The tightest scheduling block I attempted was between How Green Was My Valley (see here) and this film, and I was extremely lucky to get in – I was, in fact, the LAST person into a very full theatre. I felt kind of bad (and still do, since I know several people who tried the same schedule and didn’t make it in), because this was initially a filler film on my schedule. It’s short and fit in between How Green and Hat Check Girl, the Pre-Code comedy and MOMA restoration that I expected would be my favorite discovery of the festival. For some reason I didn’t read the program carefully on this film, and I thought “the stranger” was an aging man coming home to be with his family and their struggles in accepting him. I have NO IDEA why I thought that based on this program.
In the end, though, I’m very glad I did make it in, because THIS, not Hat Check Girl (though that’s fine too, post forthcoming), turned out to my gleeful discovery of the fest. Unlike the description I gave above, the story actually concerns a quick-witted and cantankerous old gentleman played by Lionel Barrymore sporting a gruff-looking beard, whose dubious excuse for a family is basically waiting around for him to die so they can take over his lucrative farm. The “stranger” of the title is his orphaned granddaughter from the city (Miriam Hopkins), who has never been to the farm but is cut from the same cloth as Grandpa.
Though of course it’s great getting the chance to see any older film on a big screen, there’s a special thrill that comes with seeing things that you know aren’t easily available elsewhere or that haven’t been seen for a long time. That’s the case with all three of these films, early 1930s films that have been out of circulation for over seventy years, pretty much only seen in the interim by scholars, archivists, and collectors with bootleg copies. Even though I rate all of them as three or three and a half stars, which is generally not that great a rating from me, that’s mostly because I doubt the films will hold that much interest for people who aren’t massive ’30s film buffs. But for those of us who are, getting to see them with a theatre full of like-minded ’30s film buffs was a real treat, and had an extra edge of rediscovery that was almost palpable in the air. And, as Robert Osborne said when introducing Night Flight (which he admitted he’d only seen in bootleg copies and didn’t think entirely worked as a film), “it may not be that good, it might even be bad, but when you’re a film buff, you can’t have a movie with Myrna Loy, two Barrymores, and Clark Gable in it and not look at it.” The 500 people filling up the theatre agreed vociferously.
This is the Night (1932)
A fifth-billed Cary Grant makes his first screen entrance walking up the stairs to his lavish apartment singing and carrying a quiver full of javelins – he’s an Olympic javelin thrower whose wife (Thelma Todd) is stepping out on him with Roland Young. That in itself is kind of a ludicrous proposition, but somehow the cast makes it work. When a ticket delivery mixup (caused by the very funny and flustered Charles Ruggles) results in Grant getting suspicious, Young makes up a wife, then hires actress Lily Damita to play his wife as they all go on a holiday together in Venice. Where things get even more confused.
Of all these names, only Grant is well-known now, but at the time, these were all fairly major stars, and their collective sense of comic timing makes this farce extremely enjoyable to watch. Made in 1932, the film is pre-Code, relying a lot on naughty suggestions (one repeated gag is Young’s chauffeur repeatedly closing doors on Todd’s dresses, causing them to fall off, leading to the patter song “Madame Has Lost Her Dress”) and double entendres – Grant’s not carrying around javelins for no reason. Damita gets a bit too wishy-washy at times and the ending is far too pat, but the comedy bits are extremely winning. This was pretty easily the most pleasant surprise of the festival for me – I expected to only watch it for the historical value of Grant’s debut, but ended up enjoying pretty much everything about it.