Saturday, September 6, 2014

This Could Be the Night (MGM, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This Could Be the Night, which Charles and I watched after I’d recorded it from TCM three days ago, is a real weirdie, a 1957 Joe Pasternak production from MGM that attempts a walk on the wild side whose official plot synopsis on the TCM schedule — “A schoolteacher gets a secretarial job at a gangster-run nightclub” — led me to expect a considerably darker movie than we got. Directed by Robert Wise — and something of a warmup for his two big musicals in the 1960’s, West Side Story and The Sound of MusicThis Could Be the Night opens with a big, brassy song of that title, written by Nicholas Brodszky and Sammy Cahn but a far different sort of piece from Brodszky’s biggest hit, “Be My Love.” It’s belted out by Julie Wilson, who’s playing Ivy Corlane, star attraction (along with Ray Anthony and his band, playing themselves — Anthony was a quite good swing trumpeter and bandleader who had the misfortune of arriving on the scene about 10 to 15 years too late for the height of the big bands) at the Tonic nightclub, owned by nice gangster Rocco (Paul Douglas) and his junior partner, younger, hunkier but considerably nastier gangster Tony Armotti (Anthony Franciosa, making his film debut). As a name for a nightclub, “Tonic” doesn’t exactly connote a venue of joyous, free-spirited people drinking, listening to music and having fun, but then the club next door to it has an even more unappetizing name, “Blue Duck.” Anyway, Our Heroine, Anne Leeds (Jean Simmons), has just come to New York from the Midwest and has been teaching school for four weeks when she realizes that — even with a room in a boarding house owned by an older couple who are so relentlessly overprotective of her they seem more like her parents than her landlords — just teaching school isn’t going to make her enough money to live in the Big Apple. So she looks through the want ads for a suitable job and finds one as a combination secretary and bookkeeper at the Tonic, where her innocence and naïveté come off as near-imbecility — she seems not only a fish out of water but a fish hurled into a bath of acid — until she starts helping, Mary Worth-style, the Tonic’s other employees to realize their dreams.

She gets the Tonic’s star dancer, Patsy St. Clair (Neile Adams, the first wife of Steve McQueen and, well after his death, author of a memoir about their highly troubled marriage), a recipe for a carrot cake with which she wins a cooking contest and a stove of her own — and Patsy’s mother Crystal (Joan Blondell, visibly older and slower but still a voice of reason in the dramatis personae as she’d been at Warners in the 1930’s), whom she was scared would not approve, is overjoyed. She helps busboy Hussein Mohammed (Rafael Campos) pass an algebra test in school and thereby stop being bullied by his fellow students and win the right to change his name (though Charles wondered — as did I — why the one conferred the other, and I noted that the level of prejudice a kid named “Hussein Mohammed” faced in 1957 was actually smaller than it would be now, when his schoolmates would denounce him and his family as terrorists!). She also predictably falls for Tony Armotti despite the fact that he’s such a compulsive womanizer his bedroom should have a revolving door on it and a take-a-ticket sign reading, “Next” — an attitude engendered in him by Rocco, who proudly boasts that he took Tony off the street and made something of it, adding that if he wants to stay “something” he should exploit women for his sexual needs but not let any one female get close to him and start dropping nasty words like “love” and “marriage.” This Could Be the Night is actually a quite engaging movie, though (like such acknowledged classics as Meet Me in St. Louis and M*A*S*H) it began as a series of interconnected but still severable short stories by the same author (in this case, Cornelia Baird Gross) about the same characters, and as a result it’s an episodic movie more interesting in its parts than as a whole. Still, it’s a surprisingly well-written film (Isobel Lennart was the screenwriter, and she manages to convey the sentimentality of the original material without overdoing it — later she would write Funny Girl, which gives you a pretty good idea of her sensibility and why she responded well to this story) and with delightful 1930’s character actors like Blondell, J. Carrol Naish (as the restaurant’s head cook) and ZaSu Pitts adding to the appealing younger performers — though I thought Julie Wilson was a far more interesting screen presence than Simmons and I also liked her vocals, basically belting out pop songs with a hint of pathos in her delivery that she should have explored more. It’s an unusual voice and one I’d like to hear more of!