It might clock just a couple of minutes shy of an hour but a trip inside Happy MacDonald's place is one you'll recall for some time to come.
Night World is the closest I've come to spending a night inside a Prohibition era speakeasy. The tone is set from the opening credits which unwind accompanied by a rollicking jazz tune that then gives over to a few somber notes warning us that what follows may not be all fun and games. From a showgirl's window we fall over New York's bright and blinking lights hawking a good time under the darkness of night. A seedier side is shown tucked in the city's back alleys as we see a prostitute being picked up; a man turns to us, shocked, as gun fire rages and puts him down; the Salvation Army marches past; a child prays; into the clubs we go and find a young woman so hopped up on illegal hooch that she collapses into a ready man's arms; another girl shows plenty of leg under a table while her foot nudges a bottle over to her fellow; finally, we settle on the outside of Happy's Club and prepare for our close-up view of the vice.
Outside we're greeted by Tim the doorman (Clarence Muse) who is soon approached by Ryan, the local cop on the beat (Robert Emmett O'Connor). As women pass the area giggling and men respond with confident glances our experienced man in blue wonders at it all with Tim:
"Some people got the dough and thousands are starving."
"Ain't that the truth," Tim says. But Tim has been observant watching Happy's door every night and adds, "But lots of them folks in there is hungry too. They starving."
"What else can you starve for, except food?"
"Oh, lots of things," says Tim. "Maybe they don't know just what it is. Most all of them folks is starving for something. And it ain't just food. They comes in here and eats and dances around and hugs thereself up to a woman. For awhile 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 starving, Mr. Ryan."
"Why, Tim, you're a philosopher," Ryan replies.
"Is I? You don't say so? Well, that ain't what my wife Mary says. Just says I a fool-talking old colored man."
The men share a laugh.
Night World is a Universal production directed by former silent star Hobart Henley, and according to a Film Daily report based on a idea of Henley's as well. Its cast boasts horror icon Boris Karloff, waiting for a more important assignment after Frankenstein (1931); Lew Ayres, still riding the crest of his success from the semi-recent All Quiet on the Western Front (1930); a Karloff Frankenstein co-star, Mae Clarke, already also having tasted that famed grapefruit courtesy of Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931), but more notably to her own career having already starred in Waterloo Bridge (1931). Her Ruth Taylor of Night World seems to be the very showgirl that Waterloo Bridge's Myra had claimed to be. Also showing up in Night World, a film released less than a month after the classic Scarface (1932), is George Raft, tough talking as ever in a brief role as a high rolling gangster after a date with Clarke's Ruth.
You don't even need to read Night World's credits to recognize the presence of another legend on the pay roll, this one behind the scenes, when Ruth leads a group of a dozen or so showgirls in a wild dance choreographed by none other than Busby Berkeley. His most famous work is soon ahead of him.
As busy as Night World's 58 minutes or so keep you with all of those famous faces and kaleidoscopic routines it's Muse's Tim who comes off as the most interesting and sympathetic character of the bunch. Oh, he doesn't get a ton of time in Night World, and Tim's character operates on a single note--his wife is in the hospital and all that anyone will tell him is that "she's doing as well as can be expected"--but as the patrons pass and he has his few interactions with other characters, his story is the only one we can really identify with. While Happy is the host of Happy's Club, Tim is our host of Night World. We just wish Happy would let the poor guy off so he could check on his wife!
The other two main threads tucked inside of Night World are entertaining but take a back seat to and work in support of the true star of Night World: The general mood and ambiance supplied by Happy's Club.
Lew Ayres as Michael Rand stumbles into Happy's already plastered and as he passes the other patrons we hear a bit of his story. In a recent murder case his mother was acquitted of killing his father, who was scandalously involved with another woman. Young Rand has been hopping speakie to speakie ever since doing his best to drown his sorrows. Mae Clarke's Ruth takes pity on him and takes care of him after Rand gets boisterous and is mercifully silenced by Happy's famed short arm jolt across the jaw. Ruth and Rand fall for each other.
More interesting is the unhappy couple of Night World, Karloff's Happy and his wife, Jill (Dorothy Revier). She slips off with dance choreographer Klauss (Russell Hopton) at every opportunity while Happy busies himself with combined duties of running the club and playing host at its door. It's Happy who has to deal with the darker side of Night World when a local gangster (Harry Woods) visits to find out why the Club refuses to buy his boss's brew. "The big fellow's plenty sore. He's about to turn on the heat," comes the threat. Happy, playing it cool, replies, "Well, it's a cold night, we could stand a little more steam."
The ending is bound to be ugly when the same thug returns towards the end of the picture with Jack La Rue as his trigger man.
Beyond the general atmosphere Night World is filled with line after line of Depression era lingo, especially in the case of Raft's Ed Powell. Raft only has a few scenes but they're made memorable through the snappy dialogue he's given such as his first appearance when he tells Karloff he's just won 11 G's from some ump-chays from Philly in a game of stud poker. "Never give a sucker an even break," says Karloff, to which Raft replies "I never give anyone an even break." Then, on the hunt for Ruth, he's greeted at the dressing room door by another dancer, who says, "What all you guys see in that bimbo is beyond me." Raft coolly tells her, "Not beyond you. Just behind you by about ten years, sweetheart." And when Raft returns to Happy's a little later to keep a date with Ruth he gets into a bit of huff over finding her with Rand. Ruth tells him it's too late to go anywhere and Raft's Powell rankles her by saying "My apartment never closes."
As for Mae Clarke her background makes it especially fun to see her lead the line of Busby's beauties in the "Who's Your Little Who-Zis?" number. Clarke, who told author James Curtis that Night World was "completely wiped out" of her memory (Curtis 113), got her start dancing as a young girl in Atlantic City. She arrived in New York as a professional dancer when she was just 14 years old. She was soon dancing on the Strand Roof above The Strand Theater and at other nightclubs during which time she formed a tight trio with Barbara Stanwyck, then still Ruby Stevens, and Wanda Mansfield. Clarke made the jump to the more legitimate stage on Stanwyck's coattails in The Noose which ran for 197 performances on Broadway.
While appearing in the George White musical-comedy Midnight Mary young Mae fell head over heels for Lew Brice, Fanny's younger brother, whom she soon married. Clarke fled the show to join Brice in Chicago where they sang and danced together headlining a musical-comedy act billed as Mr. and Mrs. Lew Brice. Clarke claimed the act was successful enough to be the primary factor in Fox Films offering her a screen test which despite her own reluctance sister-in-law Brice pushed her to go through with. "You see where I was when Hollywood wanted me? At the top" (Curtis 38). Clarke was soon running herself ragged under contract to both Columbia and Universal.
The best I can tell from Clarke's book length interview with Curtis is that she blamed doctors for precipitating the breakdown that followed through over-medication. Night World released in May 1932; Universal released Clarke from her contract in July that same year.
Meanwhile years of toil had finally paid off for Karloff with the release of Frankenstein in late 1931. On its success Universal signed Karloff to a star contract before the end of the year. While Universal made early plans to feature him in adaptation of The Invisible Man, Karloff kept busy through his previous commitments to other studios and also made a cameo in The Cohens and Kellys in Hollywood (1932) for his new home studio. Caught up with his work elsewhere Karloff returned to Universal in March 1932 but nothing big had broken for him by that time. According to Karloff biographer Scott Allen Nollen "rather than keep him waiting another month" (49) he was cast in Night World. While Karloff's accent might not seem completely natural in Night World his presence works and his Happy is one of the more interesting characters. Described by his enemies as "a square guy" he's heavy-handed, even somewhat sadistic, in dealing with Revier as his unfaithful wife and Russell Hopton as Klauss, her lover. Up next for Karloff would be another better remembered classic role, Morgan in James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932).
Revier is excellent as Karloff's conniving wife, Jill. Night World finds Revier, the Queen of Poverty Row, on the down slope of a career which had previously seen her star in Columbia's first A-picture, Submarine (1928), directed by Frank Capra. She starred opposite Douglas Fairbanks in The Iron Mask (1929) and was teamed with leading man Jack Holt in four films including Columbia's first all-talking picture, The Donovan Affair (1929). A former WAMPAS Baby Star of 1925, Revier, like the younger Mae Clarke, got her start as a dancer. Unlike show girl Clarke, Dorothy Revier danced ballet professionally from age 16 but left those skills behind when she came to motion pictures in 1922. An established leading lady in silent films by the time talkies took over the world, Revier told author Michael G. Ankerich of the transition: "I really had no trouble, though many of us did" (280). She added, "I think I had a pretty good voice." I'd agree. She's a delight as the vixen in Night World. Columbia soon cast her in a number of Westerns and Revier became disgruntled leaving the screen for good after 1936's The Cowboy and the Kid starring Buck Jones.
While I found Clarence Muse's Tim to be the heart and soul of Night World, I don't want to give the wrong impression. Ray Turner is on the scene doing his usual thing as a wash room attendant and there's plenty of fun poked at a gay character in the film as well, especially by Bert Roach. But while that unfortunate pair will be familiar to fans of the period, Muse's Tim stands out as an unusually sensitive portrayal of a black man for a film made by a major studio in 1932. We all feel for Tim as he awaits word of his wife's condition throughout Night World, but even more surprising is his camaraderie with the Irish cop, Ryan, in the conversation outside of Happy's Club before we ever enter. There's no doubt this unlikely duo have passed time similarly many evenings and Ryan is genuinely warm towards Tim.
As for the rest of the cast, Happy's Club is filled with many mostly unbilled dancers who are charmingly snippy throughout with many of them getting off funny throwaway lines.
The aforementioned Bert Roach is Tommy, a drunk in search of someone from Schenectady all movie long. While that may not seem worth mentioning the Schenectady gag is the glue for Roach's character throughout Night World and it's responsible for getting him a giggle every time he pops up, often in unexpected places!
Dorothy Peterson is just kind of blah as Edith Blair, the woman Lew Ayres' father was having the affair with, but she does deliver some valuable information to Ayres' Michael Rand in telling him just how vicious his mother was in disposing of his father. "She cursed him. Never gave him a chance," Edith tells him. It's after Edith Blair departs that Rand makes a fuss and finds himself out cold courtesy of Karloff. When he comes to his mother, played by Hedda Hopper, pays a visit after having tracked him down and the melodramatic dialogue suddenly takes a turn too far:
"You're right. I never loved you," Hopper's character snaps at her son. "I never even wanted you. You're exactly like your father and I hated him. I only married him for his money, position. In the very beginning, I couldn't bear to have him touch me. And at the end I hated him."
"And that's why you killed him," says Ayres, delivered matter-of-factly, not as a question.
Ordinarily I'd count the above dialogue as a spoiler and I do do my best not to spoil anything for you, however given the final product that Night World is the entire story of the Rand family takes a much more distant back seat than I believe was intended. Beyond that we never really care if Rand's mother killed his father in cold blood or not. What matters in this world, Night World, is simply that Rand's mother did kill his father and we know that from the moment we meet Rand. Any further revelations do little to change the Ayres character anyway.
The love story between Ayres and Clarke that Hopper's scene is supposed to punctuate plays second fiddle to the gangster tale starring Karloff along with Revier, Hopton and others. But overwhelming all of our characters, despite the star power driving them, is the general ambiance delivered by Night World's presentation of the stark reality of the inside of a speakeasy at the tail end of Prohibition. The Busby Berkeley number does more in that direction than any of the dramatic scenes. The characters, excepting Tim the doorman, all wind up playing decoration to the era itself.
- Ankerich, Michael G. Broken Silence: Conversations with 23 Silent Film Stars. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1993.
- Curtis, James, ed. Featured Player: An Oral Autobiography of Mae Clarke. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1996.
- Nollen, Scott Allen. Boris Karloff: A Gentleman's Life. Baltimore: Marquee Press, Inc., 1999.