First order of business, One Night at Susie’s is not 92 minutes long. At least the recently released DVD-R from Warner Archive isn’t, despite what it may say on the DVD case or their website. It runs a hair under 62 minutes. Problem is, nobody seems to agree upon how long it is, and never did. The IMDb goes with 85 minutes, as does an original 1930 review from Film Daily. Turner Classic Movies lists no running length on their database page, though they do list it at 62 minutes on a page including their upcoming schedule. It’s usually listed as an 8-reel film in the period press, though the National Board of Review said 6-reels in a 1930 publication. I’d suspect 20 or 30 minutes were missing, if I hadn’t run into a 1930 review from Motion Picture News that put the length at 64 minutes. Yes, it’s yet another number, but at least it’s closer to what I watched than either 85 or 92 minutes.
Whatever the case may be, 62 minutes works for One Night at Susie’s. It creaks a bit, so I expect anything longer would have hurt more than helped.
One Night at Susie’s is a First National-Vitaphone film intended to showcase one of their top stars, Billie Dove, and major up-and-comer, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., but it really turns the spotlight on character actress Helen Ware.
It’s based on a Frederick Hazlitt Brennan short story of the same title that appeared in Liberty magazine, June 22, 1929. Since this wasn’t a serialized story and could be read in its entirety inside one single issue, I went on the hunt and managed to secure a copy. Also of interest inside the same issue, part 1 (of 15!) of Show Girl in Hollywood, also adapted by First National into a film that I’ve previously covered on the site and have also included in my pre-Code eBook.
If you have seen One Night at Susie’s and were confused about a film with intertitles announcing “the following night,” and even “one year later,” purporting to be One Night of anything, that’s easily explained by the Brennan story. Most of the actions between the characters who would eventually be played by Dove and Fairbanks, Jr. are explained to Susie in dialogue near the end of the story. In fact, the Fairbanks, Jr. part was built up for the movie, as he doesn’t really figure in the story until the very end. That said, almost all of the action portrayed on screen in On Night at Susie’s does unfold within Brennan’s few original published pages.
Try as they might to make this a Billie Dove or a Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. vehicle, and the effort towards the former comes into doubt below, anybody watching the movie can see that the emphasis remains where Brennan had originally placed it, on Susie.
Reviews of the day ripped the film for lack of originality, but I found the basic situation somewhat different, even if it stretched the imagination some.
Susie (Helen Ware) runs a boarding house for ex-cons where she also presides over disagreements between rival gangs. The mobsters are all fond of her, but more importantly respect her. The movie opens with Susie standing between members from two warring mobs and demanding they lay their “rods on the table.” They do and she quickly forges peace.
But Susie’s hard-as-nails exterior is quickly betrayed when she’s visited by Dick Rollins (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), son of a dead gangster pal. Susie's been foster mother to Dick and remains doting mother-figure to him. Dick, a theater press agent and aspiring writer, quickly sours Susie by announcing his engagement to a showgirl, Mary Martin (Billie Dove).
Susie is skeptical of Mary from the start, and is somewhat vindicated when Dick winds up serving 1-10 years after taking the fall for Mary on a murder rap. But Mary is devoted, and keeps Dick’s chin up by making a success in a vaudeville sketch that he’s written for her. Dick also insists that Mary take the writing credit so she can better advance her career while he’s serving his time. While this arrangement works for the young couple, it makes Mary appear all the more suspicious to Susie.
Making trouble for everyone is Houlihan (James Crane), an ex-cop who set up his own private detective agency after he was kicked off the force. Crane reminded me a bit of the stiff tough guy cops that Thomas E. Jackson was playing around this time (For the Defense, Little Caesar, Big City Blues, etc.). Crane's a bit stiffer even, but with an added touch of perversion. He leers at Mary, follows her, even puts his hands on her once, suspecting she's an easy showgirl. He has his men watch her while Dick is in prison and comes back to make trouble with his discoveries.
Susie warms to Mary as time passes, even defends her honor on multiple occasions to Houlihan, but she’s outraged when Houlihan brings her evidence of Mary’s affair with a theatrical producer. After Mary explains the extenuating circumstances of her infidelity, Susie is left to decide if she was justified, or if Houlihan’s evidence confirms her original impulses towards Mary. The clock ticks as Dick is set to be released from prison, while Houlihan's threat of exposure looms and a group of gangsters arrive at Susie's to put the finger on Houlihan for yet another act of treachery.
Dove is good in spots, especially the murder scene, though that is largely a silent scene for her. She gets to raise her voice to Ware a few times, but I got the feeling Susie would squash Mary if she attempted to take her bravado any further than she does. Fairbanks Jr. is hard to take, but he doesn’t really have a lot to do. A little too much smile from Doug along with a lot too much make-up. Crane is a bit too creepy as Houlihan, but the character worked for me, as I found myself anticipating his every appearance, just to see what over-the-top action he'd take next. Also strong in support is Tully Marshall, as Susie’s ex-con servant Buckeye Bill, whose underwear, or lack thereof, we learn about in his most amusing scene. But Helen Ware is the glue that holds together One Night at Susie’s and turns it into a worthwhile hour.
“You needn’t be afraid, kid. I can act like a lady,” she tells Dick, after assuming that he’s going to marry someone of better society. And she can. Ware turns it on and off throughout One Night at Susie’s, and while she’s more often shown scowling and talking tough, she also pulls off loving mother figure to Fairbanks with ease.
“All the boys up in the big house are expecting you,” she tells Dick after he’s been convicted. “They’ll look after you.” Just what was Susie’s connection to the underworld? “Nobody knew Susie’s history,” wrote Brennan. But, “there were fables.”
“Some said Susie had been a fat woman in a side show. Others whispered that Susie’s husband was doing it all in a western penitentiary for murder. There was the story that Susie had run a bawdy house in New Orleans ... As to why Susie ran a flop house for ex-cons, only this: ‘It’s right interesting work, now, and I got to be doing something.’”
Most of what Brennan offers about Susie came in terms of physical attributes that were not transferred to the screen. “She weighed four hundred pounds and was five feet four inches tall,” or, “She had thin curly reddish-gray hair parted in the middle. It’s effect was mannish, and seated there in a homemade morris chair she looked like a faintly caricatured Buddha.”
Finally, the physical combines with conjecture over Susie’s past to build this metaphor: “Susie had been a prisoner herself these many years, jailed behind stout layers of fat.” Brennan adds, “Maybe that offers a clue.”
If so, it wasn’t important enough to be carried into casting. Helen Ware is best described as matronly, at least in Susie’s best moments, and even though she doesn’t approach Brennan’s description of Susie, she doesn’t display any other evidence of self-image issues either. To presume movie Susie’s past, her underworld involvement dates back until at least the time of Dick’s father. That relationship is another mystery, one which left me to wonder if Susie wasn’t actually Dick’s mother, rather than a foster mother raising the boy for her deceased friend or ex-lover.
Otherwise, the details of Brennan’s short story largely match the movie. One major exception: In the final scene, Susie doesn’t receive the phone call from Chippee, she makes it.
A couple of early supporting roles for Fairbanks Jr. came in movies featuring Billie Dove as lead actress, The Air Mail, directed by Dove’s husband, Irvin Willat, and Wild Horse Mesa, both 1925 releases. Doug Jr. was a First National star by the time of One Night at Susie’s, and at age 20 had advanced to playing Dove’s love interest. While Fairbanks Jr. thought the film was “a dreary show,” he fondly recalled Dove for having what appeared to be the “most beautiful bosom in pictures.” Newlywed Doug regretted never being able to confirm this. He otherwise glossed over his role in One Night at Susie's as a “‘nothing’ part in a ‘nothing’ story,” which wasn’t too far off. He was still a bit green by his next role for First National/Warner Bros., but at least Little Caesar was much more than a nothing story.
While Billie Dove was billed as star of One Night at Susie’s, it wasn’t exactly a role of any substance for her either. After working as an artist’s model, Dove’s show business roots sprung a couple of years later with Ziegfeld’s Follies beginning in 1918. Her movie debut came in 1921 and she was soon one of the top stars of the decade. The “All-American Beauty” played opposite actors as varied as Tom Mix, Lon Chaney, and John Gilbert early in her film career, and Rod La Rocque, Lloyd Hughes, Gilbert Roland, and even Douglas Fairbanks, Senior that is, later on. She made a seamless transition to talkies, but by the time One Night at Susie’s came out, she was no longer under contract to First National. Dove had split with husband Willat and was in the midst of a highly publicized affair with Howard Hughes. She’d appear in two films for Hughes’s The Caddo Company before making her final Golden Age movie appearance alongside pal Marion Davies in Blondie of the Follies (1932) at MGM.
For a superior biography of Billie Dove, see Michael G. Ankerich’s The Sound of Silence. In 1993-94 Ankerich conducted a series of interviews with the notoriously tight-lipped Dove, making those 20-plus pages some of the most revealing in his collection of conversations.
Billie Dove lived to age 94, passing away on New Year’s Eve, 1997.
At the time Dove left First National, the company had a reputation for stripping billing from any advertising that mentioned their former stars. Such was the case with One Night at Susie’s, which suddenly made the rounds as a Douglas Fairbanks Jr. film, with no mention of Dove whatsoever.
This is entirely speculation on my part, but if there is anything to Susie's missing minutes beyond a typo, perhaps they were Billie Dove scenes that Warner Bros./First National stripped out while the film was still in original release.
But no matter who was featured on the poster or marquee pulling patrons into the theater in 1930, Dove or Fairbanks Jr., it’s almost certain those viewers emerged from the theater with the same impression I took from the movie: One Night at Susie’s belonged to Helen Ware.By the time of this film, the woman who played the grumpy, scowling Susie already had a hugely successful Broadway career in her past. Helen Ware had appeared in movies as early as 1915, but didn't settle in Hollywood for good until the Summer of 1928, when she arrived at Fox, not as an actress, but to lead the company’s new voice-training department. This new position turned out to be superfluous after most of the Fox contractees proved to have better voices for talking pictures than anticipated, so Ware was cast in films herself. She was a busy character actress who appeared in over two dozen talking films between 1928—1935, including titles such as Abraham Lincoln (1930), The Reckless Hour (1931), The Night of June 13 (1932), She Had to Say Yes (1933), Morning Glory (1933), and Sadie McKee (1934).
She was born Helen Remer in San Francisco, California, October 15, 1877, but adopted her mother’s maiden name, Ware, for the stage. Her family moved east and Helen emerged a product of the New York public schools and New York Normal College, before spending a brief time employed as a governess.
“But I simply would not be contented,” she recalled in a 1913 interview. “I wanted to go on the stage. I always had wanted to and the older I grew the bigger grew the want. Finally after asking the assembled family for the last time for consent and some assistance, and having received a final refusal, I packed up my clothes, took what little money I had and departed for New York.” (Presumably her family no longer lived there.)
She made her stage debut in 1899 at New York’s Criterion Theatre in James M. Barrie’s The Little Minister starring Maude Adams. “I received $7 a week for my work and I remember I had an awful time crawling up in the flies to do my bit,” she recalled in 1921.
Ware understudied Blanche Bates in Under Two Flags in 1901-02 and wound up with her first chance to star when Bates fell ill for a week. Later that same season she joined F.C. Whitney’s Quo Vadis? stock company. She spent the early part of the decade with mid-western stock companies before arriving on Broadway in 1906. She was a star within a few years and a busy and successful dramatic actress on Broadway throughout the 1910s and ‘20s.
Ware married former artist, art school proprietor, actor, and occasional co-star, Frederick Burt, sometime during this period. Burt survived her when Helen Ware died, January 25, 1939 in Carmel, California, at age 61. Film Daily reported diphtheria and pneumonia as her cause of death, while Variety and the news agencies attributed her passing to a throat infection.
“I know I never got anything in life that I did not go after hard,” Ware said as early as 1913, adding “Hard work and persistence win.”
Directed by John Francis Dillon for First National, from a screenplay adapted by Forrest Halsey and Kathryn Scola, One Night at Susie’s works overall as a screen retelling of the Liberty magazine short story. While the title no longer fits, the screenwriters made the most of the Dove-Fairbanks Jr. romance by plucking it out of the dialogue and allowing it to play out on screen.
Cinematographer Ernest Haller, who later won an Oscar for his work on Gone With the Wind, filmed One Night at Susie’s, and made his presence especially felt during the strange trial scene. It makes for an odd few moments of Expressionism in an otherwise routinely filmed movie. It’s beautifully bizarre, really an unforgettable scene visually, though it did leave me wondering where they were hiding the jury!
For another view of One Night at Susie’s please see the review posted at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings earlier this week.
My thanks to Warner Archive for providing a review copy of One Night at Susie’s, one of their most recent manufactured-on-demand DVD-R releases.
- “Alice and Billie Billing Is Cut by Warners in Philly,” Motion Picture News, November 29 1930, 1.
- Ankerich, Michael G. The Sound of Silence: Conversations with 16 Film and Stage Personalities Who Bridged the Gap Between Silents and Talkies. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011 ed.
- Brennan, Frederick Hazlitt. "One Night at Susie's." Liberty. 22 June 1929: 16-27.
- Fairbanks, Jr., Douglas. The Salad Days. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
- “Girls Go Wrong Because They Want To, Not Because of Economic Conditions.” Saturday Morning Star, Sunday Magazine Feature Section. 29 June 1913, 3. Web Google News. 7 October 2014.
- “Helen Ware Dead at 62.” Film Daily. 26 January 1939: 3.
- “Helen Ware to Teach Fox Players to Talk.” Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World. 28 July 1928: 35.
- “Helen Ware, Veteran Actress, Dies in Calif.” Lewiston Daily Sun. 26 January 1939, 1. Web. Google News 7 October 2014.
- Knight, Clifford B. “Helen Ware. The Billboard. 22 January 1921: 20. Web. Old Fulton NY Postcards. 7 October 2014.
- “Obituaries: Helen Ware.” Variety 1 February 1939: 54.
- Parker, John. Who’s Who in the Theatre. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1922: 848.