by Douglas Messerli
Richard Schayer (screenplay), P.J. Wolfson and Allen Rivkin (story), Hobart Henley (director) Night World / 1932
You might describe Night World’s roving camera as a kind of low-budget rehearsal for the 1934 film Wonder Bar, which also takes us gradually through the regulars’ and backstage dancers’ machinations showing that there’s no true “happiness” in such a night-world bar, even if this one, run by “Happy” MacDonald (Boris Karloff) is named Happy’s Bar. As the doorman, Tim Washington (Clarence Muse) observes, the people come out sadder than they go in, and “everyone loves the wrong person,” which leads the local cop to describe him as a philosopher.
Washington has good reason to be sad given that his wife has just had an operation in the hospital—for what ailment we’re never told—and he can’t get any straight answers from the nurse who responds to his phone calls with stock responses such as “She’s resting” or “She’s doing the best she can.” MacDonald won’t let him take off for the night, and he’s rightfully worried; by film’s end he discovers she has died.
MacDonald has long been unhappy watching his double-timing wife, Jill (Dorothy Revier) try to keep her love affair with the bar’s stage director, Klauss (Russell Hopton) secret. Even the chorus girls see through her ruses, and it’s clear Happy is not blind to facts. He lies to a husband with whose wife he has obviously spent time while the man was out of town on a business trip. More importantly, the mob is after him, and, although he’s got a good quick punch, he knows he needs a gun to settle this score—which his wife has emptied of all its bullets.
Bar-going husbands lie to their wives, and wives to their husbands. One date spends the entire night giggling so obnoxiously that by the time the couple is ready to leave, her companion is almost ready to strangle her so he won’t have to accompany her home.
A handsome young man enters Happy’s Bar and proceeds to nip on his “under the table” bottle for the rest of the night, forgiven because everyone knows he’s Michael Rand (Lew Ayres), the son of a society gorgon—a role perfect for the later nasty right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hooper—who shot the boy’s father for just seeking the pleasure of a kinder and caring woman. That other woman, also at the bar this evening, is Edith Blair (Dorothy Peterson), who drops by his table just to tell him how much she and his father were in love and remind him that his father loved him. It surely doesn’t improve the boy’s spirits much.
And then there’s the standard bar loners and wanderers, the gay patron (Bryon Foulger) who looks so effeminate that you might think him to be a female transvestite. When one of the chorus girls, trying to interact with her audience, sings out “Hi baby,” he responds, “Mister Baby to you!”
Another jolly drunk wanders about the bathrooms and the dance floor trying to find someone who, like he, is from Schenectady. When he asks a fellow bathroom patron, the man lisps back, “No, Syracuse is where I was born.” When Schenectady takes his search to the women’s room, Syracuse scolds him for trying to enter when men are not permitted, perhaps hoping to lure back in the men’s john. But in the meantime, the women have doodled up his face with lipstick, so that, as he turns around to speak with Syracuse, the pansy screams out “Frankenstein!”—obviously an inside joke since Karloff had created the role in James Whale’s masterpiece that was released only 7 months previous—as he skedaddles off, Schenectady calling after, “Relax, you powderpuff.”
Other than the doorman Tim, only the club’s singer Ruth Taylor (Mae Clarke) appears to be a decent human being, joining up with the increasingly confused Rand, and encouraging him to stop his endless thirst: “You know they can make it faster than you can drink it.” She’s just sung “Prisoner of Love,” which obviously is now her position with regard to Rand, particularly when, after the boy gets violent, Happy slugs him out cold. In the bosses’ office she nurses Rand back to health, to sanity—when his mother seeks him out he suddenly vents the spleen he’s obviously been holding in for months, finally cutting off relationship with the viper—and finally lures him into love.
But just as the two are about to run off the Bali and Washington is about to rush off to the hospital to retrieve his poor wife’s body, the gangsters show up, shooting down the doorman by mistake and killing the now defenseless Happy and his double-crossing wife. Discovering the two love-happy kids still in the back of the bar, the mobsters determine to do away with them as well. They are saved by the return of the cop, checking up on his friend Washington, who takes them away in the paddy car for questioning. They could care less as long as they remain in one another’s arms for the night. And for the first time someone has come out of the bar happier than they went in.
There’s not much here in the way of edification for the LGBTQ audience, but at least we know that Happy’s contains a couple of sissies. And in the 1930s they were to be found, evidently, in every bar and theater in New York or any other big city.
Los Angeles, August 30, 2012
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2012).