Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- The film opens with a montage of New York, with a few wordless shots showing a woman getting picked up on the street corner and her later putting on her stockings while he sleeps.
- A film where everyone is sleeping around with everyone else, marital status be damned.
- Also, it’s set in a speakeasy during prohibition. “I’m trying to live long enough to see good liquor come back.”
- Lew Ayres waxes about going down to Bali, “Where all you wear is a smile and a monkey drops coconuts on your head.”
- Besides a ton of people getting murdered left and right, a few even get away with it.
- None other than the legendary Busby Berkeley choreographs the film’s big musical number, which involves plenty of lips a swinging and his trademark “between the legs” camera shot. The movie has a man starring between the legs, with one dancer wryly noting, “The more he comes, the lower he gets.”
- Like any movie with dancers, there’s a section with someone back stage, and there are many women in many shades of undress.
- “He and Ms. Macker are in your office, uh… going over a little routine.”
- There’s a man with a lisp trying to start conversations with men in the bathroom. Wink wink.
- Mae Clarke: “It’s too late to go anywhere. Everything’s closed.”
George Raft: “My apartment’s never closed.”
- Some things never change: “No jury in the world would believe a married man has the right to ease his heart with another woman.”
- The most sympathetic character in the movie? The black doorman. An African-American character portrayed with sincere emotion. Wow. Mind you, there are other black people shown far less respect, but making Tim (Clarence Muse) the emotional core, it’s still a hell of a lot more bold than most movies would do for the next three decades.
A Star-Studded Pile of Corpses
“Whoa,” my fiancee said turning to me. “That’s the coolest death scene I’ve ever seen.”
Let me back up (obviously), and swing back to the start of today’s film, Night World. Taking the a page from Grand Hotel and Wonderbar (both of which I’ll get to at some point), Universal Pictures grabbed a slew of its biggest stars– Boris Karloff! George Raft! Lew Ayres! Uh, Mae Clarke, I guess– and let’s them rollick through one eventful night.
In this case, it’s a Manhattan speakeasy called Happy’s, run by Boris Karloff as charming wheeler and dealer. He keeps his clientele in the drink, and the dancing and sex going all night long. However, Happy isn’t entirely happy, as he’s receiving rather alarming threats from a crooked hood about where his beer supply is coming from, and is busy keeping a close eye on his wife (Dorothy Revier). When Boris Karloff says he keeps his eyes on you, he keeps your eyes on you, and that’s freaking scary.
But Happy’s isn’t the only story, and the movie’s mostly centered on the travails of Michael Rand (Lew Ayres, he of Iron Man). His loving father was recently murdered, and his less-than-loving mother (Hedda Hopper) got off the hook. Luckily dainty dancer Ruth Taylor (Mae Clarke) takes an interest in his hard luck case, and a romance blooms as soon as Rand manages to sober up.
Of course, Rand has to jump in the way of aggressive Ed (George Raft) who attempts to put the moves on Ruth by the old route of calling her a whore, and saying that it’s his turn. It’s good that Michael shows up, since Ruth may be too polite to keep saying ‘no’ forever.
There are plenty of others who show up through the course of the night, as we follow couples carousing, cheating, and doing all manner of illicit things. Notably we have one man lousy with drink who keeps looking for a ride to Schenectady. There’s also the gay gentleman in the nightclub’s bathroom who seems to be looking for someone to spend the evening with. Yeah, you won’t see that in Goodbye Mr. Chips.
The plots play out in fairly predictable ways, but the individual moments between the characters are so– excuse the expression– fucked up that the movie is a wicked little ride. Hearing Hedda Hopper tell her son how much she always loathed him (“I never wanted you, and I hated you!”) with such blunt force is amazing, along with seeing Boris Karloff, freed from being the straight heavy, take such morbid delight in helping his customers in their affairs that, even though he’s an ostensibly nice guy, he’s nice in an oddly menacing way.
Oh, and I’d be remit to forget this– the film contains a dance sequence by Pre-Code legend Busby Berkeley. It’s not exactly one he’s remembered for, but there are some intense bouts of gyrating hips and more than a bit of suggestive light spanking. It’s still enough to make your eyes pop out a bit.
“I haven’t many illusions left, and I’d like to keep the ones I have.”
The entire story is bookended by the plight of the nightclub’s doorman, Tim. What’s remarkable isn’t that he’s a black man who spells out the film’s moral quite handily– explaining to the friendly police officer that people can starve for many things other than food. It’s that his plight is that his wife is in the hospital that evening, and because of the violence and other shenanigans going on at Happy’s.
He weaves between the storylines, but is mostly focused on getting back to his sick wife. While this involves several jokes about how little of medical terminology he knows, there’s no doubt that the rest of the club respects and likes him.
Of course, he ends up getting the short end of the stick by the time we reach the last act. As he’s been stuck on shift long after the surgery has ended, he calls to find out his wife has passed. Devastated, he walks out the door only to be struck down by the hoods Happy was gunning for all evening. Gasping for his final breaths, Tim looks upwards and lets out a huge grin; his heartache was brief, because he knows he’ll be seeing his wife again soon.
Tim’s not typical of minority characters, but that’s what makes him so interesting. He’s not strictly anything, as are none of the other characters in this film. He’s respectable, funny, and nice. It’s a hell of a departure from the other minorities you see (including a few in this film, too). This has definitely made me eager to seek out other Clarence Muse roles.
Kill, Baby, Kill
“Never give a sucker an even break.”
“I never give anybody an even break.”
The most delicious of the film’s racier plots all revolve around Happy and his wife Jill. Jill’s having a pretty brazen affair beneath Happy’s nose, so much so that she’s caught in his office with his dance troupe’s choreographer. He eventually catches on and slaps the bejesus out of the made who deflowered his wife.
She gets her revenge by emptying his revolver, but she doesn’t count on him needing it when she’s around. The thugs at the end who take out time end up ready to take out Happy, too, as well as her. “The boss figures if you’re willing to cheat on a guy as honest as Happy, you’re not going to keep loyal.” She freaks out, and Karloff, with that magnificent Karloff glare looks at her and smiles wickedly. He turns to the gunman: “Come on, big shot. Turn on the heat.”
Karloff’s smile there is so utterly demented that it works perfectly. I can understand why he didn’t play a lot of people who weren’t misunderstood monsters, because the man embodies a certain unhinged creepiness. Even here, completely sympathetic until his last act, you can still see the devil dancing behind his eyes.
The rest of the film’s a good mix of goofy fun and sly romance. It has a lot of everything that got forbidden a few years later, and it has both a big heart and a wicked, nasty sense of humor.
- Here’s a review from Andre Senwald for The New York Times. I think I’m liking Andre more than Mordaunt, though both’s theory of film criticism seems to rely on describing (and spoiling) the plot in as much a poetic fashion as they can license. They’re reviews that are pretty to read, but you don’t get much from. Also, I had no idea Karloff was English.
- A blog entry from More Than Meets the Mogwai talks about the film’s screenwriters and director. Oh, and most importantly, the only other thing on the internet I could find about this incredibly rare film. It might be worth tracking down if you’re into Karloff, or general Pre-Code craziness.
Samuel Mastromauro · February 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm
Why a terrific pre-code like this is not better well known is beyond me,one case being it was for many years considered a lost film, until american movie classics resurrected it from the film vaults of Universal. But still never the less it appears to be Universal’s answer to MGM’S GRAND HOTEL except replacing it with a prohibition speakeasy. With A cast which includes Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke,( fresh from their smash hit Frankenstein the year before) Lew Ayres, Hedda Hopper, George Raft & so many more character actors, snappy dialogue, any number of storylines running through it, & one Busby Berkeley production number, all this being done in under one hour. All this being said makes this a must among classic movie fans especially those interested in the pre-code area. In conclusion I would like to challenge the powers be at Universal studio’s to release this gem on DVD under the Universal rarities collection. It is a real find.
Danny · February 25, 2013 at 5:28 pm
I agree with everything you’ve got here. It’s a hidden gem.
nitrateglow · April 7, 2015 at 9:27 pm
I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this; it looks entertaining as hell!
Danny · April 14, 2015 at 9:12 am
It’s either stuck in copyright hell or ‘Universal’s indifference’ hell, which are both equally unfun. Here’s hoping someone comes to their senses and releases an upgraded version.
nitrateglow · April 30, 2015 at 12:07 pm
The latter explanation would not surprise me. I’m still waiting for Universal to release The Black Cat on its own and in a premium release.
Jeannie · December 23, 2015 at 5:37 am
It’s on Youtube.com! Just saw it last night. Your review is right-on! A great little Pre-Code gem!
Dave M. · January 29, 2016 at 1:00 pm
I watched last night on youtube and was impressed. The opening montage is great as is the role played by Clarence Muse. Muse was an accomplished actor and a pioneer producer of “race’ films before he settled into a Hollywood career.
Danny · February 16, 2016 at 8:20 pm
I desperately want a good biography of Clarence Muse.
Dave M. · February 17, 2016 at 7:43 am
That would definitely be a good read.
T.Wisch · March 18, 2018 at 9:23 am
Love Mae forever and Raft gets a great line: “You oughta pay double on that!”
Janet · September 28, 2018 at 6:01 am
Great pre-code and spot on review!! If anyone wants to see Clarence Muse in another refreshing pre-code role, be sure to check out The Mind Reader.
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