Paramount’s The Night of June 13th is most often tabbed as the Street Scene of the suburbs. Has been since its release in 1932. It’s an accurate comparison though it unfairly pidgeonholes a film which could stand on its own merit.
King Vidor’s Street Scene (1931) is the much better remembered film today. Adapted from Elmer Rice’s smash Broadway hit the film, set in front of a New York apartment building, was just as successful on screens across America. Street Scene was a slice of life of several ethnically varied urban apartment tenants. Their chatter and gossip leads to an explosion when one of the men murders his wife in the final act.
Like Street Scene, June 13th also features an ensemble cast that while composed of fewer players on the whole gives us an opportunity to get to know most of the individuals better. Whereas gossip in Street Scene zeroes in on Mrs. Maurrant’s dalliances with the milk man, in The Night of June 13th there is less of a focus upon any particular individual at the outset. Yet there something in the air on Laurel Avenue that has Grandpop (Charley Grapewin) certain that “something’s gonna pop on that street one of these days.”
It will. And guess when?
Street Scene had starred Sylvia Sidney and Estelle Taylor along with several players who were making their film debuts directly off either the Broadway or London companies of the theatrical production. Character actor favorites David Landau, Beulah Bondi and John Qualen are notable from that latter group. Besides having much of its cast so intimately familiar with their roles from the stage, Street Scene unfolds from a single setting and, despite its strong content and the often artful technique of director King Vidor, is a film that is far more stage bound than June 13th will be.
The Night of June 13th was adapted from Vera Caspary’s short story Suburbs, not a play, and directed by Stephen Roberts. Roberts was enjoying a successful run at Paramount coming off well received titles such as Sky Bride and Lady and Gent earlier that same year. He later directed better remembered titles such as The Story of Temple Drake (1933), Star of Midnight (1935) and his final film, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), after which he succumbed to a chronic heart ailment. Roberts was just 41 when he died in his sleep in 1936. While Stephen Roberts did not have the artful touch of a King Vidor, his films were known for their strong development of character and story. It was largely due to the success of The Night of June 13th that Roberts was surprise fifth place finisher in Hollywood Reporter’s annual poll of top earning directors named by film exhibitors nationwide that year.
While there was extensive stage experience among the actors Roberts worked with on The Night of June 13th, most were already established as film actors and all would wind up better remembered for their work on film than stage. Roberts’ characters are indeed more developed than most of their Street Scene counterparts, though none of them had the pressure of living up to a recent Broadway hit as the earlier ensemble had.
June 13th was also far less static than its predecessor had been, moving around its suburban neighborhood and eventually into the courtroom, while the cast of Street Scene were not seen by viewers until they made their way to the front stoop of their apartment building or, at the very most, appeared at their window overlooking said stoop.
Additionally, The Night of June 13th has one further advantage over Street Scene, much less obvious at the time as it is now, and that is being produced a full year later than the better known film. Talking films were progressing at a steady pace and, not to set an artificial dividing line, the differences between titles released in 1932 versus 1931 are often noticeable. Some of those differences have already been mentioned: there is greater movement and more natural acting, two points attributable to an overall improvement in professional technique by those on each side of the camera that honed itself naturally through experience.
Clive Brook is the top Paramount star player to be featured in The Night of June 13th. Brook had recently starred opposite Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932) and would soon head the cast in the Oscar-winning slice of early 20th Century Britain, Cavalcade, for Fox in 1933. By 1935 Brook left Hollywood behind to head back home to Britain where he later enjoyed success in his excellent adaptation of Frederick Lonsdale’s uproarious comedy of manners, On Approval (1944), which he also starred in and directed.
Brook had been in Hollywood since the ‘20s, starring as a romantic leading man in silents and easily transitioning to talkies with his deep British accent allowing to him to continue in the same type of roles.
He’s often described as wooden, and while I do like him I’m ready to admit that that is pretty accurate. I find him at his best cast against type, the wooden actor playing the zany character, as he did best later on in On Approval. For an earlier example check out Midnight Club (1933), which is far from a masterpiece, but an enjoyable, far-fetched mystery, also featuring Alan Mowbray, Helen Vinson and George Raft. Brook winks at us throughout Midnight Club.
In dramatic roles Brook comes off as a bit old-fashioned today and I can understand it being tough to embrace him without already knowing him through some of his other films. The Night of June 13th would be a fine introduction. Brook is largely the focus and shows off the available spectrum of his talents as a result.
The Night of June 13th also features the first of fourteen 1930s screen pairings of Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland, who play husband and wife Philo and Mazie Strawn.
Boland’s Mazie is the much more prominent of the two characters. Despite June 13th having a more serious tone than what we have become used to in a Ruggles and Boland movie, the Strawns are among the lighter characters to be found on Laurel Avenue. The screen tandem provide some chuckles through their rounds of bickering and especially Boland’s solo bits of eavesdropping and nitpicking, especially at the expense of Charley Grapewin's Grandpop.
Probably my favorite bit of Boland in The Night of June 13th comes after Grandpop returns from the Curry residence, where he has just listened in on a Clive Brook and Adrianne Allen argument. Mother-in-law Boland accuses him of eavesdropping … then quickly asks what the Currys had been saying!
Perhaps the most typical family on Laurel Street are the Morrows. While we don’t see much of Mr. Morrow (Edward LeSaint), there’s a good deal of focus on his wife, Lizzie Morrow (Helen Ware), who is high and mighty President of the local Temperance League. Mrs. Morrow is so imperious about the house that she has ironically turned her son, Herbert (Gene Raymond), into an alcoholic.
This film released in September 1932. Herbert Hoover was still in office and Prohibition was still in force. It’s felt throughout The Night of June 13th.
At the very open Charley Grapewin comes out the front door and sports a wide grin as he stares at the headline on the morning Newspaper: “Repeal of Prohibition.” He picks up the paper and loses his smile the second he unfolds it to display the full headline: “Repeal of Prohibition Sidetracked by House.”
One of the first sights Grapewin’s Grandpop sees that morning, as he hides out of view behind a picket fence, is Herbert Morrow (Raymond) stumbling and swaying down the street from the neighborhood’s very visible local watering hole. Neighbor girl, Ginger Blake (Frances Dee), spots Herbert and escorts him to her house in order to get some coffee into him before work that morning.
Far be it for Grandpop to pass judgment. He spends the bulk of his days volunteering for odd jobs with hopes of earning enough spare change to visit Otto, the neighborhood bootlegger slash speakie operator.
While we’ve become used to the slick urban based speakeasies of the period, filled with hoods and their accompanying crimes, Otto’s place in the suburbs seems to be an open secret. Otto (Richard Carle), a slightly beyond middle-age, middle class American, sports an apron and polishes the drinking glasses behind his bar as Grandpop enters and requests some rye. There’s little doubt that Otto ran his saloon legally right up to Prohibition being passed and that nobody in the area of Glenwood Park, where The Night of June 13th takes place, ever bothered to suggest he shutter the place up.
Besides the booze, sex is the other vice around Laurel Street with a good deal of the heat emanating from the Morrow home. Besides alcoholic Herbert’s dalliances with neighbor Ginger, daughter Trudie (Lila Lee) is seen by all in the neighborhood as being a bit too friendly with John Curry (Clive Brook). Curry is a friendly British chap whose jealous wife, Elna (Adrianne Allen), has been largely housebound since suffering a nervous breakdown. Her breakdown has left Elna unable to continue playing concert piano and so she’s left to stare out the windows and watch the clocks, obsessing over John every moment of the day.
After our first breakfast on Laurel Street we get to witness the morning commute. This begins as a mass well timed escape from home to the railroad which will take many of June 13th’s characters away from the supposed tranquil suburbs to their busy lives in the city.
Each of the commuters says good-bye at the door with awaiting car pools choreographing their escape to a place where spouses and parents no longer hold sway. Elna is happy enough watching John’s exit until Trudy Morrow’s car rolls down the driveway and the younger woman offers her husband a ride to the train. Similarly, Herbert Morrow, having quickly pulled himself together from his night at Otto’s place, is the apple of his mother’s eye until those Blake girls next door ride into view from down their driveway and Herbert abandons his father’s car pool in favor of theirs.
In the evening the routine repeats itself in reverse.
One night the Strawns have the Morrows and Currys over for bridge. The evening is filled with a tense politeness that gives way when paranoid Elna Curry snaps in conversation with the young Morrow girl, Trudie. Earlier that evening John Curry had presented his wife with a compact carrying a very distinctive design upon its cover. Trudie Morrow made the mistake of pulling out a matching compact while seated next to Elna Curry. Elna demands to know where Trudie got the compact and when Trudie says she bought it herself Elna slams it to the ground and declares Trudie a liar before storming home. John politely excuses himself from the party, but gets nowhere with Elna back home.
On the night of June 13th Grandpop’s prediction finally came true as something on Laurel Street popped. Audibly.
One of the residents is dead and their spouse is soon on trial for murder. Several of the other residents compose the roster of witnesses. This is where the duplicitousness of suburbia really rears its head. While one of their own fights for their life in the courtroom, neighbors are much more interested in covering up minor personal transgressions rather than speaking the truth and aiding their fellow citizen. But it is hard enough for one person to successfully perjure themselves. When an entire interconnected web of lies is spun from person to person there are bound to be inconsistencies, which once discovered begin to weigh on the consciousness of some of those who have testified—and present an opportunity for vengeance to one who had previously been treated so poorly by a family member that they had protested by leaving home.
Clive Brook is excellent at the top of the June 13th cast; Adrianne Allen goes a bit over the top once or twice, but overall is very believable as his jealous wife. Mary Boland and Helen Ware are each perfect as strong-willed and big-mouthed suburban housewives of the period, while Charlie Ruggles is quietly commendable as Boland’s husband. But it’s Charley Grapewin who manages to serve as center to the entire tale and give the most memorable performance of the movie. Besides Grapewin’s battles with Boland he manages to steal a scene with just about every other scene stealer in the cast of The Night of June 13th.
Among the younger generation Gene Raymond stands out as the alchoholic son of Helen Ware’s temperance league mother. I only wish there had been more for each Frances Dee and Lila Lee to do in this movie, for they’re both excellent: Dee as Raymond’s girlfriend/fiance who rides him as being made into a “mollycoddle and a mama’s boy” via Ware’s iron fist; Lila Lee gives us just the faintest ideas of her intentions towards the Clive Brook character, just enough for us to question her character. Sweet as can be one on one with Brook, immature child when scolded by her mother who knows exactly what daughter is up to.
There is really not a poor performance amongst the large cast of The Night of June 13th. Additional players worth mentioning include Helen Jerome Eddy as Frances Dee’s somewhat sour and wiser to the world older sister; Richard Carle’s bootlegger Otto; Billy Butts is a bit obnoxious as Junior, Ruggles and Boland’s son, but he’s not important enough to worry about.
Inside the courtroom defense attorney Wallis Clark and Judge Frederick Burton take a distant backseat to the prosecutor played by the always strong Arthur Hohl.
While I’ve yet to discover dollar earnings for The Night of June 13th the honors accorded director Roberts by the Hollywood Reporter point to it having been a good box office earner. Newspaper coverage and advertising of the period show that the film had a long run and claimed that it played popular with period audiences. Reviews were generally good, though Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times thought it could have been better with more comedy. I thought the comedy was there, it was just a little dark.
The Night of June 13th has never had a video release and having been originally released by Paramount I’m not holding my breath. If you’re seeking out a copy for viewing I picked mine up here and as long as you’re not a stickler for the latest remastered transfer I highly recommend you do the same.
Pair it with Street Scene and let me know which you like better.
For myself, admittedly a product of the suburbs, it was The Night of June 13th. While I greatly appreciate Street Scene for what it was and what it meant, and it is indisputably the more important film of the two, it’s my opinion that The Night of June 13th has aged better and provides the more enjoyable movie experience even if it does not measure up to its predecessor in terms of dramatic tension.
The Cascarets Token
That's the end of my article about the film itself, consider this bit of afterword a sidebar of sorts.
When I watched the film I was curious about this item:
Grandpop is left without drinking money after his daughter-in-law intercepts the coin his son tried passing him under the kitchen table. Reaching into his pocket he produces a Heads I Win/Tails You Lose Cascarets Token which he exchanges for the the intercepted legal tender when his daughter-in-law is not looking.
Later in the film Mazie Strawn retrieves Grandpop’s Cascarets token, thinking it was the money from earlier, and uses it to pay off her bridge debt to Mrs. Morrow. Mrs. Morrow is offended by the token asking if this is some sort of joke. Mrs. Strawn goes flush and the menfolk all have a good laugh, but we 21st Century viewers seem left out of the joke.
A Cascarets token carried no value. It was a promotional item issued, by best explanation I could find, as a flipping coin. Why the offense and resulting embarassment?
Cascarets were a popular candy-coated laxative of the period. When Mrs. Strawn unintentionally passed the token to the tightly wound Mrs. Morrow, Mrs. Morrow took it as an insult because the suggestion was that she need to cure her constipation. Obviously an unintended faux pas, the men quickly saw the humor in the moment.