film ends with him proposing marriage to her for real — while Steve and Claire more or less reconcile and Charlie Ruggles is left odd man out — but with a film like This Is the Night it’s the style, not the substance, that makes it worth watching. Unlike a lot of other movie legends making their screen debuts (one thinks of all the roughneck slapstick Mack Sennett put Charlie Chaplin through in his early days before Chaplin slowed down his films and achieved the sympathetic grace of the “little tramp”), Cary Grant already seems fully formed, playing a light-comic role and playing it to perfection — after re-seeing This Is the Night I’m as confused as I was when I saw it the first time about the conventional wisdom on Grant’s career that it took his performance in George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett, made four years later, to prove to Hollywood in general and casting directors in particular that he could play light comedy.
The script is by Benjamin Glazer and George Marion, Jr. — the latter also wrote the lyrics for Ralph Rainger’s song, “The Lady’s Lost Her Dress,” in which a cabdriver closes his door on Thelma Todd’s dress, ripping it off (a gag Laurel and Hardy had done with Jean Harlow in Double Whoopee three years earlier) and spinning off an elaborate sequence similar to the marvelous city-awakening scene (also set in Paris!) with which Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight, also a Paramount film from 1932, opened. Cary Grant makes his entrance singing a song called “Eloise,” probably by Rainger and lyricist Sam Coslow, and showing off a quite good, strong voice (in 1931, just before he signed with Paramount, he was featured on Broadway in a musical called Nikki, billed under his real name — Archie Leach — and playing a character called Cary Lockwood; the same story, a novel by John Monk Saunders, was filmed at Warners in 1931 as The Last Flight with Richard Barthelmess in the role; and when Grant went to Hollywood he wanted to use “Cary Lockwood” as his screen name, but the name “Lockwood” was already taken by someone else, so one of the “suits” at Paramount suggested “Grant” as a last name instead).
The director is Frank Tuttle, who’s obviously imitating Ernst Lubitsch (and I suspect the Venice sets were left over from Lubitsch’s comic masterpiece Trouble in Paradise), but at least this is good imitation Lubitsch, complete with some of the famous “touches” (like the animated radio waves that broadcast the information that Thelma Todd has lost her dress from Paris to London) and also some quite snappy dialogue, including Roland Young telling Charlie Ruggles, “They’re going to tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing” — a line that got recycled as a Groucho Marx putdown of Margaret Dumont in Duck Soup a year later!
This Is the Night is a joyous, sophisticated film of a kind the studios pretty much stopped making after the Legion of Decency marched on Hollywood in 1934 and demanded strict enforcement of the Code — and after Depression-era U.S. audiences got tired of modern-dress comedies set in the luxury hotels and resorts of Europe and started wanting more American stories. It’s a movie that deserves to be much better known instead of being a footnote in film history as the debut feature of a legendary star — and this despite the ludicrous plot device that we’re supposed to believe Thelma Todd is cheating on Cary Grant with Roland Young, of all people, a gimmick film historian Richard Barrios said was probably as unbelievable to audiences in 1932 as it is today.