Thursday, February 16, 2017

NIGHTLIFE OF THE GODS (1935)


Nutty professor Hunter Hawk, living in the comfy confines of New York's suburbs, has been driving his relatives even nuttier with his experiments, which inevitably end with earth-shaking explosions. He finally proves his genius by inventing tiny devices that turn people into statues, and vice-versa. This is not what Bob Dylan meant when he sang, "Everybody must get stoned."

After using the device on his relatives -- and, really, wouldn't you like that power? -- Hawk goes for a walk in the woods, where he meets a human-sized immigrant leprechaun and his equally-humanish, beautiful, 900 year-old daughter, Meg, who looks all of 20. (Don't tell President Trump -- he might want to build a wall around Ireland.)

Next time some drunk wants to talk politics
with you, try doing this.
Meg and Hunter hit the town, where they cause a commotion in a nightclub, turning drunks, dancers and cops to stone. Naturally, Meg falls in love him, proving once again that women always go for the troublemakers. 

Believing that the invention can be put to better use, Hunter and Meg stay behind at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after closing time, when they bring the statues of eight Roman gods and goddesses to life, buy them new clothes, and check them into a fancy Times Square hotel. How pathetic is it that statues have it better than I do?

Hunter and Meg (front row, right) party down
with the gods and goddesses.
Now, this might seem a dandy way to spend an evening in New York, until you learn that Bacchus really is a sloppy drunk, and Neptune has a serious fish fetish. Finally admitting that statues should be on pedestals and not pub stools, Hunter brings the gods back to the museum and turns them back to their original forms. As the police close in, Hunter realizes that he's fallen in love with Meg. Not wanting to be separated, they embrace as Hunter turns them both to stone.

By the way, none of this is based on a true story.

When it comes to movies I want to see, Nightlife of the Gods checked all the boxes -- interesting title, potentially fascinating story, pre-code, long-missing. 

By the looks of the P.R. book, they
made more posters than they did
prints of the movie.
Especially long-missing. Nightlife of the Gods disappeared after its original 1935 release. I couldn't even find any images of original, stand-alone posters or lobby cards on the internet -- just a couple of print ads and a page from a Universal Pictures' P.R. book. It was almost like the damn thing never existed... until one surviving print miraculously turned up in the mid-80s. It was polished up by the restoration boys at UCLA, before going into hiding once again, unseen by anyone outside the lab. 

By now, Nightlife of the Gods had entered the mythical plane shared by its titular characters -- no video or DVD, not even an airing on TCM. I hadn't thought about it in a while until I recently went on YouTube -- the unofficial repository of all entertainment previously lost -- and, on a whim, typed in the name, as I had done about 50 times over the years.

And there it was: Nightlife of the Gods, 73 minutes long, posted only a month earlier. 

I nearly choked on my homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. Could it be? Was this for real? Or just a cruel joke by the movie gods? A quick check proved it to be the real thing, alright -- a second or third generation dupe of what appeared to be UCLA's copy, but good enough.

At last, one of the legendary fantasies of pre-code cinema, available for free -- no need to fly 3000 miles and convince the folks at UCLA that I was a dying film scholar, whose final request was to watch the one surviving print of Nightlife of the Gods --and oh, by the way, could you burn me a copy while you're at it? And make it a Blu-ray, if you don't mind.
Mercury, Apollo, and Hebe take a
Roman bath at the Waldorf.

So caught up was I in my discovery that I neglected to take into account one very important thing: almost every "legendary" missing feature that finally turns up inevitably disappoints us salivating movie fans. Nightlife of the Gods, alas, was no different. 

It wasn't for lack of trying. Quite the opposite. Everyone involved in its production tried a little too hard to capture the eccentricity of the original novel, written by Thorne Smith four years earlier. It makes Mary Poppins look like Seven Days in May.

Nah, I think I'll just go to the movie
next door.

Universal Pictures seemed to have been worried by the final productseeing that the movie was slapped with a cutesy pre-credit foreword doubling as a warning and an apology. Its use of "whimsical" was worrisome, as it usually means "too cute by seven-eighths." 

While Hunter's family's dry reaction to his explosive experiments is initially amusing, their arch dialogue ("One doesn't do things about explosions -- they do things for themselves") probably read better on paper rather spoken aloud. In fact, nobody speaks what could be considered even faintly realistic dialogue -- even for a movie about turning people into statues.

The studio also made two big mistake in eliminating the novel's sexuality, and making Hunter Hawk's adventures simply a dream when he was knocked unconscious. As with many movies with this kind of cheap cop-out, it negates any reason for its existence, unless it provides a suitably ironic finale. (For an excellent example, track down the 1945 British thriller Dead of Night.)

This is sexier than anything in the movie.
But, as we were told, Nightlife of the Gods is whimsical. Really whimsical. Like what other whimsical thing can we do kind of whimsical. Meg suddenly stepping out of Hunter's suitcase after he moves to his New York apartment; a cop coming back to life after being turned to stone because he has gallstones (WTF?); Neptune getting into a fish-slapping fight with a fishmonger. Rarely has a movie been so exhaustingly whimsical.

Some people can handle that kind of whimsy. Others... well, I don't think it's a coincidence that both Thorne Smith and Lowell Sherman, the director of Nightlife of the Gods, died within months of each other before the movie's release. Unfortunately, there was no invention to bring them back to life.


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