Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: NIGHT AFTER NIGHT (1932)

Archie Mayo's Paramount picture has a specific place in history as Mae West's movie debut, but deserves more recognition on its own terms. It's a near-classic because it's a near-tragedy, compromised by what strikes me as a cop-out happy ending. Everything until then, including the pacing of the climactic scenes and even the many comic bits, seems to point to a darker finish. George Raft, the actual star of the picture, plays Joe Anton, a boxer turned speakeasy owner with a romantic yearning for something more in life, like a crude but earnest cousin to the great Gatsby. He craves acceptance and respect from the ritzy clientele he serves and takes grammar, diction and current events lessons from Miss Jellyman, his patient tutor (Alison Skipworth). He's just the latest owner of an old aristocratic building, the history of which forms a montage over the opening credits. The next owner is already in the wings: a rival gangster, Frankie Guard (Bradley Page) wants to buy Joe out for $50,000, but Joe demands nothing less than a quarter-million. In a way, the house is haunted. Joe grows obsessed with a young woman who comes in some nights and sits at a table by herself. Finally working up the courage to talk to her after chasing a drunk from her table, Joe learns that Jerry Healy (Constance Cummings) used to live here; her family lost the place in the Depression. Joe eagerly invites her to tour the remodeled building with him, rousing the ire of his regular moll Iris Dawn (Wynne Gibson).

Joe gets Jerry to come to dinner at his table, and to make the right impression he invites Miss Jellyman along to play the socialite and feed him appropriate conversation topics. One of the really charming aspects of Night After Night is the innocent enthusiasm with which Alison Skipworth's schoolteacher embraces this adventure. She may be Joe's model of propriety, but spending a night in a speakeasy is an exciting dream come true for her. Unfortunately for Joe's plans, Maudie Triplett (West) crashes his party, just as West herself crashed the picture herself by insisting on writing her own dialogue, including the instantly-legendary "Goodness had nothing to do with it" exchange with a hat-check girl. Looking perhaps ten years younger than she does in her own star vehicles, thanks to more modern fashions, West's Maudie becomes the thing that would not leave, monopolizing conversation while getting Jellyman hammered. Finally Joe leaves Jellyman in Maudie's custody and takes Jerry on the tour, not realizing that Iris, supposedly tossed after making a scene, is stalking them with a gun. His cool response, tricking Iris into turning away so he can rush and disarm her, thrills Jerry, who impulsively kisses him.

The house plays an ambiguous role in the story. It's the thing that draws Joe and Jerry together, giving them a common history, but the film's message is that it's something both of them should leave behind. Jerry has to let go lest she become a kind of living ghost, while Joe needs to realize that it's not worth fighting for. For him especially, it's like a love object substituting for someone real. His enthusiasm for keeping the place waxes and wanes inversely to his ardor for Jerry. Convinced that she loves him, he's suddenly willing to sell out to Frankie Guard for only $200,000. Spurned when he visits her home -- he learns that she's marrying another man (Louis Calhern) for his money -- he welshes on the deal and prepares to go to war with Guard to keep the speakeasy.

Here's what I mean when I say the film builds toward tragedy. Enraged when Joe dismisses her as a gold-digger for whom he doesn't even have contempt, Jerry returns to the speakeasy for a showdown. She storms into the place and demands to see Joe. Joe's right-hand man (Roscoe Karns in a typical role) goes to find Joe, but Jerry heads toward Joe's bedroom, so that Joe has no idea where she is. As they keep missing each other, Guard's men gear up for an all-out assault on the speakeasy. In Joe's room, Jerry throws a Citizen Kane style tantrum, smashing his mirrors and collectible prints among other things. Joe finally catches up with her and figures out that she wouldn't be flipping out like this if she didn't love him. He proves the point forcefully, forcing himself on her until she gives in to her true feelings. Since this is a movie, this is true love, after all. All that remained, I thought, was for Joe to be killed. But I didn't reckon on the screenplay's rejection of the tragic romanticism that otherwise would be focused on the house. During this showdown we hear explosions and gunfire as Guard launches his attack. Joe's men alert him to the danger we can all hear plainly enough, but Joe laughs it off. Guard's only shooting up his own place, he says, signalling his ultimate choice of love over ownership, just as Jerry chooses the now of Joe, her modern-day pirate, over her nostalgia for the building and her family's wealth. The end-title shows the building transformed yet again into Frankie Guard's nightclub, but the real message is that Joe and Jerry have transcended the place and, presumably, the sort of materialism it represents.

For a Pre-Code picture -- not to mention a George Raft picture -- Night After Night is quite the earnest romance, more charming for Raft's halting but sincere approach to the material. It's still indisputably a Pre-Code product, from its unjudgmental treatment of a lawbreaker to the gratuitous shot of two beautiful women suggestively sharing a cigarette to the inescapable bawdiness of Mae West and Alison Skipworth sleeping off their drunk in the same bed. The funniest bit in the film is the mistaken-identity joke that results when West suggests that Skipworth, terrified at having slept through a schoolday, could do well in West's own line of work. Skipworth is half horrified, half utterly baffled at this invitation -- for those who've never seen her, Skipworth was going on 70 -- and West is baffled at her horror until she clears the air by explaining that she runs a chain of beauty parlors. Why, what were you thinking? That the speakeasy could bring such disparate characters together and make them friends seems at odds with the main story's suggestion that the building is almost accursed for Joe and Jerry, and that inconsistency of tone is a nagging issue throughout the film. But Night After Night mostly thrives on its contradictions, and as long as you don't see the happy ending as an anticlimax you could easily enjoy it from beginning to end.

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