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Sunday, 22 May 2011

This is the Night (1932)

Director: Frank Tuttle
Stars: Lily Damita, Charlie Ruggles, Roland Young, Cary Grant and Thelma Todd

Every actor has to make their debut on screen somewhere and Archibald Leach made his here, also debuting his new stage name of Cary Grant. Playing an Olympic Javelin thrower, Stephen Mathewson, he's as confident as if he'd had a dozen hits behind him already. He's not quite the Cary Grant he would become: more like a statue of the work in progress, suitably chiselled but not quite right yet. He's young, of course, and heavily made up, but most obviously he's so full of energy that he almost bursts out off the screen, so much so that it isn't much of a stretch to believe that Grant, a trained acrobat, could have been an Olympic athlete himself. However this is a precode and his character only exists to befuddle his wife's attempts to be with her lover, a lover played by Roland Young, the most gloriously understated actor in classic Hollywood. That means that Grant would have dominated the film physically even if he'd played it subtle.

Stephen Mathewson isn't stupid. It doesn't take long for him to see through the comedy of errors that constitutes the initial storyline, which fails to unfold in a remotely believable manner. Claire, his wife, is having an affair with Gerald Gray, and they plan to travel to Venice together on the train. Unfortunately for them, their friend Bunny West gives the tickets to Stephen by mistake. Forced into a clumsy fabrication to cover it all up, Bunny invents a wife for Gerald, which position Gerald promptly has to audition for. A hungry French actress calling herself Chou-Chou lands the part and all the inevitable hijinx ensue. In fact, 'inevitable' is a good word to use, because the dialogue is consistently cheesy, full of puns, obvious situation comedy and occasional forays into song, as if it was based on a vaudeville performance instead of a play. It's certainly stagebound, even outdoors in Venice, but it feels much more like a collection of routines than a story.

There are laughs to be had, even some strong ones on occasion, and I giggled through much of it, but it isn't remotely a subtle piece. The closest it ever reaches is Stephen's understanding of the reality of the situation without letting on, while the rest of it is painted in very broad strokes indeed. What this means is that the main reason it all works isn't because of the story or even the dialogue, but because of the people who bring it to life. The cast is magical, mostly because they know how blatant the whole thing is and play along with its idiocies while staying joyously dry and serious. Lesser actors would have broken it horribly, but here Paramount were especially blessed with the double act of Roland Young and Charlie Ruggles, who fit the roles they're given, of Gerald Gray and Bunny West respectively, so well that the material doesn't matter. I found myself laughing at every cliché. Sober, they're hilarious. Drunk, they're even better.
That's pretty much it for the male side of the cast, which is completed by Irving Bacon, one of the most prolific bit part character actors in Hollywood history, who racked up almost 500 credits like this one. He's Gray's manservant and he gets a running gag that involves him continually but accidentally stripping off Claire's dress. Let's hear it one more time for the precodes! Claire is played by Thelma Todd, who is sufficiently bitchy for us to wonder how she managed to land one man, let alone two, platinum blonde hair notwithstanding. She does a fine job in the part but the script means that she's inherently not the female lead that we spend most of our time watching. She's the chase, Chou-Chou is the catch. Chou-Chou is also played by the delightful Lili Damita, who is remembered more for who she married than who she played on film, but nonetheless lit up a number of films with her presence. She's even better here than she was in The Match King.

Credited as Lily Damita here, she went by many names and many spellings, as befits an exotic and continental wild beauty. Off screen she was known as Dynamita or Tiger Lil and she was an able foil to notorious hellraising second husband Errol Flynn, her first husband being legendary director Michael Curtiz and her third a dairy rancher from Iowa. She demonstrates her fluency in multiple languages as Chou-Chou, but mostly demonstrates a smouldering presence that draws the men to her like moths to a flame. She's magnetic, impossible to ignore, and Thelma Todd's more conventional beauty can't compete, just as Claire can't compete with Chou-Chou. Damita didn't make many films, 34 in 16 years, over half of which were made in Europe: in Germany, the UK or her native France. Her highest rated picture is the French language version of Ernst Lubitsch's One Hour with You, with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald.
Nothing I've commented on thus far is remotely surprising. It's perhaps more ludicrous than we might expect as well as being more admirably enacted by the stellar cast, but that's nothing to shock us. Yet the film does have one real surprise that manifests itself even as the credits begin: it has a very notable sense of style that is far from the norm in this sort of romantic comedy. The credits unfold over an orchestra and when the story begins, the camera sweeps with panache as if this was Roland West adapting The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The angles are imaginative and it's all choreographed around the music, including the sound effects, making the feel somewhat like an ambitious production number, merely without any singing or dancing. We're outside so the film is tinted dark blue, which adds to the effect. That continues throughout the film, with indoors being standard black and white but outdoors being a lush dark blue.

There are points where this feel ventures even more into production number territory, such as the train boarding scene, but the feel is more important than any actual singing. When voices are added, the effect is cheesy and occasionally badly timed, but when they remain absent and we just watch choreography, it's fascinating. I don't know who was responsible, but interesting names in the crew surely contributed. Victor Milner, a nine times Oscar nominee and a winner for 1934's Cleopatra, was the cinematographer. Lucien Ballard, later renowned as Sam Peckinpah's cinematographer, was one of his assistant camera operators. More intriguingly Jean Negulesco was the technical director, very early in a notable career. I wonder if the expressionistic look of these scenes came from him, his talents as a painter and his experience as a stage decorator. Whoever was responsible, they elevated the picture beyond expectations.

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