I originally wrote this back in May 2009 when TCM was airing an evening of Edward Arnold films.
Quick background on Arnold, and if the name’s not familiar you likely know him from his supporting roles in Frank Capra classics You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Meet John Doe (1941), or surely as machine head Jim Taylor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). If not he’s the one with the booming voice and quite often the infectious chuckle.
Born Gunther Edward Arnold Schneider, February 18, 1890 in New York, Arnold started out on stage but reluctantly gravitated to film in 1916. Arnold was happy to escape film when cast in The Storm (1919) and would stick to the stage through the 1920’s but fell in love with the Hollywood pay scale when he returned to the screen in Universal’s Okay America (1932).
"When I received my check for Okay America," he said, "I began thinking working in talkies wasn't such a bad idea. For four days work, I received $900. That was worth writing home about!" (Roberts).
It was Arnold himself who suggested mystery writer Baynard Kendrick’s character of blind detective Duncan Maclain to Dore Schary, executive producer of MGM’s B-film department, with the idea of his playing Maclain in a series. The character had a natural appeal to Arnold whose own father had been blind for the last 25 years of his life (Noletti 56).
Eyes in the Night (1942) would be the first of two Duncan Maclain films starring Arnold, the other, The Hidden Eye (1945), coming after Schary’s departure from the studio. Both movies starred Arnold and his seeing-eye dog, Friday, with Eyes in the Night an early assignment for Zinnemann, who would go on to direct High Noon (1952) before winning Academy Awards for Best Director on From Here to Eternity (1953) and A Man for All Seasons (1966), which was also Best Picture in 1967.
The experience, for Zinnemann, was not a good one: “Eyes in the Night was something of a nightmare. The plot involved a blind detective and his dog who somehow uncover a nest of Nazi spies. The problem was very simple. Man and dog had to be together in most scenes, but I had an actor who couldn’t remember his lines and was only good on the eighth or ninth take, and a dog who was only good for one and who would then wander off and hide” (Sinyard 22).
Perhaps then it shouldn’t be surprising that Eyes in the Night and The Hidden Eye are Friday the dog’s only two film credits.
Despite Zinnemann’s distaste for the experience, and all the more a credit to his talents, Friday comes off on film as a daring action hero, while as Maclain Arnold is every bit as entertaining as he is in all those character roles that leave you wishing for more.
Don’t get me wrong, Eyes in the Night is most definitely a B-production, at its heart a run-of-the-mill Nazi espionage story, but enhanced by the dog’s tricks and Arnold’s handling of the sightless Maclain.
Eyes in the Night also sports a stronger than expected supporting cast led by Ann Harding in her return to the screen after a five year absence and 21-year-old Donna Reed (playing 17), who would soon enough garner some fame in a Capra title herself. Also appearing are John Emery as the murder victim, hammy actor Paul Gerente, who’s involved with Barbara Lawry (Reed) and has a past with step-mother Norma (Harding).
Reed, playing a young, silver-tongued brat, arrives to find Gerente’s body and who should come from the shadows but step-mom Norma. When Norma proclaims her innocence Reed’s Barbara replies “You’re dull darling. That’s such a feeble story.” When Norma begs her not to call the police, Barbara pounces on her and orders her out of the house for good while her father is away.
The father, Stephen Lawry, played by former leading man Reginald Denny, is a scientist who has developed some top secret plans that he can’t even tell wife Norma about. He’s flying to an undisclosed location to put his experiment on display, stating that if it works it’ll be, “an important contribution to the war.”
With Stephen out of the way the Nazis come out of the woodwork. They’ve apparently infiltrated the Lawry’s entire existence, posing as members of the Lawry’s well-staffed house as well as cast and crew of the play Barbara is cast in. Their task is to steal the plans from Stephen’s safe before his return. The kink in this plan comes when the doorbell rings and Duncan Maclain, aka “Uncle Mac," comes to stay with his “niece,” Norma.
Edward Arnold is shown reading Braille, checking his Braille watch and even playing a hand of solitaire with Braille playing cards. Ever present Friday is more of an assistant than an aide. Maclain is also shown from the opening scene as able to take care of himself tossing around his other assistant, Marty (Allen Jenkins), on a wrestling mat.
Then, of course, there’s Maclain’s hidden edge over those who can see—the dark. When Mac tells the surprised lead spy to turn out the lights so that he can read for awhile he remarks, “Sure, I read with my fingers. That’s the blind man’s advantage.” When a villain asks, “Where are you?” after coming upon Maclain in a room where he has knocked all of the lights out of commission, Maclain replies, “In the dark. In my kingdom.”
Blindness is shown to heighten the other senses when Maclain is brought a spiked drink. He’s all smiles as he takes the glass of brandy and comments on the exact vintage, and once alone further comments “There’s enough sodium anatol in this to put three men to sleep.” While Maclain, of course, doesn’t take the tainted drink it’s delivery does lead to a fun scene where Edward Arnold wakes up the entire household by playing the organ while pretending to be over-the-top drunk.
Other cast members includes Stanley Ridges as the lead butler, Hanson; Rosemary DeCamp as Vera the maid, and Stephen McNally as her husband, Gabriel. Katherine Emery is excellent as Barb’s director, Cheli Scott. And then there’s Mantan Moreland.
As Duncan Maclain’s butler, Alistair, the African-American actor Moreland plays as equal to Friday the dog. Actually, that’s probably being kind, as Friday is far more important in Maclain’s life than Alistair. But both are in place to serve Mac and as shown in the final scene are presented more or less as social equals. Alistair is the typical stereotyped character of the period.
Looking more optimistically at Alistair from Maclain’s own perspective, the Allen Jenkins character Marty really doesn’t rank any higher than Friday either. While Alistair hobnobs with the canine, Marty is basically the dog’s voice. He accompanies Maclain to the scene of Gerente’s murder and simply states what and where everything is in the room. He doesn’t think.Furthermore when Maclain sets Friday free to play hero with the goal of retrieving Marty, we’re shown Alistair and Marty both bound and gagged, helpless side by side. After some daring leaps and an eventual plunge through a closed window it’s Friday who frees both of Maclain’s human assistants, black and white alike.
Sporting a better than B cast Eyes in the Night has the further advantage of a tight 80-minute script that moves the action forward quickly. You’re tempted to pull out a score card to keep track of the characters at some points, but by the same token they’re grouped into easily identifiable clusters (Mac and his crew, the Lawry family, the Nazis, etc.), so that even if you’re not quite sure who someone is for a moment you do know where they fit into the story.
While race is played for laughs, disability is the focus and Arnold’s Duncan Maclain is no doubt not only the hero but the most self-assured and strongest of all characters.
I don’t usually do ratings, but in this case if we were working on a 4-star scale I’d say “Eyes in the Night” is an easy call at 2-1/2, a little better than average and worth a viewing.
- Noletti, Arthur. The Films of Fred Zinnemann. SUNY Press, 1999.
- Roberts, John. Diamond Eddie: The Edward Arnold Story. Classic Images Oct. 2000.
- Sinyard, Neal. Fred Zinnemann. McFarland, 2003.