Monday, January 16, 2017

The Grant Mystique: This is the Night

Roland Young, Cary Grant, and Thelma Todd in This is the Night (1932)

There are more films starring Cary Grant in my movie collection than films starring any other actor. No small feat given how many films I have with John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and Christopher Lee, respectively. I think John Wayne may have been in the lead until this Christmas, when my main Christmas gift was the Universal Vault Collection of Grant's early films, most of them from the pre-1950 Paramount library that Universal owns. They've been stingy with that library over the years. Many of the films in this set have never seen a commercial release for home video. In any event, this set has eighteen films, all made before 1935, before Grant was "Cary Grant," before he had fully developed the Grant persona (stolen from Leo McCarey on the set of The Awful Truth, if you believe McCarey on the matter). Grant's star became a supernova after 1937, when he began appearing in some of his best-loved films, including Topper and the aforementioned The Awful Truth. The films in The Vault Collection are not so well-known as a rule. Oh, it has the two films Grant made for Mae West, sure, and Blonde Venus with Marlene Dietrich and Joseph Von Sternberg, but those aren't really "Cary Grant" films, even if Mae West recognized a diamond in the rough when she saw one. West had an eye for diamonds.

Cary Grant and Thelma Todd in This is the Night (1932)
He's just happy to see her.

Grant made his screen debut in This is the Night (1932, directed by Frank Tuttle), a salacious pre-Code comedy in which the actor is billed fifth behind Lily Damita, Charles Ruggles, Thelma Todd, and Roland Young. Young is the ostensible lead even though he's down the cast list a bit himself, behind Damita and Ruggles. He plays Gerald Grey, a tomcatting Parisian bachelor who's taken up with Claire, a married woman whose husband is supposedly away throwing javelins in the Los Angeles Olympics. The husband, Steve, is played by Cary Grant. Steve shows up unexpectedly after Gerald has booked a trip to Venice for Claire and himself. Rather than be caught out cheating with Steve's wife, he books the trip as a foursome, with his own "wife" as the fourth. The problem then becomes to find a woman to play his wife for the trip. He hires struggling actress, Germaine, herself impersonating the better known Chou-Chou who was Gerald's first choice. They all decamp for Venice where Germaine falls under Steve's scrutiny. He knows something is up. Meanwhile, living as pretend husband and wife has unexpected emotional entanglements for Gerald and Germaine, who unexpectedly find themselves falling in love.

Roland Young and Cary Grant in This is the Night (1932)

This is a typical pre-Code bedroom farce, in which morals are loose and situations are ridiculous. This doesn't have the same level of snappy dialogue you find in the best pre-Code farces--your Troubles in Paradise, your Designs for Living, your Duck Soups--but there's no shame in that, I guess. Not everyone can have Lubitsch or Noel Coward or Ben Hecht or Groucho Marx on board. This film is crude by comparison. Its central running gag involves Thelma Todd repeatedly getting her dress torn off of her by accident. It's an unpleasant gag, truth to tell, one that's deeply shaming of both the character--already cast as a cheating slut by the story--and, one can't help but think, of the actress herself.

Lily Damita in This is the Night (1932)

Todd shrinks into the background once Lily Damita shows up on screen. Damita is appealingly French, bringing a Gallic earthiness to her role even when she's wearing ridiculously ornate costumes. She's as appealing in a slip dress as she is an the Gothic black gown she winds up in late in the film (as as a personal aside, I sat up at the sight of that black gown--I want one). The movie views her as an innocent, in spite of the fact that she's a kept woman for most its length. She's a familiar archetype from the pre-Code era: the desperate woman who's down on her luck, usually an actress, who gets a big break. Think Ann Darrow in King Kong, though Germaine doesn't get the big ape. Instead, she gets Roland Young. I don't know who got the better deal. In real life, Damita married Errol Flynn, so there's that, I guess.

Lily Damita in This is the Night (1932)

This film was directed by Frank Tuttle with surprising syncopation. Parts of the film seem like a musical even though it's not really a musical with song numbers or anything. The great animation director Friz Freling storyboarded his cartoons on a musical staff, and I can imagine this film being constructed in much the same way. It cuts at the beat when it's on its rhythm. The appalling sexism of its main running gag, with it's refrain of "Madame has lost her dress!" is only palatable as part of the film's broader aesthetic design. Well...maybe not even then, but the visual design of the film's opening scene is striking. This is certainly not an auteur's picture, for all its visual splendor. The vast palatial rooms in which it is set and its affluent characters with no visible means of support are a pure fantasy for a Depression-era audience, but they don't reflect Tuttle's own politics. He was a card-carrying Communist when he made this film, later to be brought before HUAC and compelled to name names, but you'd never glean Tuttle's politics from This is the Night. Oh, I suppose you can see a glimmering of class struggle in Germaine's desperation set next to the upper class twits who are exploiting her, but even she aspires to their life. Otherwise, This is the Night is as bourgeois as they come.

Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles, and Roland Young in This is the Night (1932)

The absurdity of This is the Night can be summed up by standing Cary Grant next to Roland Young. The idea that Thelma Todd would choose Young over Grant is patently ridiculous. Mind you, Grant sometimes vanished into the background in his early roles, but in this film, he is obviously a Movie Star with capital letters from the moment he walks on screen. This is partly due to the low wattage of the stars around him. Next to Young and Charles Ruggles, Grant is positively incandescent. But part of it is Grant himself, who over time became THE Movie Star, the one who is the archetype of movie stars when the phrase is spoken. Grant was 27 when he made this film, young enough to be pants-wettingly handsome, but old enough to seem experienced and worldly. Grant never had a period on film when he seemed like a callow youth. He was always a man in full, and even with an absurd quiver of javelins in hands in his very first movie scene, this shines through. The "Grant Persona," as I call it, wasn't yet fully formed, but this film has hints of it, including the occasional nastiness that surfaced as part of that persona. You can see dim glimmers of Grant's characters in Suspicion and Notorious in this film, to say nothing of Walter Burns in His Girl Friday. Grant himself did not like his character or his performance in this film. He thought he was too much of a jerk. He almost left Hollywood afterward, and we would all be poorer for that.

There are some more screen caps at my screen cap tumblr, The Cinema Panopticon.

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