Night After Night (1932) – An overlooked masterpiece of the Prohibition era

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The marginally obscure 1932 film Night after Night, has recently received renewed popular attention through the most unlikely source: a sensation that has taken the reincarnation studies world by storm. The claims of a young boy (Ryan Hammons) who vividly remembers his past life as a bit actor with a one and only appearance on screen in Night After Night, has brought the film back into the mainstream media spotlight, after sitting on the home video shelf since 1993 inside the Ultimate Mae West collection. When I dug up the film to indulge my new infatuation with the paranormal, I was surprised to find that neither the reincarnated man Marty Martyn nor Mae West really caught my attention. Instead, I was carried away by how the wisecracking comedy and especially the patent-leather haired lead George Raft so effectively captured the essence of prohibition-era America. Made around the final days of prohibition in late 1932, the film’s Gatsbyesque portrayal of life in a speakeasy (an illicit establishment serving alcohol) deserves much more appreciation for its astute social commentary and ambivalent tribute to the “happy days” of a crazy era coming to an end.

Through a simple plot adapted from a short story Single Night by Pulitzer Prize winning author Louis Bromfield, the unlikely romance between a gangster speakeasy owner and a classy female patron fallen on hard times, cleverly weaves in social issues resulting from seismic shifts in class structure. While prohibition had enabled the quick rise of low class immigrants through illegal bootlegging from 1920, the stock market crash of 1929 saw the sudden decline of many members of the traditional upper class. The snappy story published in Hearst’s International Cosmopolitan (June 1932) may have been catered to the mass market, but its clever combination of odd characters and incidents that take place primarily within one location of the speakeasy (a unique cultural product of prohibition), within one night (the film stretches it to three nights – hence the name change from Single Night to Night After Night), provides a rich cultural text that expresses the complex feelings about the madness of the times.

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Page spread of Louis Bromfield’s story Single Night in International Cosmopolitan June 1932.

Paramount studio’s choice of this story for George Raft’s starring debut seems fitting. Night After Night was a semi-biographical film that enabled him to play himself: A former third rate pug turned wealthy speakeasy owner – although George Raft’s Cinderella-man story is of course a transformation into a legitimate Hollywood star, he had briefly been a small time bootlegger, boxer and was very familiar with the nightclub scene as a dancer not proprietor. The trailer makes it no secret that this film was made for his fans and generously offers the then new star and his sex appeal to satisfy audience demands. Rarely has the importance of audience participation in filmmaking decisions been so explicitly acknowledged.

“You discovered him in “Scarface”,
You talked about him in “Dancers in the Dark”,
You applauded him in “The Sporting Widow”,
You were right!
You the maker of stars have made him a star!
George Raft.
A Man’s Man,
A Woman’s Lover,
in Night After Night”.

The first thing that flies out of the black screen is a big pointing finger, followed by the flying words “YOU”, like the iconic 1914 WWI recruitment campaign of Lord Kitchener pointing a finger and saying “BRITONS want YOU, join your country’s army! God save the King” and the 1917 imitation poster of Uncle Sam saying “I want YOU for U.S. army”. The almighty YOU in this case is that nebulous but powerful force known as “the paying public”. This film was made for “YOU” who spoke through the many fan magazines to the eager ears of decision making producers. In a market economy,  “YOU (was) right”, because the customer is always right.

Frame grab from the film’s trailer, “Lord Kitchener Wants You” WWI British campaign poster and Uncle Sam US Army recruitment poster.

George Raft shot to stardom nearly overnight with his coin-flipping performance in Scarface (1932) Even in his minor roles in Dancers in the Dark and Madame Racketeer (AKA The Sporting Widow), made earlier in 1932, audiences were quick to notice him as more than an average bit player. In the July 1932 issue of Photoplay magazine, a picture of George Raft has a caption that reads: “Mr. Gable, Mr. Weissmuller, et al. – watch out for the young man. He’s the new boy, all right, and make no mistake about that. PHOTOPLAY’S Answer Man received more questions about this lad than any six people this month and hundreds of letters of praise poured in, all on account of George Raft.” In response to another line in the same issue “‘Give us more pictures with George Raft’ the fans implore”, Paramount eagerly answered the call to give the paying audience what they wanted so eagerly to splash their money on.

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Feature photo of Photoplay’s “Ask the Answer Man” column, July 1932.

In spite of the shameless commercial motives of making Night After Night, the cinematic rendering respects the richness of Bromfield’s sophisticated story, enhancing it with perfectly matched camera work by Academy Award winning cinematographer Ernest Haller, well-timed editing, a strong cast and a witty script. The film adaptation by Vincent Lawrence and Kathryn Scola adds more gangster elements, lighthearted comedy and hot passion to the original story to “Race your pulse, Thrill your heart”. Director Archie Mayo’s careful construction of filmic elements here is comparable to his more celebrated masterpiece The Petrified Forest (1936), similarly centred on the chemistry and tensions between an odd mix of characters in a confined space. The only complaint about having so much cleverness packed into this little film, is that some devout pure film advocates may find it feels more like a stage play than a movie.

The meticulous construction of this film is immediately sensed in the choreography of the introductory tour through the speakeasy. After the opening credits show the changing signs for the slow sale of a stately town house known as Number 55, accompanied by a jazzed up version of  “Home, Sweet Home”, the film’s action begins with a flower delivery to the front door of the newly inhabited mansion. Starting from the door where a tough talking man called Leo (Roscoe Karns) picks up the delivered flowers, the camera follows him as he goes into the house where the staff are seen preparing for the evening, up the grand curved staircase to the first floor where he asks Blaney (Al Hill) to put the flowers (all except one that he puts into his button hole) on ice and picks up a small package. The camera continues to follow Leo as he ascends to the top floor, enters a marble bathroom to prepare the tub and puts the one flower into a cup of water, before finally entering a dark bedroom. The finale of the sequence is the drawing of the curtain that lights up the room and slowly pans to the left to follow Leo’s line of vision, creating a natural reflex in the viewer’s eyes to widen with curiosity. The anticipation to know what Leo is looking at, and opening of the curtain that symbolises the beginning of a stage show, dramatically introduces the film’s star, George Raft in his character as Joe Anton, sleeping in a bed.

opening2bsequence2b1Opening shot 1: Flower delivery van pulls up in front of the house.

Opening shot 2: View of flower delivery man from the back of the truck, picks up flowers, pans to the right to shoot him running into the house.

opening2bsequence2b3Opening shot 3: Delivery man walks up to the front door from left, hands flowers over to Leo.

Opening shot 4: Leo enters the house from left, camera pans to right, follows him up the steps.

Opening shot 5: Leo seen coming up the steps from left, enters into room 1 to look for Blaney, walks over to the right, enters room 2 where he finds Blaney and hands over the box of flowers, exits and continues walking to the right to enter room 3 with a bar to pick up a box, stationery camera continues to pan and tilt to follow Leo to the right up another curved staircase.

Opening shot 6: Leo walks into the corridor from left, camera pans to the left to show him entering another room.

Opening shot 7: Enters bathroom to prepare bathtub, puts flower in a cup of water, then exits to the right into another room.

opening2bsequence2b18Opening shot 8: Leo enters a dark bedroom from right, walks left towards the curtain, draws the curtain to let in light, camera slowly pans to the left to show Joe asleep in bed.

The sequence’s ascent from the ground floor to the top, symbolises the hierarchy of the personnel who live and work there. The speakeasy is almost made to feel like a royal palace where the boss sleeps on the top floor, gets to wake up the latest and has everyone else do all the work for him – think “Little Caesar”.

The film wastes no time in giving the audience Raft sex appeal in his introductory scene. This up close and personal sequence of him waking up in bed and going through his morning routine, includes some saucy shots of him undressing and a nude side shot of him stepping into the bath tub. Pre-code films (1929-1934), of which this is one, were frequently inclined to exploit female sexuality in tantalising scenes of undressing or sexy bathtub scenes, but George Raft’s naked bathtub scene is an interesting gender reversal. The popular study of Pre-code Hollywood has often focused on “complicated women” and female sex appeal, but there is also plenty of male sex appeal for the female gaze that is often overlooked. Modern gender equality is given full service here in objectifying a man for the female gaze and its acknowledgement of the female sex drive. In an obvious nod to gushing fan letters, filmmakers seemed determined to give viewers their money’s worth in George Raft. Although, are women really interested in seeing naked men? I thought women liked to swoon over men in manly roles, and only men sexually attracted to men liked to see naked pictures of men?

George Raft’s Bathroom scene 1) taking off his pants  2) naked side shot stepping into the bathtub 3) taking a bath

Anyway, while scrubbing himself in the bath, we find Joe lamenting his dissatisfaction with life. Though he has come up in the world from a third rate pug, “taking it on the chin for a price of a shirt” to become “the owner of the swellest speak in New York”, he is looking for something more in life than just money. As he tells his right hand man Leo, “I can’t stand it no more, I’m sick of the smell of booze, sick of noise, sick of being a pal to a lot of drunks. I’m not getting any place!” Even gangsters get tired of partying night after night. One way this maturing gangster tries to get some place, is by taking lessons from a cultured English spinster Miss Jellyman (Alison Skipworth) on how to be a gentleman.

Joe appears to have his prayers answered when a rival mobster Frankie Guard (Bradley Page) offers a civilized gesture to buy out his place. At the same time, a mysterious young lady comes to his speakeasy night after night who makes him realise its probably time to settle down and stop wasting time with dames like his two exes Maudie (Mae West) and Iris (Wynne Gibson). It is ironic that “the lady” Miss Healy (Constance Cummings) turns out to be the daughter of the former house owner, and the old world and new world meet in a funny sort of courtship. Miss Healy too happens to be going through her own personal crisis as she has to decide whether to marry her wealthy suitor Mr Bolton (Louis Calhern) for money and not love (a lightened version of the suicidal Mrs Willingdon in the original story). She has come to her childhood home for three nights in a row to mull over whether she should give up her childhood dream of finding a man of adventure, or face realities of life and marry for security. As she confesses to Mr Bolton that although he doesn’t match up to her dreams of a young girl who had lived in a place that now houses a rowdy nightclub, she also realises that like her house, she too must change with the times. Both Miss Healy and Joe are unhappy with their situations, but slowly realise that the other is exactly what they are looking for in their search for happiness. When Joe manages to ask Miss Healy to dinner the following night so she can tour the house in its present state, she admits he represents something of her girlhood imagination as the exciting “pirates of the day”.

The nervous Joe stages a big show to impress his date, one part of which is to invite his teacher Miss Jellyman along to put his gentlemen lessons into action. Not only do his arduous attempts to discuss pressing political issues of the day prove a farce, much to the amusement of Miss Healy, his two exes make sure they are not left out of the show. Maudie, a happy-go-lucky brassy blonde, crashes in on his date unannounced and tears down his phoney gentleman act by openly displaying her vulgarity, and recounting sweet memories of how Joe had “fought a flock of gangsters when they tried to take her away from him”, and when they “got so plastered it took five cops to land them in jail”. Her unaffected charm does not only work on Miss Healy, but more so on the initially disapproving Miss Jellyman, who later has had so many cups of wine she has lost all her inhibitions and realised that she and Maudie in fact “have a great deal in common”.

When Joe finally decides to take Miss Healy to see the house, the bitter Iris tries to warn her new rival to lay off her man. From the beginning of the film, Iris can sense she’s missing out on something and is upset by Joe’s sudden aspirations to be a gentleman. She is also fully aware that she is the biggest loser in this transformation and is unwilling to give up her man or the fight so easily.

In the most thrilling part of the film, Iris catches Joe and Miss Healy in Joe’s bedroom, which again by chance, happened to be Miss Healy’s childhood bedroom. Iris attempts to give Miss Park Avenue a show she won’t see on Park Avenue, by having Joe executed at gunpoint. In contrast to the terrified Miss Healy, Joe switches on his manly cool, inhales the delicate flower in his button hole and is unnerved by his impending doom – a sharp contrast to his anxieties about his big date with Miss Healy. He manages to distract Iris as she’s counting down to his death, and swiftly wrestles the gun away with ease. Ironically this true show of Joe’s character orchestrated by Iris and not his phoney gentlemen act, wins Miss Healy over. Her dreams of a young girl play out right before her eyes in the very same room where they were first conceived; but as a grown girl, this excitement translates into sexual exhilaration and her attraction for him is expressed vividly in her eyes, coy smile and heavy breathing. Miss Healy so loves the show that she kisses her “pirate” passionately on the lips before running off in a heightened state of ecstasy.

Miss Healy’s changing expressions during Iris’s attempted assassination of Joe: (top left) Fear – during the countdown (bottom left) Thrill – after danger is averted (right)  Sexual attraction – as she admires Joe casually picking up Iris’s gun from the floor and unloading it.

Joe is convinced that she must love him if she kissed him, although Leo being devil’s advocate, argues “ladies kiss because they love to kiss, but they don’t love the guy they kiss”. Taking no chances, Joe hires a detective to find Miss Healy’s address and makes an uninvited visit to her apartment (at number 333, a downgrade from the mansion at number 55 maybe?); this is the one and only scene in the film that takes place outside the speakeasy. This change in venue is significant because it serves as a space of reversal. Joe at first is impressed by her home, but it is here that realities play out when Miss Healy resists Joe’s romantic advances, shattering his fantasy that he could marry Miss Park Avenue. Despite the momentary thrill and attraction she felt for him the previous evening, it appears the idea of pursuing anything more than just a kiss with a low-class gangster had never crossed her mind. She has finally decided to do the sensible thing by marrying someone of her own class. It is therefore in her space that Joe sees Miss Healy for what she is (or rather chosen to be) when she confesses she’s going to marry the rich Mr Bolton not for love but money.

Joe makes a grand speech that sums up the main social message of this film: “I had an idea that up in this part of the world there was something wortha getting, and I went after it, but I see now, it was just my imagination”. While he is part of her romantic imagination as the “pirates of the day” and fails from the start to deceive Miss Healy into believing that he’s a gentleman, his imagination of her as a cultured lady are painfully destroyed when he realises that she does not live by high ideals as he initially believed, but is only after money just like everyone else. No longer in awe of her, Joe brazenly insults her by sarcastically congratulating her on marrying a moneybag and assuring her that she’ll be very happy because she has all she needs. He now dares to speak disrespectfully to her because she no longer means anything to him and sees her as no different from Iris. So much so, that he doesn’t even feel she deserves his feelings of contempt, and holds her in such low regard that “if he was a pirate on a ship, he wouldn’t toss her to the crew”.

As Joe is feeling foolish for trying to be what he is not, he decides to throw out his gentlemen stuff, return to his side of the fence and revokes his decision to sell his nightclub to Frankie Guard. Miss Healy in turn is deeply offended by Joe’s truthful assessment of her, a crude pragmatism she had in fact been working hard to convince herself of accepting during the three nightly visits to her childhood home turned gangster’s speakeasy. As if it wasn’t hard enough to give up her ideals, she has now had it thrown right back in her face. After all, her decision to marry is not actually because of a desire for money, but rather out of desperation that results from a misfortune beset by the crisis of the times.

Things come to a head for the final climax of the film. Frankie Guard is about to attack the place after Joe refuses to honour their agreement, and Miss Healy is on a rampage smashing up Joe’s room. She initially takes out her rage on Joe’s framed pictures that clutter the bedroom walls – one of his many attempts at being cultured, but which she had subtly commented are tacky. This is again symbolic because her action appears to vengefully tear down his phoney persona, as much as he has brutally torn down hers. Could her destruction of Joe’s belongings also be an attempt to restore the room back to a previous state when it belonged to her as a child, and thereby, again symbolically, restore her girlish idealism? When she dramatically smashes a mirror reflection of herself, it also literary and symbolically shatters her image to pieces.

Joe surprisingly, is very satisfied with Miss Healy’s unlady-like outburst because it actually proves to him that “she is a lady, and a little stuck on him at that”. She continues to resist him as he tries to give her the passion that she came over to get, but just at that moment, they are distracted by the sound of bombs. As Joe is about to go into armed battle to protect his besieged joint, Miss Healy suddenly realises that she does in fact love him, now that there’s a real chance of losing him. She lets go of all her inhibitions to confess her love to Joe. He instantly accepts and revives his plans to go gentleman.

The film ends in Hollywood-style with a kiss amidst the sound of bombs and gunfire. To balance the severity of the violence heard from downstairs, Maudie and Miss Jellyman run up the stairs to wrap up the film in a lighthearted tone. When Joe tells Leo to tell his rival Frankie Guard to stop blasting the place because “they’re only wrecking their own joint”, Miss Jellyman reprimands him with “Oh Mr. Anton please, don’t say joint”, to which Maudie replies with bottle and glass in hand, “Come on Mabel, get out those books. Looks like he’s going to take more lessons”. As Maudie nonchalantly pours herself a drink, the film’s final message about prohibition are very cleverly ambivalent and seems to say, “isn’t this a mad and crazy world we live in?” The violence and social turmoil of the era though depressing, are at the same time so ridiculous it becomes funny.

Just like Joe, the story seems to accept that gangsterism, bootlegging and speakeasies have to come to an end after 12 long years. However this is not without its bittersweetness as the film also presents a very attractive image of the glamorous speakeasy. The first scene of the club’s nightlife follows Joe as he goes around greeting his patrons to the soundtrack of the jolly song “Everyone says I love you” (made famous by Groucho Marx) and everyone does look happy; all except for Miss Healy, whose melancholic expression stands out in contrast. Later when Joe asks her to come back the following night to see the house, as his friends “with a gun in each pocket” may come around anytime, she asks him rhetorically “you lead a happy life don’t you?” She then dreamily says, the “pirates of the day… happy days”, probably in contrast to her own life and the impending loveless marriage she is anticipating. Similarly, Miss Jellyman observes as a first timer into Number 55, “I’m so excited, this place is so wonderful, it’s like something out of a book. Anything might happen here.” When Joe humbly says “there’s nothing much going on”, she corrects him with “oh but there is, there’s a smile on everyone’s face… I feel like I’m going to see life, for the first time, tonight”.

Not only is the portrayal of the illegal but glamorous speakeasy overwhelmingly positive, but so is the characterisation of so-called public enemies. The endearing and humorous portrayal doesn’t only go for Joe, but even his menacing rival Frankie Guard. Frankie is civil enough to want to buy him out since he doesn’t like trouble, and in a businesslike fashion even brings along papers for him to sign – although this corporate culture defined prohibition-era gangsters and inspired the witty media term “Murder Incorporated”. The film doesn’t even question Joe’s morals, the guns in his bedroom closet or the illegal sale of liquor. Neither is the open sexuality of its characters and even fleeting shot of homosexuality among the speakeasy’s patrons questioned – re the two women who are shown flirtatiously sharing a cigarette during a swirling montage.

While the gangsterism seems sort of matter of fact and even “cool”, the attitude to alcohol is mixed. The very reason the speakeasies and Murder Incorporated were born is because of the botched policy to ban alcohol. At the beginning of the film Joe reprimands Iris for drinking too much, when she comes in overly cheerful after having had three cocktails. He warns her she’s throwing her life away: “what do you want to do, end up by just being a souse? … You must think you’re going to keep that face all your life”. The sordidness of alcoholism is also highlighted when Miss Healy describes a cosy picture of what the “Beach Room” used to look like as the family music room during her childhood days. When she recalls where the piano was, the camera cuts to show a drunk man passed out on a table.

Miss Healy’s comment that drunks are “lonesome” and her advice to Joe that he should think about it the next time he tries to throw someone out, is a very sympathetic reading of alcoholism and becomes a recurring theme later in the picture. As she says “It’s no fun being lonesome”, she infers that people drink to escape the miseries of life. When she tells this to Joe the first time they meet and he is trying to rescue her from a flirtatious drunk, he asks her, “what’s the matter, are you lonesome”, her reply “who isn’t?” also seems to suggest a human need for alcohol. The increasing dependence on alcohol is however related to the degree of misery. Later during the dinner, Maudie teaches the uptight Miss Jellyman how to be “Broadway” and alcohol is almost celebrated as a form of liberation. It enables people to have a good time, and in the case of Miss Jellyman, allows her to get rid of all her inhibitions to find a happier life.

The film’s attitude to Joe’s gentleman ambitions is much more complex. The ridiculousness of Joe’s overzealous attempts to talk about important questions of the day are as lousy as “lau-sanne” – which is how Joe mispronounces the Lausanne Conference. His close friends too are troubled by this sudden departure from his old self, not only Iris who is the first to be thrown out, but Leo too is afraid he will also be abandoned if Joe sells the speakeasy and warns him with: “I know what you’re aiming at kid. You’re not going to make it. Stay on your side of the fence”. When Joe debunks Miss Healy’s classy persona and exposes her as a common dame who chooses to live by money and not ideals, we are almost obliged to applaud him. After he tells Miss Jellyman he doesn’t want anymore gentleman stuff, Maudie too comforts him by saying: “what’s the sense of being something that you’re not? This guy was all right in the first place. You only thought you were wrong didn’t you kid. Come on, snap out of it you dog.”

But instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the final reconciliation of the low class rich nightclub owner and high class impoverished Miss Park Avenue in the end, is however a symbolic happy marriage of social classes. Both Joe and Miss Healy question each other’s aspirations and fantasies about accepting or pursuing a relationship with a person of a different class. Finally they remain true to themselves and accept each other as they are, breaking age old class boundaries. The message hence is people of different class backgrounds can all get along just as they are without false pretences. The film’s overall story can be seen as an odd and screwy form of class revolution, very different from the political “bolsheviki” sense making international headlines of the day.

The relationship between Miss Jellyman and Maudie provides a parallel story to Joe and Miss Healy’s romantic relationship that contributes to the film’s social message. Miss Jellyman is another classy dame unhappy with her life as a teacher at Miss Prinney’s school, and she hates Miss Prinney. As she tells her party during Joe’s dinner for Miss Healy, “life is very sad, I haven’t had a good time since I was 27.” Although Miss Jellyman is initially disgusted by Maudie’s crude mannerisms, her increasing drunkedness and kinship with Maudie are another interesting merger of classes (the comparison is even visually constructed as they both have a similar middle aged plump figure, but the dissatisfied Miss Jellyman wears black with dark hair while the exuberant Maudie wears white with platinum blonde hair). Maudie encourages her to let go of her inhibitions, offering a whole trunk where she can put them in. They become so friendly with each other that Maudie becomes the only one in the picture to call Miss Jellyman by her first name Mabel, and they even spend the night together in the same bed borrowed from Leo.

Visual comparison and contrast between Maudie and Miss Jellyman in nightgowns and slips.

When Miss Jellyman wakes up with a big hangover and is distraught that she has missed a class in political science for the first time in her life, Maudie comforts her by offering her a job as a hostess in her chain of beauty parlours called “Institut de Beauté”, with a starting salary of $100 a week plus a cut of the profits. As Maudie very astutely observes, Miss Jellyman is “wasting her time” teaching for a living, as a woman of her class can easily earn more money from commercial rackets than as a teacher. This proves yet another drastic change in conventions, where jobs previously considered respectable are no longer profitable or desirable – as much as boxing is no longer the only way for a poor kid to quickly rise the ranks of society.

The film is also sympathetic to both the new and old rich. It challenges common prejudices against both sides by showing how everyone is just a victim of circumstances. While Joe’s gentleman act is mercilessly ridiculed in the film, the sincerity in which he expresses his love for Miss Healy and the desire to be a better man are rewarded. Also because he realises in the film it’s ridiculous trying to be something he’s not and returns to his side of the fence, his crudeness is forgiven. Moreover, the reference to Andrew Carnegie in Joe’s gentleman lessons is also a funny reminder that his life as a wealthy gangster is a strange take on the American Dream. Unlike the tragic Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “the Great Gatsby”, Joe Anton successfully gets to marry his classy dream girl. Joe represents real life underworld figures who were able to climb the ranks of society by taking advantage of the nation’s  “freedoms”, becoming big shots in their own right and even idolised by the public. Although violence is just a way of life, Joe is portrayed as an honest character who despite engaging in illegal activities, has noble ambitions and ideals.

At the same time, we also don’t blame Miss Healy for initially choosing to marry for money as she is honest in confessing she wouldn’t do so if she had a choice – which she feels she doesn’t. Her natural affinity to Joe and Maudie, and disapproval of the pretentious talk that Joe and Miss Jellyman try to perform for her, also shows that not all classy people are snobs. Although her deeply engrained class values initially blind her from realising her true love for Joe, she eventually comes around in the end anyway.

Perhaps what makes the film particularly effective is its closeness to reality. Louis Bromfield was said to have based his story Single Night on a real life incident he witnessed at a speakeasy called the Club Napoleon, located in a townhouse at 33 West 56th street and formerly owned by Charles (or Patrick?) Donahue – an Irish American who made a fortune in the fat rendering business. As the story goes, one afternoon Bromfield noticed a stranger protesting that the house he was born in has turned into an illegal gin mill. The unidentified man was later identified as the 44-year-old millionaire broker James Paul Donahue who committed suicide on 24 April 1931 not long after the episode at the Club Napoleon. Of course, whether we can verify this to be a true story remains questionable, but it is a fact that the gangster run Club Napoleon was located in the former residence of James P. Donahue.

Frame grab of Number 55 in the film and real Club Napoleon membership card.

What is ironic, is that Club Napoleon was bought and set up by George Raft’s good friend and leading New York underworld figure Owney Madden, who later gave it to fellow Hell’s Kitchen gangster Larry Fay as a favour to revive his career. It was reopened as the Club Casa Blanca in the fall of 1932, around the same time Night After Night was released. Larry Fay was also very familiar with George Raft as his former boss, owning several high profile nightclubs in which Raft performed in during the 1920s. Larry Fay is often referred to as “the originator of the bootlegger’s nightclub and the prototype of the gangster club owner” (Nightclub City: Politics and Amusement in Manhattan By Burton W. Peretti, 2007). Just like Joe Anton, he too wanted to be accepted into the same class as his wealthy patrons. Where art and life imitate each other, Fay was gunned down in front of his club on 11 January 1933 – the dark realities of speakeasy life that feature in the background of the film Night After Night, but are never fully shown. Fay’s death symbolised the end of the speakeasy era, just as the character Joe Anton and the film symbolically say goodbye to gangster-ruled speakeasy life.

Stylish Owney Madden being escorted by detective Thomas Horan after he was ordered back to Sing Sing for parole violation in 1932, and portrait of Larry Fay.

Interestingly, the main complaint that the 1932 New York Times reviewer Maudant Hall had about the film, was it’s “wildly improbable incidents”, and the part where a “blue-blooded beauty finds that she reciprocates the gangster’s admiration” was “unreal and forced”. But isn’t the whole point of this tragicomedy to show the absurdities of real life? George Raft again exemplifies a real life version of his onscreen character, as his first serious relationship in Hollywood was with a socialite/bit actress called Virginia Pine, whom many credited for making a gentleman out of the real life Raft. His buddy, the famous dandy gangster Bugsy Siegel, was also accepted into high society when he was one of Countess Dorothy DiFrasso’s many lovers. Moreover, many episodes from the film were similar to ones that Raft had experienced in his personal life. As he admits in the article “From Underworld to Stardom” published in a 1933 issue of the Movie Mirror,  “that scene in ‘Night after Night’ when Alison Skipworth is teaching me grammar, came pretty close to life. I want to be correct in speech, and it’s never too late to learn.” 

George Raft was also a lady killer like his character Joe Anton. Another true to life episode that Raft recounts in his later 1974 biography, includes one where a jealous girlfriend stabbed him with a hatpin in the chest for dancing with another girl when he was 17. This incident seems to be reworked in the scene when Iris attempts to shoot him in front of his new love interest, and similarly apologises after that she didn’t know what she was doing. If the filmmakers had let George Raft dance his signature high-speed Charleston in the film, then perhaps it would have been a more complete biography. Well, George does give his dancer identity away in one shot where he does a very graceful forward and back step upon hearing Miss Healy smashing the mirror in his room. The film is so close to reality, that it even foresees George Raft’s real life future career as a nightclub and casino greeter/host after his acting career dried up and was forced to turn to his mobster friends for his livelihood.

Most of all, George Raft’s realism in playing the role of Joe Anton was something he was born and raised with. Hailing for the notorious West Fifties/Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood, he was himself a former youth member of the notorious Gopher Gang alongside Owney Madden, Larry Fay and many other underworld characters that later made millions from prohibition. George Raft was therefore not only familiar with both Owney Madden and Larry Fay, but bred in the same environment that made the real life characters his fictional ones were based on. He looked the part and knew how to play them with all the authentic realism that later Italian Neo-Realists and Socialist Realists would die for. In an August 1932 interview in Modern Screen, Raft very modestly claimed, “I can’t act… I simply must be myself, do the things that seem natural to me. When I get with a director who wants me to act, I’ll be lost. I don’t like long speeches, because I don’t know anything about delivering lines. I just try and be the guy in the story – not George Raft giving an impersonation of him”.

This inaccurate self-assessment of his acting, and what appears to be a general consensus today that George Raft can’t act, is a gross misconception that needs to be corrected.  Night After Night allows him to showcase a diverse range of personalities, from the cool tough gangster that made him famous in Scarface, a sweet gentleman to his friends, the cute kid taking his lessons, and both the nervous boy with a crush and the passionate Valentino lover. In sharp contrast to the serious killer Guino “Little Boy” Rinaldo in Scarface, George Raft proves he can play comedy very well in this picture and unlike what he claims, delivers his lines, including the long ones, very well. In Photoplay magazine his performance and the film were both ranked in the list of best pictures and best performances of the month.

George Raft performing the various sides of Joe Anton.

He may not have been dramatically trained or particularly intellectual in his approach, but his naturalist style of acting is very well suited to film and makes it distinct from theatre. His tendency to underact is not, as many presume to be, bad acting; unlike the way forced overacting is always bad acting. As the few Raft supporters have already observed, he also exuded a mood and aura better than words can express. This method was especially well suited to his best roles as a gangster and other underworld characters. Raft was not only comfortable in front of the camera, but managed to magnify his presence on screen to compensate for his short stature and his unconventional handsomeness. This aura also defined his cool masculine persona that made men and real tough guys of the underworld want to be just like him. His sincerity in giving realism to his portrayals and over identifying with his on-screen characters is a sign of his devotion to his craft. Unfortunately, on the other hand, this would also become a major detriment to his career as fellow industry members would find his obstinacy extremely difficult and unprofessional.

Despite being unpopular with studio bosses, the public apparently loved him. As Barbara Stanwyck comments in the Movie Classic’s (January 1933) interview of stars about their opinion of George Raft’s shooting rise to stardom, “He’s no accident: What difference does it make what anybody in Hollywood thinks about George Raft? The public has singled him out as a star with only a few pictures to his credit. That certainly speaks well for his chances. And don’t let anybody tell you that the public is easily fooled. They know what they want – and right now they apparently want George Raft! He should worry about Hollywood!”

Of course timing helps. As a Chinese saying goes, “an era makes a hero, a hero does not make an era”. While presenting a new “villain type” riding the gangster wave taking over the American nation during prohibition, and spilling over into the realm of film where it was becoming a burgeoning new genre of its own, Raft also rode the enduring  wave of the posthumous Valentino craze as his look-alike. There couldn’t have been a more perfect person for the times than George Raft to meet the public taste for a “Star” they wanted to idolise and worship. He also just had that look that captures his era and his sense of style made him a fashion icon. I don’t know if there is anyone else who looks more 1930s than George Raft. But the fact he survived as long as he did as one of Hollywood’s most sought after actors for over a decade, says something about not only his star power but his capabilities as an artist.

George Raft as the main star carries the weight of most of the film, but its success is also credited to its strong supporting cast. The most famous, of course, being Mae West who made her dramatic entry onto the screen in this film. Although the script only affords her a small supporting role, the film clearly builds her up for a big presence. Her introductory scene, like Raft’s waking up in bed scene, is similarly cinematically orchestrated to create a wow effect. The scene opens showing the backs of three big men with one of them saying “we’re going in with you Maudie” followed by a sassy female voice coming from behind. Then like a curtain the men slowly disperse to the side to reveal the shimmering Mae West in the centre. Her sarcastic line “you know my father’s very strict and he don’t let me see fellas after 9 o’clock” is typical of her colourful dialogue that would make her famous. Of course the line that catapulted her to stardom was “goodness had nothing to do with it dearie” after the hat check girl exclaims “goodness what beautiful diamonds!”

Mae West’s dramatic introduction.

However, in all fairness, the script is full of clever lines that are not limited to Mae West. I actually find Roscoe Karns performance to be more outstanding in this film and his role is definitely much bigger. His wisecracking humour adds much punch and fun to this film, and his best lines are usually cynical responses to Joe. His nasal-voiced character is also played with just the right mix of tension with wit and silliness that makes his gruffness loveable. Of the ladies in the film, Constance Cummings (another talented actress worth much more attention) is also perfectly cast as the classy gal. She looks like a delicate porcelain doll but is also right on target in her mix of intellectual sophistication and fun loving independence, which makes her believable as a girl who has thought hard about whether she should marry an ex-pug for love or a respectable society man.

Alison Skipworth and Wynne Gibson also effectively play their usual character types allocated to them by the studio: Skipworth as the elderly posh English-accented Miss Jellyman, and Gibson as a hardboiled gangster moll, with eyes more lethal than Bette Davies. The rest of the cast all add to the fun, especially the ‘dese dem and dose’ guys who staff Joe’s speakeasy. Marty Martyn, let’s not forget him, too looks convincingly menacing as Frankie Guard’s henchman called Malloy. It’s too bad he didn’t have any lines to speak, but at least his character has a name that’s listed in the cast credits  (btw, Marty Martyn now even has a fleshed out bio with a picture on IMDB, thanks to his incredible reincarnation story).

In addition to the story and characters, various other elements help to create a vivid portrayal of speakeasy culture, such as the beautiful interiors, fashion, faces, dancing, slang, dry humour, and music that are so definitive of its era. Even the pacing and overall rhythm of the film seems to be matched to the era’s modern jazz beat. The music that plays in the background of the film is a medley of popular songs, all diegetic and performed by the club’s bands (except the opening “Home, Sweet Home” number). As seamless as they are, the songs are carefully timed to suit the mood of the scene, from a jazzed up version of “Everyone Says I Love You” for lively crowd scenes to “Isn’t it Romantic” for the mellow dialogues.

Montages that serve as effective time ellipses, are especially powerful in capturing the visceral experience of the speakeasy. The second longer montage deserves a slow motion breakdown to fully appreciate the moving portrait of the glamorous life centred around alcohol. The canted images, split screens, multiple overlaps and swipes are even meant to feel like they were refracted through a wine glass.

Visceral montage of speakeasy life.

Within the 17-second montage, we see multiple groups of people engaged in high-spirited conversations with drink in hand, kissing, a bartender mixing a drink, another shaking a cocktail, a lesbian couple sharing a cigarette, a Hawaiian band, swirling champagne glasses and a happy girl’s face as she sips her alcoholic beverage. There is maximum visuality as one frame contains up to four superimposed shots at one time, and the movement is felt in both the camera and edits. For example the first shot in the montage is a split screen where both shots pan to the right, and the line that vertically splits the screen simultaneously moves to the right; then on top of that another shot of a bartender (Tom) comes sweeping in diagonally from the top right hand corner. Even the music is edited as part of the montage so the Hawaiian music is superimposed over the music played by the first club band.  Although this modernist montage style may feel somewhat outdated as a popular silent era/early talkie and avant-garde device, it somehow adds to the film’s historicism.

The sophisticated camerawork also deserves much credit for dramatic visual storytelling. Much of the film is based on close up shots of facial reactions that reveal secret motives or thoughts in lieu of dialogue. The scene where Iris is bullying Miss Healy stands out for its striking use of depth of field to show Joe’s intervention.

Camera as visual storyteller in the scene when Joe rescues Miss Healy from a bullying Iris. (1) Iris pulling Miss Healy’s arm. (2) Joe and Leo step into the foreground and hear Iris telling Miss Healy she’s going to be her companion for the rest of the evening. (3) The focal length changes to focus on Joe and Leo, and we hear the conversation of the two men as Joe orders Leo to throw Iris out. (4) Leo takes Iris away by bringing her towards and behind the camera (5) Joe walks away from the camera to join Miss Healy in the background.

 The choice of Iris’s wardrobe to reflect her crude background only increases my appreciation of the filmmakers’ attention to detail. In the daytime scene, she’s wearing a frightening fur wrap made up of two dead foxes facing each other at the front. In the first night sequence she’s wearing a long black feather wreath, which looks pretty stylish when it’s pulled down right, but when it messily hangs off at an angle when she intrudes on Joe’s conversation with Miss Healy, it makes her look like she just came out of a mad jungle. Iris’s dress on the third night isn’t bad, but when compared to Miss Healy’s cute ruffle-sleeved gown, her dull flora pattern on satin can’t help but look tacky.

Iris’s wardrobe dramatically reflects her character.

Another nice little touch is Joe’s camellia in his buttonhole, which he uses as a destresser when dealing with a rival gangster, speaking with his crush or looking down the barrel of a gun. It adds a certain flair and subtly, but effectively, builds tension. The symbolism of the camellia as “desire, passion, and refinement” to represent Joe’s persona as a gentleman gangster, cannot be missed.

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Joe’s camellia symbolises his gentleman gangster persona and serves as a tension builder.

Night After Night appears on first viewing to be like one of the many run of the mill films made in the 1930s, a time when studios were churning out films like a factory line and contract actors at Paramount were making 5-6 films a year. It seems that the picture was as quickly produced, quickly appreciated and quickly forgotten as it is quickly told. Short by today’s standard at 76 minutes and a small scale production set almost entirely inside one building, Night After Night may not have the gravity that warrants a “great film”, but it definitely deserves far more attention and appreciation for a masterful piece of filmmaking and a historical treasure. It also serves as an important reminder that light-hearted commercial entertainment productions can be as deep and brilliant, and not to mention, more sincere in expressing personal sentiments of political/social problems, than any arthouse film.

© Donna Ong (8202 words)

Blog Introduction: Why Raft?

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A blog titled “Rafting the Film Vault” may appear to be a fan page for George Raft, but it isn’t. It is instead, a personal exploration into the vast collection of films made since the birth of cinema that uses George Raft as an entry point. The forgotten star provides an intriguing trajectory into the archive to discover films and filmmakers that have fallen by the wayside of mainstream cinema history, or just my own schema of this history. Considering George Raft as a figure of obscurity is a personal judgment, and what is considered worthy of reviving for appreciation today is even more subjective. Nevertheless, the way my uncanny discovery of the actor led me into fascinating areas of films that had previously eluded me, has inspired this project to unearth old gems from the past and elucidate the value they may still have for us today.

It was purely by chance that over the new year of 2015, I was watching a program about scientific explanations of the paranormal. I became infatuated with one particular phenomenon that scientists have yet to explain: the case of a little boy who vividly remembers and longed for a past life in Hollywood. How could a three year old child remember so many details that he was even able to identify the man he was as Marty Martyn – an obscure Hollywood agent who only appeared once on the screen in a lesser degree obscure film made in 1932 called Night after Night?

When I found the film Night after Night to satisfy my curiosity about what a reincarnated man looked like in motion, I was instead stunned at how this snappy little film provided such a rich reading into its era with maximum entertainment value. The film is “little” because its relatively simple story about a rags to riches nightclub owner who falls in love with a Miss Park Avenue patron, only runs for 73 minutes and is set almost entirely inside one speakeasy. Its clever script, directing and casting constitute the success of the film, but the main attraction is undoubtedly the dapper star George Raft, who too is so emblematic of his era. The viewing experience sparked so many ideas about the age old questions of the purpose of film and what makes a good film, that I felt it was time to start writing about them.

As I began reading into the life and works of George Raft, I became troubled that an actor considered one of the biggest stars of his day and had worked and ranked among the big names so familiar to me, had not been on my radar as a classic movie buff.  I had been reared from the age of 13 by the Turner Classic Movies channel and developed this mania into an academic pursuit at university. I thought I knew just about all the important parts of Classic Hollywood film there could be, but realised there was a whole lot more if I hadn’t considered George Raft as a major figure. An important reason for this is obvious, George Raft and the many other films and stars I traced through him, lie outside the popular history and were at Paramount or other studios that TCM Asia does not broadcast. At the same time, it was not that I had never heard of George Raft, who did later move to Warner Brothers for a brief stint. I recall being impressed by his performance when I caught Each Dawn I Die on TCM one afternoon a few years ago. I had always felt he was a familiar face and wondered who he was, but my intrigue then was only limited to a quick wiki search.

My deeper interest in George Raft after seeing him star in Night after Night coincided with a phase in my academic research on revisionist history. I was in the final stage of my doctoral study of a controversial 1930s Taiwanese film critic called Liu Na’ou, and was not only infatuated with anything 1930s, but highly sensitive to the question of how we remember the past. Unlike the way Liu Na’ou is condemned in the politicized history of Chinese cinema, George Raft is largely omitted from the Hollywood canon. As that famous Oscar Wilde saying goes: “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”. It appears that almost everyone of his generation the world over knew him as a big star, yet younger generations have never even heard of him. If he is remembered in film circles, it is usually for giving up roles that made other actors legends and has a poor reputation as a bad/wooden actor. He is perhaps best known as “The Man Who Would be Bogart” – the title of a biography written by Stone Wallace. George Raft had been a bigger star than Humphrey Bogart in the 1930s and had a salary multiple times bigger, but posthumously Bogart is revered in the echelons of film history as the greatest male star of Classic American cinema, an honour officially bestowed to him by the AFI.

In my attempt to recover treasures of the past, I must however state here that this is not an apologist website for George Raft and other forgotten folk. I do believe that establishing a canon is important in encouraging film fans like myself to continue to appreciate great cultural works and the artists that made them long after they were released. Of course, there is also an obvious reason why no effort or investment has been made to release many of these old films on home video (as is the case of many of George Raft’s later films) and attempting to deviate from the established classics often ends up inevitably crisscrossing back with the mainstream. Nevertheless I still find that questioning the selection of the canon does yield some positive findings. I hope to do more than just encourage the excavation of films from the archive for wider viewing, but also bring up interesting issues about filmmaking and culture that are pertinent across time and regions.