Monday, March 11, 2013

THIS IS THE NIGHT (1932)

As the iconic image of Paramount's snow-capped mountain fades, we see pretty quickly this will be no ordinary movie. Under the opening credits, an orchestra warms up. When the last name appears, a conductor steps to the podium and taps the stand with his baton. He opens the lead sheet of the score. He lifts his hands, the orchestra comes to attention -- and the symphony of sex known as This is the Night begins.

A lesser-known example of the pre-code romantic farce that Paramount specialized in, This is the Night also shows how, in retrospect, studios didn't necessarily understand the potential talent they had under contract. (This was touched upon in a previous post on Meet the Baron.) That This is the Night is a more egregious example in no way spoils the fun; indeed, it adds to the entertainment value in a way unintended at the time.

This is the Night's story is the kind that the French once turned out like andouille.  Gerald Gray and Claire Mathewson are in the midst of an affair when Claire's husband, Stephen, returns home unexpectedly. Having already booked a trip for two to Venice, Gerald engages his friend Bunny to hire a woman to pose as his wife while Stephen travels to the same hotel with Claire. Germaine, a struggling actress who needs the money, eagerly accepts the offer.

This probably isn't even the first time Claire has had an affair during her marriage. As they prepare to leave for Venice from Paris, Claire finally realizes Stephen might be be suspicious. Stephen, she tells Gerald, is acting especially nice with her. And the last time he was that nice, she says, "I wound up with a black eye." (There was a time when violence against women was good for a laugh.)

You know how this will play out. Claire immediately becomes jealous as Germaine does her job too well, to the point of coming on to Stephen. By the end of the movie, Gerald and Germaine fall in love, while Claire returns to Stephen. It's the kind of thing Ernst Lubitsch could do in his sleep and, indeed, director Frank Tuttle does his best to ape the master. Rhythmic dialogue, double-entendres, sophisticated slapstick (a running gag throughout features Claire's clothes getting accidentally torn off) -- it's all here, along with generous with generous dollops of sex. And drinking -- lots of drinking. (If movie characters today indulged in dope-smoking as much as they did with booze during Prohibition, we'd never hear the end of it.)

Black eye aside, it's never made clear what Claire saw in Gerald in the first place. It can't be money, because she lives the good life. As for Germaine, she doesn't seem to be they type for whom money is the be-all end-all of a relationship. Perhaps all of this tomfoolery was to make Depression-era audiences feel superior to the upper class. 


Strictly on a technical level, This is the Night is fascinating to watch today for its rich blue hues in the exterior nighttime scenes, tinting being a not uncommon effect for major movies at the time. Audiences today not used to it may find it jarring when, say, an old movie suddenly switches from black & white to blue to yellow (for indoor electric lighting) to black & white again, but back then it was just part of the show. (Frankenstein's original prints were tinted green, which Universal hyped as "the color of fear." This makes sense only if one is afraid of pea soup.)

But a movie like This is the Night lives or dies not by tinting but the cast's ability to pull off the sophisticated machinations. The top-billed actors might be nearly-forgotten today but are all at the top of their game here.  Lily Damita (Germaine, a/k/a Chou-Chou) was a kind of French Lupe Velez, a fiery sexpot whose accent was the source of comedy but whose sensuality cannot be denied. Charlie Ruggles (Bunny) was the master of befuddlement; his halting delivery is something of a proto-Christopher Walken, only you wouldn't run in the opposite direction if you saw him approaching one dark night.

The onscreen persona of Roland Young (Gerald) was uptight decades before the word  existed. Similar to Ruggles, Roland's constant state of perplexity is of a more sophisticated sort; he's the type to, say, talk to himself while trying to figure out a can opener. Too, he seems to have been born middle-aged. (He's 45 in This is the Night but could pass for a decade older.) Thelma Todd (Claire) was a sexy blonde with a welcome flair for comedy, whose shenanigans with Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Wheeler & Woolsey made her one of the best-loved actresses of her time.

But what of Claire's cuckolded husband, Stephen? Well, he's certainly built-up in the dialogue by being something of a geek. He's supposed to be at the Olympics in L.A. throwing a javelin, which Claire seems to find an unacceptable sport. She also finds  annoying his habit of singing everywhere, including in bed. So if the guy you're stepping out with is in a constant state of emotional constipation, hubby must be a real loser, right? 

Unless hubby is played by Cary Grant. Then the question becomes, Whaaaa? In what universe is it believable that a dish like Thelma Todd would throw Cary Grant over for Roland Young? If this was Paramount's way of making over This is the Night to absurdist fantasy, then it succeed far beyond expectations. More likely, it was just a way to introduce its newest contract player, a former stage actor, to movie audiences in a humble supporting role. Never was a movie debut more off-kilter. From the moment he makes his entrance singing offscreen as he walks up a flight of stairs, Grant runs every scene he's in. As good as his co-stars are, Cary Grant is Cary Grant. His comedic timing is already in place, and charm & charisma fairly burst off the screen. He has less screentime than the others, but, boy, does he make every minute count (whether he means to or not). 

This is the Night is what used to be called a bedroom farce. A naked Germaine hastily using drapes for a dress. Gerald falling off a ladder. Claire and Gerald engaging in risque dialogue regarding Stephen's javelin technique. Gerald desperately trying to give Germaine cues in order to throw Stephen off the track. Claire and her aforementioned penchant of accidentally getting undressed in public. Bunny falling drunk into a Venetian canal. (Bunny is the best friend, meaning no sex for him.) And music, quite a bit for a non-musical, for which the dialogue often keeps time to. (A semi-spoken song in the opening scene, "Madame Has Lost Her Dress," becomes a motif throughout the rest of the movie.)

Bedroom farces need a light touch -- they can walk a very fine line between wit and crudeness. I'm not sure anyone, other than George Clooney, has the class to pull off a movie like This is the Night now. And who would believe, say, Jennifer Aniston cheating on him with Tommy Lee Jones? No, This is the Night is a time capsule of a style that could never be successfully replicated today.

It's certainly an irony that the unknown actor who made his movie debut here wound up becoming bigger than his already-established co-stars combined. Top-billed Lily Damita never quite made it in talkies, and is best remembered as Errol Flynn's first wife. At 26, he was five years her junior at the time of their wedding, and until the end of his life considered her the most beautiful woman he ever knew. Today, her looks don't seem as striking; in fact, there are times in This is the Night where she bears an unfortunate resemblance to Joy Behar. Her sexuality, though, runs just under the surface at all times, so you can never ignore her.



Charlie Ruggles' movie career started in 1915 and continued on TV a couple of year before his death in 1970. Baby-boomers who think they've never heard of Ruggles will certainly remember him as the voice of Aesop in the "Aesop & Son" segments of Rocky & Bullwinkle. Another long-time star, Roland Young, found his most acclaimed role as Cosmo Topper, the, yes, perplexed sophisticate haunted by equally-sophisticated ghosts in a series of features produced by Hal Roach.
And it was Hal Roach saw the comedic potential of Thelma Todd when he put her under in contract in the late '20s. One of the few actresses who could combine sex with slapstick, Todd had a tendency to fluctuate from slim to zaftig. She was contractually obliged by Roach to keep her weight at a certain amount lest she be fined for every extra pound -- a provisio known around the studio as "the potato clause."  As beautiful and talented as she was, she's unfortunately known best for her death at 29 by asphyxiation in her garage in 1935.

And as for Cary Grant... well, suffice it to say that it wouldn't hurt to carve out 80 minutes of your time when TCM next schedules This is the Night. Try to watch it as you would have in 1932, when you might have been a fan of Charlie Ruggles or Thelma Todd or Roland Young. Will your natural reaction to Cary Grant be the same as it would have been over 81 years ago -- "Hm, who's that tall guy with the weird accent? What is that, British or something"? Or will his legendary status be so drilled into your mind that your only reaction will be, "Oh my God, it's Cary Grant!" -- and regret every moment that the "stars" take control while the newcomer waits patiently in the wings for his next line?



Probably the latter.  For today's audiences, then, This is the Night is a farce in more ways than one.

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