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Monday, May 06, 2019

Remembered For One Reason ...

Night After Night (1932) Boosts George Raft and Welcomes Mae West

Ran this down after reading Mae West’s recount in her Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It book. Night After Night was the screen debut for West, as well as being, less importantly now, George Raft’s first starring part. Night After Night is in every sense a vehicle for Raft, Paramount in-house agreeing he could be another Valentino, but what did anyone by 1932 need with another Valentino? Raft wrote later that Mae West “stole everything but the camera,” though in fact, her part is limited, with but a couple segments to register fully. Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It was published in 1959, so her recall to Night After Night extends twenty-seven years, that plus impulse to come out a winner in all disputes, the woman who tamed Hollywood right from a start. Make of her account what you will, but know that in 1959, West was addressing a general readership and not chroniclers to whom she owed truth in facts. To read books like this is to know accuracy is down, way down, a list of priorities, and yet Mae West tells a life as she understood it, in a voice recognizably hers, that is, if you know West as an entertainer who left no detail of image-building to chance. She had help on the book, crediting author Stephen Longstreet (novels, scripts, teleplays) and Criswell (!) for “hours and days he spent in research … concerning my life not easily obtainable elsewhere.” Here was a Criswell talent new to me. Guess we can immortalize him for something other than Plan 9 From Outer Space. Query: Did Mae buy into Cris’s hocus-pocus re future reads? She was known to take such matters seriously.

The left coast was 3000 miles from a show world West knew best, though brass at Paramount were familiar to her from years of trouping and travel. There were few strangers among those raised by the biz. William Le Baron would line produce Night After Night. He understood talent like West’s, having met her in 1911 at beginnings for both. Le Baron would also be a champion for W.C. Fields. We can thank him for film legacies these stars left. West had dealt also with George Raft. He came nightly to the boxoffice during her Broadway run of Sex to rake off a cash share for investor Owney Madden, who also owned the Cotton Club and was a leading face of NY gangland. It’s been written that Mae West had an affair with George Raft, but as with most of her liaisons, it was casual, at least on her end. She had wanted him for the male lead in Sex, but Raft didn’t think he could measure up, and so demurred. A lot of wires, then, connected these people. 

Mae had to ride a hot and dingy train to California. It reminded her of miserable trips from vaude. Those who had snatched brass rings kept their aversion to choo-choos. Bad association dies hard. Gloria Swanson hated crimson hues because they reminded her of smelly upholstered seating aboard. The Marx Brothers each had horror stories, and shared them in elder age. Trains were hot as hell because they had to keep windows closed to keep the soot out. Mae West made her trip in June and so got brunt of the heat, four days “holding an ice bag to my head as the electric fans merely swirled the tired torrid air around.” She stayed in her drawing room until arrival in Pasadena. All this for $5000 a week, a transaction most could embrace even today. Imagine five grand in 1932, science-fiction to anybody back then. I believe the essentials of what West wrote in Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It. She says Paramount dawdled with the script for Night After Night, paying her to wait and be idle. Dialogue was bad enough for West to turn down flat. She tried to give the studio its money back so she could go home. They said no and that if she didn’t like her lines, to feel free rewriting. This doesn’t sound like a concession you would give a fourth-billed player, but again, there is ring of truth because Adolph Zukor confirmed as much in the book he’d write (or have written) twenty years after the 1932 movie was made.

Mae West was thirty-nine when she began in films, less an outright sex symbol than source for smart comedy. She’d stay that way to satisfaction of all, then and for those of us who enjoy her now. West doesn’t try to be funny in her book. I think she wanted by 1959 to put the record right and tell what effort staying on top entailed. The West formula really was one only Mae could manage. She had no choice but to stand fast against those who tried to rewrite her. It’s told that she parsed endlessly over Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It before allowing the book to be published. I get the sense that she was stubborn on Night After Night, though reasonable enough to let her material be tested against what was pre-written and leave outcome to the audience (“My part was very unimportant and banal. The dialogue did nothing for me”). Paramount must have realized right away that West would be a major asset, a starring one, and so accommodated her. Director Archie Mayo is dragged through briars by West, same as Groucho would do for him when recalling A Night In Casablanca (I believe he referred to Mayo as a “fat idiot”). Players from a background of stage success did not like studio men telling them how to perform. West found Mayo “fat and friendly,” says they maintained “an armed truce.” (were people generally less tolerant of corpulence in those days?)

It is understood that studios cinched belts when a grip of Depression saw theatre receipts fall. Many put an absolute ceiling on dollars spent. Odd then to read West’s account of waste on Night After Night, as in “ … the actors didn’t know their lines, the director did not seem to know what he was doing. They would shoot a scene over and over, one expensive take after another.” West noticed too how slow a tempo the others used, perhaps ongoing precaution against early recording’s failure to pick up their words, not a concern for someone having come from the stage, where, according to West, she played it slow as contrast to co-players’ speedier delivery. That would have to be reversed now, and indeed, Mae West comes into Night After Night at much higher energy than Raft, and especially Alison Skipworth, another reason her performance stands out and works better for modern watchers. Once she took greater control of vehicles however, West would slow down and let others do the running. Night After Night might, for this reason, be her most energetic performance. To the film’s success, other than a personal one for West, I’m in doubt. The negative cost was $301K, with domestic rentals of $240K, low among other Paramounts for that year. Night After Night is available on DVD, and TCM ran it in HD a few years back.


Blogger Unknown said...

Reg Hartt here. George Raft was given $125.00 a week to star in NIGHT AFTER NIGHT. Contrast that with Mae's $5000.00 per week. West was a survivor from a tough background. She knew that she had to hit BIG in this film for Paramount to taker her seriously. The saying is the camera adds ten years so those 39 would have come across as 49. Paramount was facing bankruptcy. The Famous Players theatre chain was about to be sold off to MGM. The studio sunk, we are told, $2 million in a picture called "HELLO EVERYBODY" with Radio star Kate Smith. They thought that would pull them through. It didn't. The studio said the picture ought to have been called "HELLO ANYBODY" as so few went to see it.

What they did get were tons of letters from theatre managers asking for a Mae West movie. West was not under contract. She had Paramount where she needed them. She insisted on DIAMOND LIL which was banned and condemned.Told that it took three months at least to make a movie she said she could do it in three weeks. The studio gave her $150.00. She brought the picture in in 17 days and under budget. She was an extremely astute person who has never been given the credit that is her due. She remains the best thing about MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. It's too bad Michael Sarne wanted to make a Michael Sarne film instead of a Mae West film. This is especially true of her last film SEXTETTE which pushed the boundaries so far few then and now realize it. 80 year old women are not supposed to present themselves as sexually attractive to men many years their junior. Sure she's not the woman she was in SHE DONE HIM WRONG. Only an idiot would expect her to be. Those Paramount films are in a class by themselves. We have only to read the reports of censors Will Hays and Joseph Breen to understand the very great difficulty she faced making them. When the censors found only one thing objectionable in EVERY DAY'S A HOLIDAY (her final Paramount) the studio said, "If we cut that we will finally have a Mae West film the family can see." It seemed not to occur to them that a Mae West film the family could see would be a Mae West film nobody would want to see. Then they blamed her for its failure. It's too bad the scenes censored from KLONDIKE ANNIE appear to be lost. It would be great to have them restored. Note about older women. A friend of mine in the 1970s had a piece of equipment not much larger than he small finger and the low self esteem that went with it. He left Toronto for New York where he lived with a much older woman for a couple of years. When he came back it was awesome to watch what happened when he entered a room. Every woman in it, young and old, just naturally gravitated towards him. As West said, "It is not what we have it is what we do with what we have." She was a tiny woman who did a lot with what she had.

10:06 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Reg Hartt Typo: The studio gave her $150,000.00. The film came in $117,000.00.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Can't blame West for seizing stardom with her well-honed and to my taste somewhat canned persona, but she's good and real in a supporting role here, enough to make you wish for a few more movies in which she added spice to the proceedings of other stars.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

[John writes:] "Night After Night is in every sense a vehicle for Raft; Paramount in-house agreed he could be another Valentino, though you'd wonder what anyone by 1932 needed with another Valentino."

Ah, but here was a tough guy who could dance, perhaps reminding Paramount executives of Valentino's successful FOUR HORSEMEN tango. This might explain why two of Raft's 1934 vehicles were titled BOLERO and RUMBA.

12:15 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I suspect Mae West suffered because censors wouldn't risk giving her the benefit of the doubt.

The Marx Brothers could get away with double entendres under cover of being silly (Groucho to girl sitting on Zeppo's lap: "Young lady, would you stand up so I can see the son rise?"). Eddie Cantor would make naughty jokes, but with the air of a schoolboy putting one over. Bob Hope was usually a deluded would-be Romeo who clearly wasn't going to get lucky, so his leering quips and advances could be laughed at and laughed off at the same time. Other male comics followed his lead, getting laughs from lust decidedly frustrated.

Female comics could go googly over men, but only in a schoolgirl let's-get-married way. One of Maltin's books describes a comedy short that ended with a bridegroom unconscious on his wedding night, so the bride starts playing solitaire. The censors decreed there be no sigh or other hint of frustration of disappointment from the bride, which might imply she was looking forward to something.

But the audience knew West could and would get sex if she wanted it. So even a fairly innocent line made censors nervous.

1:47 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

West and Raft, two reasons to avoid this movie.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I'm expecting heavy incoming from this question, but "Why George Raft."
Did I miss something?

11:56 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Reg Hartt here (for some reason I'm coming in as unknown)Owny Madden probably had money invested in Paramount which is why George Raft would be there and why Paramount would want to put him in the movies. Unlike the banks Madden was a cash source the studio could rely on. 1984's THE COTTON CLUB is about that.

6:52 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Dear "Unknown": Good answer!

1:43 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Unlike his fellow movie gangsters Bogart, Robinson and Cagney, Raft was pretty wooden. But his friendships with underworld figures were fairly well-known, so I guess people thought they were watching the real thing onscreen.

10:15 PM  

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