backlit spider web, October 2021
Kino Lorber recently released on Blu-Ray the nine films Mae West made between 1932 and 1940; she did make a few others (notably a couple as late as the 1970s), but these nine movies are what she is mostly remembered for. The first of them is Night After Night.
As with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, supporting players in 1933's Flying Down to Rio whose one big dance number led to their beloved series of starring vehicles, West has only a small role here, but it launched her in her own series of tailor-made films, a series so successful that the first, She Done Him Wrong, was credited with saving Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy. She was a writer as well as actor, and already in Night After Night she was given a free hand to rework her scenes. The disc's informative commentary track, by film historians Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson, gives the background: the film's official star, George Raft, knew West from their days on the New York stage and in the New York demimonde and recommended her for the role of Maudie Triplett, an ex-girlfriend to his character, the Everymanly-named Joe, a bootlegger/gangster trying to make good as a night-club owner. West came out to Paramount and after several weeks received a draft script; when she told the producers that they could get anyone to play the part as written, they told her she could rewrite her scenes.
West had by then had several plays in New York that were hits despite or because of censorship attempts by groups such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice, giving her a reputation as a bad woman, at least in prudish eyes, and as a daring and provocative performer among people who weren't all that committed to repressing the Society's idea of vice. Her first scene in Night After Night shows her considerable skill in stagecraft: we first see her outside the door of the night club – actually, we don't see her, exactly; we know she's there, as we can hear her distinctive voice (an effective use of the still relatively new technology of talking pictures); what we see is the tuxedoed backs of a number of young swells, who (this comparison comes from Heller-Nicholas on the commentary track) form a curtain of men, parting to reveal her. She is clearly a force as she goes into the night club, ignoring with great good humor the attempts of Joe's loyal aide to pretend he's not there at the moment. And within minutes of her entrance we get one of her all-time classic lines: the friendly hat check girl, who can't help noticing her dazzling jewels, exclaims, "Goodness! what beautiful diamonds!" And she responds, of course, again with great good humor, "Dearie, goodness had nothing to do with it." What really marks her out as an actor who knows what she's doing is that while she clearly knows this is a great line – her dialogue flashes in this first brief scene, with this line exploding like the final big effect on fireworks night at the ballpark – she also knows she doesn't need to milk it, or even bask in it, because she's letting us know there're plenty more where that came from – she just delivers it and moves off confidently, as no topper is possible, and the camera agrees, as it cuts right away.
Years ago when Desperately Seeking Susan was new I read a review announcing that we just can't take our eyes off Madonna and, on the contrary, I always found it very easy to do so (oddly Madonna is mentioned a few times in the commentary track; the reference seems a bit dated to me, but then Madonna. like Michael Jackson, Keith Haring, and Ronald Reagan, is one of those 1980's cultural icons whose appeal I never understood, even in the 1980s). But you really can't take your eyes off West when she's on screen (Madonna, by contrast, was just a poor imitation, with a few other stars like Dietrich thrown in occasionally to vary the tune).
West (for our purposes, the character she's playing is always "Mae West", regardless of the particular avatar she appears under in each film) is headed to the table where Joe is trying to impress Miss Healy (Constance Cummings) a young society woman, whom he has noticed for several nights visiting his night club solo – it turns out the building was her formerly wealthy family's residence, lost in the stock-market crash of 1929. There is already a third party at their table, as Raft had earlier invited Mabel (Alison Skipworth), the stout and refined middle-aged woman who is tutoring him in the ways of the haut monde, to join them for dinner and, as part of her Henry Higgins duties, help him impress the upper-crust beauty (just the fact that she's inevitably referred to as "Miss Healy" tells you all about her status) by guiding the conversation so he can impress her with the opinions he's been told to have on Important Subjects like global politics.
Mabel is quite delighted to be asked to the dinner, as she has never been in a night club, or, you suspect, in any romantic relationships. It's an interesting light on her character, and the first hint that she's not like Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers' films, or some snooty dragon-guard of the sort you might expect in a '30s film about crossing social boundaries; we realize her status is liminal, as she has the manners and knowledge of the educated classes, but not much life experience or, as we discover later, income. West orders a waiter to bring her a chair and plops herself down, quipping all the way, and, again contrary to what you might expect in a movie like this, not only are Mabel and West not antagonists, after a few drinks they hit it off quite splendidly and end up sleeping it off in one of the nightclub's guest rooms, and not only in the same room, but in the same bed.
On the commentary track Heller-Nicholas in particular is thrilled with this scene and its (her term) queer-friendly nature. Sure, but I'm not as convinced as she is that we're meant to see that as the inescapable subtext – it's certainly possible, but the very openness of the arrangement makes me think it was just not that unusual in that period for people to share beds non-sexually in a boarding-house – if it had been, more would have been made of it, both in the film and in its reception. You could make more of a case for the queering of Mabel, who, as Maude keeps giving her liquor, asks her if she believes in love at first sight ("I don't know but it certainly saves time" West responds) and then asks if she thinks it really would be possible to lose her inhibitions. But I don't think we're meant to see the two women as even potential romantic partners – it's more to the point that the upper-crust tutor and the cheery broad end up having a lot in common. The two end up helping each other: there's some amusing dialogue at cross-purposes in which West proposes that Mabel join her business, which Mabel assumes is prostitution. It turns out to be a chain of beauty salons, and West could use a high-class woman to act as a manager. In short, the point here is more homosocial than homoerotic; it's women helping each other financially and socially, by owning a stake in an industry, female beautification, that plays a double-edged role in controlling and empowering women.
There are a couple of overt queer references that the commentary track didn't cover. One is when Raft, showing out some equally elegant gangsters who have come to muscle in on his business, is asked by them what flowers he prefers (the implication is for his funeral, if he doesn't cooperate) and he genially replies, "Oh, anything at all but pansies", and so much for queer-friendly. The other moment is in a montage of people partying at the night-club: among the revelers, there's a shot of two women in close-up: one who looks a bit older and has dark hair, cut very short and slicked back like a man's, smiling insinuatingly at a younger blond woman as she offers her a cigarette, which the blond, after a split-second hesitation, takes, breaking into a big smile. I watched the preview for this film, included on the disc as one of the extras, and I noticed it contains that montage, only with the close-up of the two women removed, suggesting that the lesbian reference was clear enough so that it was considered best to slip it in during the film rather than highlight it during a preview. But is this queer-positive, or titillation, or maybe a bit of both? It's interesting that the one reference to male homosexuals is a negative joke, but there is an at least potentially more positive undercurrent of lesbianism.
There is also an implication in that close-up that, as most at the time would have described it, the older woman is "recruiting"/"corrupting" the younger – well, such things happen in the big cities, where the champagne flows and the morals fly! (Again: approval, or titillation?) There's always the temptation with pre-Code films to assume that their openness would be the same as ours, and that openness is acceptance. Inevitably we're reminded that things change. The society girl here clearly loves it when the gangster stops trying to play the country-club boy and grabs her roughly, speaking to her even more roughly – in fact, all along she's clearly been excited by what she experiences as slumming. When West shows up at the dinner table, Miss Healy stops smiling with condescending amusement at the efforts to impress her, and obviously delights (eyes sparkling, lips slightly parted) in Maude's tales of saloon brawls and fights with the police. I doubt a movie these days would be as open about this woman's desire to be overpowered by a man, particularly one of a lower class: here, it's presented as a natural thing, leading rather abruptly to the film's happy ending.
The women (particularly West, of course) are the main attraction here, but I have to mention how impressed I was with George Raft. I haven't seen that much of him, except for his bit part as Spats Columbo in Some Like It Hot, in which his casting is an in-joke about his career as Hollywood's go-to gangster in the 1930s. But he's really impressive here, not only good-looking enough to put one in mind of Valentino, but managing to be convincingly and seamlessly hard as a gangster, suave as a night-club owner, and boyish as a wooer. This is an interesting film, even apart from its fame for West's first appearance on screen, and it looks great in the Kino Blu-ray's luscious black-and-white.
Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross: a detail from The Crucifixion by the Le Nain Brothers, seen at the Legion of Honor's 2016 exhibit The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of 17th-Century France