Night Court (1932) was bound to be a treat based on cast alone. I cannot think of a time I have not enjoyed Walter Huston and his steely Judge Moffett of Night Court proved no exception. Huston’s Judge reminded me of the character he played in The Ruling Voice (1931), but there was very little doubt of redemption in that one from the time we first learn of his daughter’s (Loretta Young) disapproval.
Not so in Night Court. He’s a self-interested crook who will do anything to save his own skin right down to his final scene in which he’s nearly frothing at the mouth attempting to save himself.
Judge Moffett is on the run because Judge Hardy is on his case.
Lewis Stone actually plays a character called Judge Osgood, but it’s a heck of a good warm-up for the Hardy family patriarch he will play fifteen times between 1937 and 1946. Osgood is, um, good. He’s on Moffett’s tail from the first time we see him, mixed amongst the crowd in Moffett’s court watching him quickly dispense a series of five dollar fines and short jail stays to drunks and prostitutes. Stone’s Judge leaves after Huston allows a band of gangsters to walk away scot-free. Judge Osgood could likely easily imagine what we had been shown earlier: A payoff handed to Moffett by sleazy defense attorney Crawford (John Miljan) just before Moffett seated himself at his bench.
Moffett is spooked when the papers report that Osgood is gunning for him. He makes his girlfriend, Lil Baker (Noel Baker), move out of the Park Avenue apartment he had set her up in to keep Osgood from getting to her.
Lil first bumps into Mike Thomas (Phillips Holmes) when looking for the janitor (Jean Hersholt) to inquire about vacancies in the apartment building where Mike already lives.
Of course Lil moves into the room next door to the Thomas family. The paper thin walls offer explanation as to why the room was available. Poor Lil tries to relax with a book and a smoke while Mike and his wife, Mary (Anita Page), go ga-ga over their baby and each other.
Indeed, Mike and Mary seem to have the perfect marriage. In the midst of a Great Depression that we have already been made very familiar with by way of the desperate folk passing through Moffett’s court, Mike and Mary enjoy a four room apartment with gas stove, no less. Mike works night hours as a taxi driver while Mary stays home with the baby. They’re young and very much in love.
The trouble starts when Mary bumps her baby carriage into a detective who had tailed Moffett to Lil’s new apartment. Moffett loses his cool to an extreme bout of paranoia and sends Lil over to pump Mary for information about the encounter they witnessed on the street below. While it’s never stated that Lil is a former actress I think she has to be because this is one of a few times that she really lays it on. Lil returns to Moffett satisfied with Mary’s explanation, and more importantly her ignorance, but is quickly thrown into a panic when she notices something missing from her purse.
Lil made the mistake of laying her purse down within arm’s reach of Mary’s baby. After Lil leaves Mary is horrified to find that her child has stolen an envelope from their visitor and torn it open. Mary opens the bankbook inside to see Moffett’s name at the top of an account containing $60,000. Big bucks for 1932. Mary reseals the envelope and hands it right over when Lil comes to reclaim it, but Moffett notices that the gum on the inside of the envelope is still moist and correctly surmises that Mary had seen what was inside.
This incites Moffett to action and leads to a horrible turn in the lives of the young Thomas couple.
After watching Mike leave for work Moffett sends Lil over to get Mary out of the apartment for a few moments. Apparently it was okay to leave an infant unattended for several minutes in 1932 and still be a good mother, but never mind that since the little Thomas child won’t be alone for long.
When Mary returns to undress for bed a man (Warner Richmond) emerges from behind a closet door inside the darkened apartment. He creeps outside of Mary’s bedroom door, reaches inside to place a bottle of liquor in the room and begins to undress as he slinks inside. Mary turns, half-naked and horrified, and the interloper starts to shout about how she’s trying to cheat him out of money, all the while turning over the furniture and ruffling the bed sheets.
While several of the apartment dwellers, led by Hersholt’s janitor, arrive at the scene, Moffett’s man Grogan (Tully Marshall) tells a cop at street level about the hub bub up above. Mary tries to explain to the officer that the man had come into her room without her knowing it, but the man claims Mary had picked him up out on the street and then demanded an extra $20 once she got him upstairs.
Did I mention that it’s 1932? Guess who gets taken to the police station?
Mary is a wreck, willing to listen to anybody and unfortunately the one person offering advice is Moffett’s crooked defense attorney, played by Miljan. He tells her to plead guilty, take the five dollar fine and she’ll be out of court in ten minutes. Judge Moffett, who had pulled all of these strings to get Mary at his mercy, makes an example of her and sentences her to six months in jail. Just enough time for his trouble with Judge Osgood to blow over.
Mike comes home from driving cab and assumes Mary is asleep after a tiring day with their baby. He falls asleep at the table with the baby on his lap and by the time he wakes up we’ve already seen Mary transferred from a local holding cell to the big house. It isn’t until the next morning that Mike opens the bedroom door to discover Mary is missing.
Street Scene (1931) came to mind as all of Mike and Mary’s neighbors gather in the hallway to whisper about them and gawk at Mike when he realizes what has happened. Nobody, not even Hersholt’s friendly janitor, had had the courage tip off Mike as to Mary's whereabouts. Everybody wants to mind their own business and whisper about other people's business. Besides, Mary appeared quite guilty when standing about half-dressed with the strange man, who Hersholt somehow later describes as looking like “a gentleman,” in her bedroom.
Mike takes the baby down to the court demanding answers. Moffett tells him what happened and then life becomes even worse for Mike. Another man whispers in Moffett’s ear and Moffett takes the baby away! Huston’s Judge is terrifying when he flashes a smile at Mike to calmly explain how this is best for the child. Mike accepts Moffett’s explanation and then breaks our hearts before he departs saying, “Only it don’t leave me much, does it? Four empty rooms and … a gas oven.”
The remainder of Night Court focuses on Mike trying to overcome his doubts about Mary, with some interference by Moffett’s girl, Lil, setting him off track for a bit. Once Mike comes to believe in Mary he also ties together several incriminating facts about Moffett but makes the mistake of telling the wrong people. It all winds up exactly where it should, in Moffett’s courtroom, with an exciting scene built on Moffett’s megalomania and hinging upon Mike’s value of truth over vengeance.
I talked about Phillips Holmes, who plays Mike Thomas, back when I first became familiar with him in another Walter Huston movie, The Criminal Code (1931) at Columbia. Back then I wrote that Holmes, “reminded me of a cross between a fairer-haired Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and a softer-featured Leslie Howard.” I can still see that to some degree, but perhaps because of his excellent Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy (1931) I now see Montgomery Clift every time I see Phillips Holmes. In Night Court Holmes has one scene of extended soliloquy which can’t help but to come off as awkward, but which is put over with an impressive amount of force and emotion by the young actor. It comes when he convinces himself to believe in his wife.
His work in the climactic courtroom scene with Huston also comes with an impressive display of fury and just the expressions you’d expect from his weary, and by that point, beaten features.
For me Phillips Holmes has grown from afterthought to an actor I enjoy spotting in the cast to one who I now seek out ahead of better known co-stars. He was a very talented young man from an acting family who Hollywood forgot all about prior to his tragic death at age 35.
Holmes and Anita Page are a perfect couple in Night Court. Yes, probably perfect to an infuriating degree for Lil, who must listen to their cooing from next door, but I’m speaking of their wonderful chemistry together as a pair of young people who seem wholly in love with one other from the first moment we see them together. It amazing to think that Page went right from putting herself over as the ideal wife in Night Court to being the brazen prostitute with a heart of gold in Skyscraper Souls (1932) which finds Night Court co-star Jean Hersholt seeking to make an honest woman of her.
When the movie finished I was astounded by how low Noel Francis was billed. She’s listed beneath Hersholt, who doesn’t have much to do as the janitor, and even 20-year-old Mary Carlisle, who has one short scene playing the daughter of Lewis Stone’s Judge Osgood. Young Mary is pert and peppy, by the way, and shows all of the youthful charm that would delight moviegoers for too brief a time throughout the ‘30s and into the early ‘40s.
Former beauty queen Francis is all over Night Court but, as I wrote when talking about her in Smart Money (1931), she was a free agent taking work anywhere she could find it at this time. Thus the low billing under the regular MGM contract players.
In Night Court Francis’ Lil Baker is a complete snake. She is wholeheartedly devoted to sugar daddy Moffett. Even after seeing that cute Thomas baby she carries out Moffett’s plans to make Mary Thomas disappear and later, when we think for a moment she may be weakening, causes further trouble for Mike Thomas as well.
Francis makes a delightful bad girl (as usual) but after being front and center for a good portion of the movie all but disappears once her character has served her purpose. Later that year Noel Francis would achieve her greatest fame in a much smaller role, as the prostitute Allen Jenkins leaves to entertain Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
Lewis Stone plays a small but important part in Night Court as Judge Osgood. This film came immediately after one of the actor’s signature roles, another small, meaty part in Grand Hotel. As his Osgood rails against Moffett and talks of bringing down all crooked influences it’s hard not to picture Stone’s Judge Hardy rendering a decision at the start of a Hardy family film. His brief scene with Mary Carlisle seemed similar to later man-to-man talks with Mickey Rooney.
It’s Osgood who puts Moffett on edge and eventually chases him to his demise by way of a gimmicky and outdated bit of technology which is nonetheless pretty neat!
I really enjoy Walter Huston’s active pre-Code period at MGM. Besides Night Court he appeared in favorites such as The Beast of the City, The Wet Parade, Kongo, (all 1932), Gabriel Over the White House, and The Prizefighter and the Lady (both 1933) while there, plus on loan-out to Columbia for American Madness and United Artists for Rain (both 1932).
As impressed as I am by that entertaining roll call, Huston himself was quite unhappy. Biographer John Weld, who had a unique relationship with his subject, reports that Walter told his wife, Nan Huston, “I sold myself down the river to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer” (142).
He spoke of how they flattered him to get him under contract, insisting he had been misused elsewhere but that they would supply him with top stories to play in. “Sounded good. I was elated … Everyone knew that M-G-M was making better motion pictures than any other company and I would do much better under their contract. Well, that was what I thought” (142).
Then discussing what would be the busiest period of his film career, Huston trounced on this little gem, among others: “I don’t want to appear to be just another disgruntled actor, but Night Court was simply a lousy picture. American Madness was fair with a first-class director, Frank Capra, but it ran in second-class theatres. Rain was a picture starring Joan Crawford, and when you say Joan Crawford starred, that’s all there is to it” (143).
About the only one of the bunch that he did like was Gabriel Over the White House.
I can’t agree with Mr. Huston. Night Court is far from lousy. Perhaps it had a lousy run or was hidden in lousy theaters, but it’s an entertaining story with a handful of especially tense scenes along with a few little surprising twists. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke it shies away from “One-Take Woody’s” usual frenetic pace and, if anything, actually plays a little slow in a few spots. The acting is first class all the way through. It does get a bit talky in spots, no surprise it was originally written as a stage play (though never produced), but the talent carries it off.
Photoplay named Night Court as one of its “Best Pictures of the Month” in its June 1932 issue and called further attention to both Walter Huston and Phillips Holmes as having given two of the “Best Performances of the Month” in the same space.
Film Daily thought Night Court tried to do too much calling it, “rather heavy on plot matter,” but adding that it, “has plenty that clicks.” They also called attention to, “some excellent performances by a fine all-around cast.”
About the only naysayer, other than Huston, was Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times, who wrote a spoiler-filled review giving away the fates of the Huston and Stone characters while seeming to judge quality solely on basis of morality, or lack thereof. Hall writes, “Truth is stretched too much to be interesting in Night Court,” which I completely disagree with, but can see some merit in his mentioning, “one or two particularly tedious sequences.”
I get the feeling Mr. Hall didn’t care for Phillips Holmes’ extended speech that I referenced earlier.
Night Court could have been another slam bang signature pre-Code affair had Van Dyke brought it in around 70-minutes. But while the 92 minutes may be a bit much there is no denying the extra time allows for development of several of these intriguing characters, notably those played by Huston, Holmes, Page and, strangely, Noel Francis, each of whom has plenty of opportunity to shine. Even so, Mary Carlisle, Jean Hersholt and even Lewis Stone seem to get the short shrift. Perhaps the story could have been better balanced, though what we got of each character did seem to be enough. Those parts may have played better with less familiar faces in the roles.
Every time Night Court seems like it has slowed down there’s a new surprise to keep up our interest. By the time that Anita Page is behind bars and her baby is taken into custody by the court Night Court gallops without a pause. While I called the ending gimmicky earlier, that gimmick is used in a pretty clever way.
Fans of Huston’s will be more impressed than old Walter was himself; Fans of Phillips Holmes are waiting to be made from MGM’s Night Court.
Night Court has never had a video release, though judging from the fact that Warner Archive has already released five of the Walter Huston movies that I named above from this period I can only imagine it being a matter of time. I caught this one on Turner Classic Movies this past week when it aired during a marathon of films directed by Woody Van Dyke. Hopefully you did as well, because Night Court appears otherwise difficult to locate!
- Weld, John. September Song: An Intimate Biography of Walter Huston. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998.