Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Night After Night (Paramount, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s film was Night After Night, a 1932 Paramount production that was a weird combination of gangster movie and soap opera that would probably be totally forgotten if it didn’t contain the screen debut of Mae West. Paramount signed her for a supporting role — she’s billed fourth, after George Raft, Constance Cummings and the virtually forgotten but quite impressive Wynne Gibson, and just ahead of the marvelous comedienne Alison Skipworth — and she doesn’t appear until the 37th minute of this 76-minute film, but as George Raft rather disgustedly put it later, “She stole everything but the cameras.” I’d seen Night After Night only once before, on the old Channel 36 in San José which by some freak of the UHF signals back when virtually everyone still watched TV over-the-air instead of on cable came in beautifully and clearly in Marin County just north of San Francisco and gave me my first glimpse of quite a few great old movies. For a while they were doing a weekly comedy showing that basically alternated between the Paramount films of the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields and Mae West, and one night for some reason they showed this film in that time slot because West was in it.

The film — directed with more moxie than usual by Archie Mayo from a script by Kathryn Scola, with additional dialogue by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Vincent Lawrence and Mae West (who, blessed be, was allowed to write the scenes in which she appears), all derived from a story called “Single Night” by the sporadically interesting writer Louis Bromfield — opens with a clever montage sequence showing first the construction of a house at number 55 in New York City. We’re never told what street number 55 is the address of, but it’s clearly a house that’s built as a mansion in an upper-class neighborhood and thereafter is turned over under less and less ritzy terms as the neighborhood goes downhill. When it reaches the 1932 present it’s been bought at auction by ex-prizefighter Joe Anton (George Raft) — whose last name is pronounced “Antone,” by the way — who’s turned it into a speakeasy that’s become a huge success. Anton has also racked up an impressive number of female conquests, including edgy mistress Iris Dawn (Wynne Gibson) — Charles joked at the phoniness of that name and I, reflecting on blues legend Howlin’ Wolf’s real name, said, “Her real name was Mabel Kling Harding Burnett” — good-time girl Maudie Triplett (a really awkward name for a Mae West character!) and the one he’s currently after, classy woman Jerry Healy (Constance Cummings). Jerry comes to number 55 (like the later Studio 54, it’s been named after its address) and spends her evenings drinking alone because — as we learn about one-third of the way through the film — her family used to own the house and she was born and raised there before they lost all their money and had to sell it.

Our Joe is becoming disgusted with himself and his success; when we first see him (with tousled hair instead of Raft’s usual greasy pomade, and showing off quite a lot of upper-body male flesh — and even a tuft of chest hair — unusual for an early-1930’s movie) he’s in bed reading a story about Albert Einstein having given an interview in which he says it’s both personally and socially destructive to have too much money. Like Edward G. Robinson in the next year’s The Little Giant — also about a gangster who’s disgusted with his lifestyle and is looking to develop better manners and classier English so he can crash society — Joe has hired a teacher, Mabel Jellyman (Alison Skipworth), to improve his English and make his overall affect more suitable for “society.” A further complication Joe has to deal with is a rival gang, headed by Frankie Guard (Bradley Page), who resent Joe’s success because it’s cutting into the profits of their own illegal boîtes. In classic gangster-movie fashion Guard and his men first attempt to buy Joe out, offering him $50,000 for the place — Joe counteroffers to sell it for $250,000 — and in the meantime Joe tries to romance Jerry, including virtually raping her when she resists too much (and in the bizarre misogyny of many films in this genre, his vicious sexual assault on her is what finally makes her decide she loves him!), deals with her rich suitor Dick Bolton (Louis Calhern), and ultimately sells the place for $200,000 after a gang of Guard’s thugs comes in and starts wrecking the place — which we don’t see; we merely hear what’s going on while Joe and Jerry are enacting their rape-into-romance drama in one of the house’s upstairs rooms. Joe and Jerry end up together, though heaven knows where doing heaven knows what, and the final shot is of the building at number 55, now with a neon sign in front announcing Guard’s ownership, and instead of the usual criss-crossing searchlights Paramount generally used for their end credits in the 1930’s and 1940’s the final credits come up in front of a shot of the house.

Critics and audiences in 1932 basically thought Mae West’s electrifying and audacious appearance was the best thing in the film. Unexpectedly, instead of setting her sights on one of the males in the movie, she puts the moves on (of all people) Alison Skipworth, including sleeping in the same bed with her and ending up arm-in-arm at the end, a pretty audacious Lesbian implication even by the loose standards of the so-called “pre-Code” era in which West did her best work. It’s when Skipworth’s character asks her if she believes in love at first sight that West replies with her second-most-famous line from this film: “Well, it sure saves a lot of time!” Though the original trailer (included as a bonus item on the DVD) focused almost exclusively on George Raft as the star attraction (it did include West’s famous early line; when she shows up at number 55 and the hat-check girl marvels at her jewels — “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds” — West snaps back, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, honey”: the diamonds were real, not glass or paste imitations, and they were West’s own property, not something from the Paramount costume or props departments), West’s scenes were so electrifying Paramount signed her to a star contract and gave her virtually everything she wanted. She sold them the rights to her stage hit Diamond Lil as her next film (though they retitled it She Done Him Wrong), she demanded the right not only to write the scripts for all her films but to be credited as writer in type 75 percent the size of her credit as star, and she got to pick her own leading man (she picked Cary Grant). Night After Night takes off and flies when Mae West is on the screen, but even when she isn’t it’s an oddly compelling melodrama, creaky at times but still a lot of fun and a much better film overall than its reputation.