This is what the studio contract system meant. In 1930, Lew Ayres starred in All Quiet on the Western Front, the film that made Hollywood take Universal Pictures seriously. In 1931, Boris Karloff played the Monster in Frankenstein and created a lasting pop culture icon. In 1932, the pair of them were stuck in this 57-minute anything-you-like drama. Ayres is sappy as the drunk son of a notorious murder victim who sobers up under the influence of a nightclub dancer (Mae Clarke) and suddenly starts talking up a trip to Bali in lyrical turns while showing off how tough he is by clipping a masher (George Raft) on the chin and waxing romantic-philosophical when it seems he’s due to be rubbed out by gangsters. Karloff is stuck as the sort of supporting mug he’d done tons of before getting into monster makeup as a slick-tached nightclub owner betrayed by his wife (Dorothy Revier) and dishing out his own knockout punch to the woman’s choreographer boyfriend (Russell Hopton). Set over the course of one night in a hot spot with under-the-table gin and an impressive floor show, it was cut-price Universal’s stab at the sort of lavish multi-character drama MGM were doing at the same time in Grand Hotel but also a a rehash of the studio’s 1929 stage adaptation Broadway. Anyway you look at it, it’s a mess.
It was the second-to-last directing credit for Hobart Henley, but I’d bet choreographer Busby Berkeley handled more than just the chorus line in a lively production number – complete with one of Berkeley’s trademark overhead shots of girls forming a floral flesh kaleidoscope – that also works in snippets of conversation among a large cast. It opens with a montage of New York night life (neon signs, a praying child, a murder, a creep in a tux pouring drink into a girl he’s plainly about to date rape, rolled stockings), but spends the rest of the film inside Happy’s Club. The storyline about Michael Rand (Ayres) being a lush after his Mom (pre-gossip column Hedda Hopper) murdered his Dad and got away with it grinds on between spot gags about a drunk (Bert Roach) who is looking for someone (anyone!) from Schenectady and a camp sissy called Mr Baby (later film noir creep Byron Foulger) getting in the way. Happy MacDonald (Karloff) is resisting pressure from ‘the Big Fellow’ and marked for death, especially since his cheating spouse has taken the bullets out of his gun. At some point, Henley must have clocked what the star was doing in James Whale pictures because he stages a single striking shot of Karloff barging into a dark room and looming into a shaft of light to show off his near-glowing eyes. Otherwise, it’s a disappointing outing for the great actor – and a finish in which he almost relishes being gunned down because at least he got to see his wife get what was coming to her first is thrown away as he falls down dead out of sight behind a bar.
Meanwhile, black doorman Tim Washington (Clarence Muse) worries about a wife in hospital and keeps trying to get away to see her, only to be crushed to learn that she’s dead and walk into a hail of bullets – again, not unhappy to be killed so he can be with her. Muse, as ever, plays with whimsical dignity when a flash of anger might seem more appealing to latterday audiences – though he gets a good early scene yapping with a snow-encrusted Irish cop (Robert Emmett O’Connor) about how nightclub patrons are starving for more than food. Breezing through in showgirl spangles or rehearsal shorts is mercurial Mae Clarke, by far the best thing here – sexy, funny, smart, sweet and willing to put up with a lot from her co-stars. Clarke’s lasting fame comes from two victim roles – Elizabeth in Frankenstein and the face James Cagney shoves a grapefruit at in The Public Enemy – but she was outstanding in James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge and is a tonic in this. She had a few more years of smart gal roles, but wasn’t even considered to reprise Elizabeth when Whale made Bride of Frankenstein. Despite the jokes that have lost their meaning or didn’t work in the first place (‘I’m from Schenectady’) and the flatly ridiculous finish in which a succession of people walk into the club to gun down other people, this is short enough to be entertaining and even deadweight scenes like Ayres’ you-were-never-a-mother-to-me confrontation with Hopper don’t run on too long.
Here’s the big musical number.
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