Sunday, November 16, 2014

Midnight (All Star Productions/Universal, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Call It Murder, a.k.a. Midnight, a 1934 film made in New York, which features O. P. Heggie (the blind hermit from The Bride of Frankenstein) as the (self-)righteous foreman of a jury which condemns a woman to death for having murdered the husband who was about to leave her, and Sidney Fox as his daughter, who gets involved in a similar situation with her gangster boyfriend, played by Humphrey Bogart in one of his earliest roles (after his first spate of films for Fox and Warners, but before the stage and screen versions of The Petrified Forest, which made him a star). The copy I had was mastered from a reissue print, put out by something called Guaranteed Pictures (although the film was originally released by Universal), with Bogart’s name above the title (which was presumably changed both to make it sound like a crime film and to avoid confusion with the Paramount comedy called Midnight that had been released in 1939, five years after this film was made). Top-billing Bogart was an obvious piece of exploitation — after all, his character gets killed 45 minutes through this 72-minute movie (nor does he reappear in flashback, either) — but his performance is the best thing in the movie; though he’d only played a gangster once before (in the film Three on a Match, two years earlier), he already had the act down pat, and his rough, staccato speech pattern and fluid, urgent body movements made him stand out among the highly stage-bound, theatrical acting of the rest of the cast.

Otherwise, Midnight was that most frustrating type of movie: a mediocre film that could have been really good. The central conflict — justice vs. mercy — is a strong one, the situations are a little melodramatic but still effective in getting the point across, and the cast was at least potentially great. Director Chester Erskine kept the piece pretty stage-bound (it was originally a Theatre Guild play, which may have encouraged the stagy acting) but did do some interesting visual experiments, including some effective use of non-synchronous sound and some powerful intercutting between the death house where the convicted murderess is about to be executed and the home of the jury foreman — though the intercutting would have worked even stronger if Erskine had had more of a sense of pace. This is a very slow movie — it’s hard to believe that as late into the talkie era as 1934 people were still making films in which every actor painstakingly waited to deliver each line until a second or two after the preceding actor had finished their line. If Erskine’s sense of timing had been better, and if he’d been able to coax his actors into giving more naturalistic performances, this could have been a really good film — as it is, it’s a curiosity of interest mostly for the early Bogart performance, which enlivens the film much as did his later work in The Petrified Forest and Dead End. — 7/30/93


I had a movie in mind I’d wanted to watch with Charles, one I’d recently picked up on a public-domain DVD that proclaimed itself as presenting four all-time Hollywood classics, two with Gary Cooper (the 1932 A Farewell to Arms and the 1941 Meet John Doe) and two with Humphrey Bogart (Beat the Devil from 1954 — the last, and I think the weakest, of Bogart’s six collaborations with John Huston — and the other, the one I wanted to watch last night). The film was Midnight, made in 1934 in New York and Bogart’s only film work during an odd interregnum in his movie career during which he retreated to the Big Apple and, except for this one movie, did stage work exclusively. Bogart had originally been signed to Fox Studios in 1930 as just another New York stage actor snapped up by Hollywood because he actually had experience acting with his voice, and though he’d done brief appearances in a silent film and a Vitaphone short called Broadway’s Like That with Ruth Etting and Joan Blondell (the picture was discovered in 1963 — enough for producer David L. Wolper to use it in a Bogart episode on his half-hour Biography series — but the soundtrack, alas, remains lost; Bogart plays a no-good rotter who seduces and abandons Etting and the two stills I’ve seen from it show him in a Chinese restaurant where he’s taken her to dinner; how the great Blondell fits into this, I have no idea), he made his feature-film debut at Fox in either of two movies, A Devil with Women (with an Argentine import named Mona Maris who was still working in her home country into the 1970’s) or Up the River. 

I’ve seen Up the River because Spencer Tracy was also in it and John Ford directed; it was included in the Ford at Fox boxed set and Bogart’s performance turned out to be totally remarkable. As a person who’d just been released from prison after a manslaughter conviction (he accidentally killed someone in a brawl the night before he was scheduled to leave for China, he hired a broker to send his parents letters from him via China to make it look like he’d actually made the trip, but when he got out his broker tried to blackmail him) Bogart seemed young and callow but also surprisingly world-weary; the film and especially his acting in it seemed to anticipate the great world-weary performances Bogart would give at Warner Bros. a decade later in that remarkable sequence of movies (High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca) that would make him a superstar. Alas, neither Fox nor any of the other studios that used him at the time followed up on the obvious hints of greatness to come in Bogart’s Up the River performance; Fox used him in a few films and also loaned him to Universal for Bad Sister (which was also Bette Davis’s first movie, though it’s emblematic of how little Universal understood her that they gave her the part of the good sister and cast as the bad sister anodyne little Sidney Fox — that’s right, a girl named Sidney, and at least according to Davis an inamorata of studio co-head Carl Laemmle, Jr. who used that connection to do Davis out of the lead in Preston Sturges’ play Strictly Dishonorable, the property she’d wanted to make her film debut in). Then Fox dropped him and Columbia signed him for six months but gave him only one role — Love Affair, a dull romantic drama in which Bogart plays a flying teacher whose infatuation with a rich bitch played by Dorothy Mackaill takes his attention away from the startup company he wants to create to build his revolutionary new airplane motor.

Bogart then ended up making two movies at Warner Bros., where he’d become a contract player four years later; in the first, Big City Blues, his part (a walk-on during a party sequence) was so small he was uncredited, though clearly recognizable. His next film, Three on a Match, cast him as a gangster for the first time on stage or screen, and he gave a good performance, revealing the trademark Bogart snarl that would be his stock-in-trade once he came back to Warners in 1936 to repeat his stage role of “Duke Mantee” (i.e., John Dillinger, to whom Bogart bore a striking resemblance that no doubt boosted his career but also helped typecast him) in Robert Sherwood’s play The Petrified Forest. But Warners didn’t sign him in 1932, no other studio did either, and he went back to New York to appear in a batch of forgettable plays for the next four years. Midnight, Bogart’s only film between Three on a Match in 1932 and The Petrified Forest in 1936, was made in New York at the Biograph studios in 1934 and, according to, was produced by an independent company called “All Star Films” and later sold to Universal after a deal to release it through RKO fell through — though I have a hard time believing that because the three top-billed actors in the original prints, Sidney Fox, O. P. Heggie and Henry Hull, were all Universal contractees. (I wrote “in the original prints” there because the version we were actually watching was a later reissue from something called “Guaranteed Pictures,” retitled Call It Murder and with Bogart’s billing moved up from eighth to first. The title change not only made it sound like a more typical Bogart movie, it also avoided confusion with the Midnight made by Paramount in 1939, a marvelous farce comedy directed by Mitchell Leisen, written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, and starring Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche and John Barrymore.) I’d seen the 1934 Midnight once before, in a public-domain VHS release that also paired it with Beat the Devil, and at that time it had struck me as unbearably slow and hammy, thanks largely to the stilted, stage-bound performance by O. P. Heggie in the male lead.

He plays Edward Weldon, unbearably self-righteous foreman of the jury that is trying Ethel Saxon (Helen Flint) for the murder of her husband. As the film opens Ethel is testifying that she knew her husband was going to leave her when he showed her the cash he had just obtained by closing their joint bank account. “I knew the end I’d been waiting for had come, that all my fears were realized, that he was going away,” she says on the witness stand. “I went mad — he mustn’t go away, he mustn’t go! Anything to stop him, anything! That’s all I wanted to do.” After Ethel denies that she intended to kill her husband even though she was firing a gun at him, Weldon uses his rarely invoked prerogative as a juror to question Ethel directly. He asks her if she took her husband’s money after she shot him, and when she reluctantly says yes, that’s all he and the rest of the jurors need to know to decide that she shot him for the money, not the emotional anguish of being dumped, and therefore she should be convicted of first-degree murder — which at that time, in the state of New York, meant an automatic death sentence. During the final stages of the trial we see Weldon’s daughter in the audience at the courtroom in the company of her too-slick boyfriend, Gar Boni (Humphrey Bogart). We know he’s a gangster as soon as he snarls, in the virtually patented Bogart snarl, that if Ethel had had a better “mouthpiece” she would have been acquitted, but Stella is oblivious to that and insists that she’s found the man of her dreams when, back at the Weldons’ home — where the film goes after the courtroom scene and barely leaves for the rest of its running time — she insists that she’s going on a date with Boni and her dad futilely tries to stop her. The Weldons are a large extended family who live under one roof: besides Stella and her father there’s her mom (Margaret Wycherly), her sister Ada Biggers (Katherine Wilson), Ada’s layabout husband Joe (Lynne Overman, a fine light comedian who had to watch from the character-actor pool while his good friends Spencer Tracy and James Cagney became superstars; one can readily see why Overman never made the “A”-list but he’s quite good here, indeed the only actor in the film besides Bogart who performs naturalistically), and Weldon’s son Arthur (Richard Whorf in his film debut).

On the night Ethel Saxon is to be executed, Joe Biggers brings over a friend named Nolan (Henry Hull) who makes the Weldons a present of a new radio; what they don’t know (though we do because we’ve heard Nolan explain it to Joe) is the “radio” is actually two-way and Nolan, a radio reporter, has brought it over so he can essentially bug the Weldons’ home and do a live broadcast of Edward Weldon’s reaction to the news that Ethel Saxon has been executed. Stella goes on her date with Gar Boni — there’s a marvelous scene of them sitting in his car (a fancy sports model that itself marks him as someone not to be trusted) as he bids farewell to her just before he’s scheduled to leave for a “business” trip to Chicago and she pleads with him to take her along. He doesn’t want her going to the train station with him, ostensibly because he’s traveling with two (male) “associates” but really because he’s leaving town with another woman (the rotter!) — and when Stella catches on she grabs Gar Boni’s gun and is convinced she killed him. She returns home and is about to confess all when the district attorney, Plunkett (Moffat Johnston), cross-examines her and eventually convinces her that she didn’t kill Gar Boni — he was actually shot by gangland rivals in a drive-by shooting and she merely hallucinated that she’d killed him out of guilt, hurt or whatever. Midnight is that frustrating sort of film that could have been worlds better; the basic concept of a self-righteous paterfamilias involved first in someone else’s crime and then in a strikingly similar incident involving a member of his own family had already been done to a turn, also by Universal, in James Whale’s marvelous The Kiss Before the Mirror in 1933 — in which Frank Morgan (that’s right, the Wizard of Oz himself!) plays a defense attorney charged with representing a friend who caught his wife having an affair and killed her in a fit of jealousy, then realized his own wife was likely doing the same thing … and in the use of then-major star Gloria Stuart to play the initial victim and kill her off in the first reel, as well as in the strongly etched characters of the bit players watching the trial, The Kiss Before the Mirror strongly anticipates Alfred Hitchcock.

Alas, that’s not the movie we’re dealing with here; though Chester Erskine (credited only as director, but he also produced the film and wrote its script, adapting it from a 1930 flop play by Paul and Claire Sifton) turns in a more creative job than I remembered — the opening scene with Ethel testifying features a 360° pan shot around the entire courtroom, nearly three decades before Stanley Kramer was hailed as a great innovator for doing the same thing in Judgment at Nuremberg, and throughout the movie there are quite a few shots where we see something or someone other than the character who’s talking, some surprisingly noir-ish compositions from cinematographers William Steiner and George Webber, and some moving match cuts between Weldon pacing in front of the rails of his staircase and Ethel, in prison awaiting execution, pacing in front of the bars of her cell — he either couldn’t or wouldn’t stop his actors from hamming it up as if they were still in front of the footlights. Oddly, no one in the original play’s cast was in the movie — but they all behave as if they were, and poor young Sidney Fox, never a great actress, tries to deliver an understated performance and gets swamped by all the hammery around her. Anyone who saw it in its Call It Murder reissue, with Bogart billed on his own card before the main title (and quite a few of the actors’ names misspelled), was probably disappointed not only that he was killed off halfway through the movie but that he appeared so little even before his character died. Midnight is one of those he-had-to-start-somewhere performances, except that Bogart had already proven in Up the River and Three On a Match (also a gangster role, but a far stronger one in a more exciting picture than Midnight — but then there are snails that move faster and have more energy than Midnight) that he was potentially a major actor and only need to hang on long enough through the cookie-cutter gangster roles he got at Warners in the late 1930’s before he and the studio finally found his niche. — 11/16/14