The best way to describe the pre-Code motion picture Night World (1932) is that it’s “Grand Hotel in a speakeasy.” That speakeasy is owned and operated by ‘Happy’ MacDonald (Boris Karloff), a charmingly sinister host with clear ties to unsavory underworld elements. His wife Jill (Dorothy Revier) is having a little clandestine what-have-you with Klauss (Russell Hopton), the man choreographing the dance routines for the chorus girl contingent at “Happy’s Club.” Then again, everyone who frequents the joint is having an adulterous assignation of one kind or another—at one point in the action, a female patron signals Happy that he needs to ixnay on the matter of whether or not she was a regular presence at the discothèque while her better half was away on business.
The main tale told in Night World belongs to wealthy young Michael Rand (Lew Ayres) …ever since the murder trial of his mother (Hedda Hopper)—Mother Rand shot and killed Pa Rand in the apartment of his “mistress,” Edith Blair (Dorothy Peterson)—Mike has been curious to prove that copious amounts of alcohol can take a toll on one’s liver. (And this is Prohibition-era hooch, friends—it’s a wonder Michael hasn’t gone blind by now.) Rand runs into Edith at Happy’s during the evening, and she tells him that whatever he may think of her she wants him to know that his father loved him and that his ma is just a little “cold around the heart,” to quote a favorite film noir. (Mrs. Rand later turns up at the club, long enough to tell her son that she never wanted him and that she married his pop for his money. She seems nice.) But salvation for Michael arrives in the form of Ruth Taylor (Mae Clarke), a chorus girl who’s fallen head-over-heels for the young souse…she’ll just have to fend off the amorous advances of Ed Powell (George Raft) before those crazy kids can wind up happy-ever-after.
Here’s one tiny thing that brought a smile to my lips when I watched the copy of Night World that I purchased from Finders Keepers not too long ago: for a brief moment onscreen, the “American Movie Classics” logo flashed briefly, and I waded into some nostalgia clean up to my neck—thinking about all the hours I enjoyed watching the once-proud classic film channel before they became obsessed with zombies and meth dealers. (My parents still watch a lot of AMC, no doubt because the commercials that plague their movie offerings are a godsend to their weak bladders.)
Night World has been on my classic movie radar for quite some time now…and I’m not going to mince words: I loved every minute (fifty-six in total) of this fascinating curio. To be honest, the film had me at Boris Karloff; I’ll pretty much commit to watching anything he’s in, and I relished seeing him tackle a role admittedly out of his wheelhouse. Other people who have viewed World have commented that he’s every bit as evil here as he is in his better-known “monster” performances…but I enjoyed Karloff’s Happy MacDonald, a jovial sort who greets everyone who walks into his establishment with a “Hiya, big shot!” (He’s a little miscast—the way he was in Scarface —but I can overlook it.) I kind of felt sorry for Hap, being saddled with Mrs. Mac; sure, Happy has a quick temper (he lays Michael out like carpet with one punch when Rand gets a bit boisterous) and he could use an upgrade with regards to the people with whom he associates…but then again, he’s running a speakeasy—not a daycare center. (And not only is Jill MacDonald stepping out on her husband…she doesn’t even have the good taste to do it with someone not quite as loathsome as Krauss, who sadistically orders the chorus girls to stick around after closing so they can rehearse some new routines.)
Karloff’s fellow Frankenstein player Mae Clarke gave the best performance in the film; I really fell in love with her character, particularly in the scene where she removes a bearskin (complete with bear head) from Rand after he’s finished sleeping it off. (Rand’s reaction to waking up staring straight at that bear head is hilarious.) It’s not too hard to see why Raft’s Ed Powell has eyes for her (he prods her to go out with him and when she explains that it’s too late to go stepping George responds “My apartment’s never closed”) and while I’m not unconvinced that the romantic high-note between Ruth and Michael that ends the film will go anywhere Clarke is able to make the scenes they share sparkle (I wasn’t all that impressed with Lew, to be honest). Clarke also gets the lead in one of the movie’s musical numbers, Who’s Your Little Who-zis?; she started her show business career as a dancer in Atlantic City, and Night World demonstrates she remembered her terpsichorean skills with the same ease as riding a bike. As my friend and fellow CMBA member Cliff Aliperti notes in his review of the film, “Her Ruth Taylor of Night World seems to be the very showgirl that Waterloo Bridge’s Myra had claimed to be.” (Who-zis also brought about a sly smile…Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis perform the same tune in 1953’s The Stooge.)
Night World is a splendid showcase for TDOY fave Clarence Muse, who portrays philosophical doorman Tim Washington—a role that might be interpreted by some as a demeaning stereotype, but Muse infuses the character with a dignity that rises above scads of the kinds of parts African-American thespians had to sadly settle for in that less-than-enlightened era. World features a fascinating give-and-take between Tim and cop-on-the-beat Ryan (played by A Night at the Opera’s Robert Emmett O’Connor), in which Tim explains to his policeman friend that the nightlife in Happy’s establishment isn’t necessarily a bowl of cherries. “Most all of them folks is starvin’ for something, and it ain’t just food. They comes in here and eats and dances and hugs themselves up to a woman. For a while they thinks they happy. Then they comes out, and the old world is just as cold and empty as it was before. That’s real starvin’, Mr. Ryan.” The supporting cast in Night World is nothing short of sensational, with familiar faces like Bert Roach (as the “Schenectady” drunk), Louise Beavers, Billy Bletcher, In the Balcony mascot Byron Foulger, Harry Woods, Jack La Rue, Florence Lake, and Geneva Mitchell.
“The general mood and ambiance supplied by Happy’s Club,” writes Cliff, is “the true star of Night World.” I heartily concur, and I’ve tried to keep mum by revealing only a few small details about the movie…because I couldn’t sleep at night if I thought I spoiled any of its elements to someone who hasn’t had the opportunity to sit down with this delightful film. (It was directed by former silent film star Hobart Henley—the idea for the movie was purportedly his as well—and if those dance routines in the film look vaguely familiar, it’s because staged by some guy who answered to “Busby Berkeley.”) “The rest of the film’s a good mix of goofy fun and sly romance,” opines Danny Reid of PreCode.com fame. “It has a lot of everything that got forbidden a few years later, and it has both a big heart and a wicked, nasty sense of humor.”