Bad Movies · Classic Movies

From the DVR: One Exciting Night (1922)

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Wealthy John Fairfax (Henry Hull) returns to his family estate after a sabbatical abroad and while attending a garden party with his “Auntie” (Grace Griswold), is hit with Cupid’s arrow after gazing upon one of the hostesses—a young girl named Agnes Harrington (Carol Dempster).  John’s barely-disguised romantic affection towards Agnes is reciprocated in kind…though she’s in a bit of a bind.  She’s betrothed to an older man, another member of the one percent answering to “J. Wilson Rockmaine” (Morgan Wallace).  (Even his name screams “capitalist stooge”…)  Rockmaine has some major blackmailer dirt on Agnes’ mother (Margaret Dale)—he witnessed Ma trying to filch a valuable piece of jewelry at a bridge party—and unless Agnes agrees to accompany J. Wilson down the aisle to the strains of Oh, Promise Me he’ll expose Mrs. H and daughter to one and all.

While Fairfax was off on his extended vacation, Fairfax Manor played host to an unscrupulous bootlegger, Clary Johnson (Herbert Sutch).  Johnson will have to dissolve his bidness (to the tune of $500,000)…but before he can complete the liquidation, an unknown assailant shoots him dead, minutes after Johnson hides the boodle in an old trunk filled with papers.  Because John and Clary engaged in a heated back-and-forth and brief exchange of blows shortly before Johnson’s shooting, John has become a person of interest to the dubious detective (Frank Sheridan) investigating the murder.  This is all rather inconvenient, of course, because Fairfax has invited guests—the Harringtons, Rockmaine, “Auntie,” etc.—to dine at his home…and complications soon set in as a sinister masked/dressed-in-black figure searches for the missing $500,000.

posterIn the history of cinematic misnomers, One Exciting Night (1922) might not be in the Top Five…but it’s not far behind.  It would be more accurate to call this D.W. Griffith-directed film (written by Griffith as “Irene Sinclair”) One Innumerable Night since the film meanders for eleven reels (128 minutes) without ever providing a satisfying payoff.  (The original preview version of Night ran thirteen reels, so we dodged a bullet there.)  It’s hard to believe that this vehicle was directed by the same man who…well, I was gonna cite The Birth of a Nation (1915) but there’s plenty of racism on display in Night (including Porter Strong as the blackface comic relief doing the standard bug-eyed-scared servant shtick…and terribly at that).  You see, Orphans of the Storm (1921) cost the director a fortune to make and failed to recoup its cost at the box office, so D.W. needed to make a quick, inexpensive film that would keep his studio float—ideally, several cheap features that would put some needed cabbage in his bank account and allow him to continue with more ambitious projects.

D.W. found his inspiration in the success of the stage play The Bat (1920), one of many comedy thrillers packing Broadway theatres at that time; the producers of the play not only wanted $150,000 for the rights but requested that Griffith delay shooting the film until after The Bat had finished its run.  Griffith decided to do his own “who-turned-out-the-lights?” movie, and originally titled it The Haunted Grange.  “You can bet I will not attempt another play like that again,” David Wark mused in retrospect. “I started out to do this in six weeks and at low cost. It has taken me six months and cost me four times what I expected—I have made one, and that is enough.” You’re not just whistlin’ Dixie, brother.

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Griffith simply demonstrates no feel for this kind of motion picture genre; he telegraphs so many of his scenes (you’ll figure out the identity of the killer very quickly and get bored waiting for the folks onscreen to dope it out), clumsily explains key plot points, and overall, relies on a convoluted, confusing story—audiences at the time were no doubt puzzled by what the hell was going on in the picture, and the passage of nearly a century hasn’t improved things, either.  A series of title cards at the beginning asks the audience not to give away the ending (and also to pay close attention to the early scenes) but I’d bet dollars to donuts most of them were fast asleep by the time Night called it a day and forgot all about Griffith’s request.

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Henry Hull

At the time One Exciting Night went into production, actor Henry Hull had just finished a successful stage run in The Cat and the Canary (which would eventually be adapted for the first of several movie versions in 1927) and so his presence in Night seems a good fit.  He’s quite convincing as the youthful Fairfax (even if he was 32 at the time) and would later play a similar role in The Last Moment (1923—a lost film).  Hull is perhaps best-known for his long film career as a character actor; while playing leading roles on occasion in films like Werewolf of London (1935), he was better offering support in such classics as Jesse James (1939), The Return of Frank James (1940), Lifeboat (1944), and Colorado Territory (1949).  The great thing about Hull in Night is that he doesn’t come across as some sort of he-man schmuck but instead a believable chap thrust into an unbelievable situation.

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Carol Dempster

In fact, it’s Carol Dempster as Agnes Harrington who winds up subduing the villain (her yearbook picture reads “Conquer or die!”)…which is kind of the movie’s highlight for her character—a demure if deadly dull young ingenue whom Griffith had an affinity for when it came to choosing actresses for his movies (for casting couch-related reasons); she also appears in Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924) and Sally of the Sawdust {1925}, both previously reviewed here on the blog.  It was Dempster who persuaded D.W. to do the balls-out climax of the film in which she and Hull chase after the killer in a hurricane that could explain Griffith’s earlier “cost me more four times what I expected” complaint.  It’s no Way Down East (1920) ice floe finale, but the hurricane in One Exciting Night does provide some lively moments (Porter Strong’s Romeo character—while a painfully racist stereotype—does generate a chuckle or two as he attempts to cope with the gale tearing the hell out of his house) after two hours of dreary old-dark-house shenanigans.

alphadvdOne Exciting Night got a VHS release in 1997, and our good friends at Alpha Video slapped this bad boy to disc in 2014…but I watched the movie raptly (well, when I wasn’t nodding off) via a download from our courtesy weekend of Epix Vault On Demand. (It’s also available on YouTube, if you’re curious.)  I’ll say this for Night: despite the movie being not so good, the print was decent…and it had a music score, which is more than I can say for two other silents I grabbed from The Vault: Shadows (1922) and Ella Cinders (1926).  I have said this before, but it bears repeating: a silent film without music is little more than watching someone’s home movies—ferchrissake, people, drop a needle on Yakety Sax or something!

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