Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This month’s Pre-Code is…
Night World (1932)
Story of the goings-on at a Prohibition-era nightclub. Starring Lew Ayres, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff, Dorothy Revier, Russell Hopton, Hedda Hopper, Clarence Muse, Dorothy Peterson, Bert Roach, and George Raft. Story by P.J. Wolfson and Allen Rivkin. Screenplay by Richard Schayer. Directed by Hobart Henley. Produced and Distributed by Universal.
“Happy MacDonald’s (Karloff) nightclub is a world of gambling, infidelity and casual encounters. One night, millionaire Michael Rand (Ayres), whose mother shot and killed his unfaithful father, is one of the customers. His drinking attracts the attention of showgirl Ruth Taylor (Clarke), who tries to cheer him up. Edith Blair (Peterson), Michael’s father’s mistress, happens to be seated at a neighboring table. After Ruth leaves to prepare for the next floor show, Edith tells Michael about his father’s unhappy life with his mother. Michael, now very drunk, makes a scene and Happy knocks him out with one punch. Happy also has a bad marriage. While he flirts with the showgirls, his wife Jill (Revier) is involved with Klauss (Hopton), the choreographer. When Happy is threatened by gangsters who want him to use the liquor that they sell, Jill sees an opportunity to get rid of Happy and empties his gun of bullets. Tim the doorman (Muse) is concerned about the condition of his wife who is in the hospital.
“Meanwhile, Ruth and Michael are becoming better acquainted as she takes care of his bruised face and he defends her against womanizer Ed Powell (Raft). Unexpectedly, Michael’s mother (Hopper) comes looking for him. He confronts her with her neglect of his father and himself and she admits that she only married for money and never wanted a child. As night becomes day, Michael asks Ruth to go to Java with him, Happy discovers Jill with Klauss, and Tim learns that his wife has died. Tim sadly leaves for the hospital, but at the door, he is shot and killed by the gangsters gunning for Happy. Warned by the shots, Happy draws his gun, but it has no bullets and Jill dies with him when the gangsters shoot them both. Ruth and Michael witness the shooting and are about to be shot themselves when the beat policeman bursts in and kills the gangsters instead. Now that the sun is up, Ruth and Michael board the boat for Java.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Often referred to in contemporary critical pieces as Universal’s low-budget, seedier take on MGM’s Grand Hotel, Night World isn’t benefited by such comparisons, for this focus on both films’ fundamental utilization of the Aristotelian Unities (of time, place, and action) obscures their real value, which exists in their respective texts’ drama. Additionally, these associations are often meant to denigrate Night World, which simply can’t be compared favorably to a picture that many (including yours truly) rightfully consider a classic. So, I’d rather be more direct in telling you why Night World is good-but-not great: worthy of being profiled here, but not heralded as an essential — it lacks narrative precision. While that aforementioned MGM gem knows exactly the stories it wants to tell and has a very specific means of justifying their competing existences — beyond those good ol’ Aristotelian Unities — Night World, in contrast, seems to throw a lot of different ideas onto a figurative canvas, explaining their inclusions through each individual thread’s entertainment value. That is, Grand Hotel has a grand plan. Night World doesn’t.
But not every picture has to have a grand plan, and as alluded above, there’s enough in this text’s drama to recommend it as a work of filmic fiction — not merely because it’s an entertaining hodgepodge of ideas that, if the above synopses hadn’t already made clear, constitute a veritable “appetizer sampler” of Pre-Code types: chorines, gangsters, cheaters, murderers, drunks, gays, and oh, yes, a sympathetic black man (who’s morally on the up-and-up, but isn’t allowed to have a happy ending — played by the legendary Clarence Muse, too). No, beyond Night World’s Pre-Codian charms (which may be enough of a “grand plan” for a few of you readers!), there’s also some real nice humanity happening in between the flash — the trademark Busby Berkeley musical numbers and curio-laden appearance of Boris Karloff as a night club owner — that both reveals the narrative possibilities of this truth-propelling cinematic era and the superseding reasons for watching it today, either as a lover of Pre-Codes or not.
In other words, what I appreciate most about Night World is that it manages to be a character piece in spite of both the lack of a so-called “grand plan” and the knowing abundance of Pre-Code clichés — which, hey, I’m not knocking; I watch these films to satisfy my personal fascination with these archetypes, and I indeed appreciate Night World‘s own re-organization of them… Of course, the pomp and circumstance — including a bevy of noteworthy casting choices (Clarke, Karloff, Hopper, Muse, and Raft among them) — provides additional draws to those who want an honest sampling of Universal filmmaking in 1932: tight, unvarnished, and loaded with pros (who can act, by the way — Clarke is always great). Again, Night World is no Grand Hotel, but why hold that against it?
Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And tune in Monday for our monthly Musical Theatre entry!