The Sunday Intertitle: Reaction Time
THE NIGHT CLUB (1925) isn’t very well plotted, the gags aren’t brilliantly clever, the title is utterly irrelevant and the direction is decent but mostly uninspired, but it is nevertheless a film at which to laugh off one’s ass.
The reason is Raymond Griffith, near-forgotten silent comedy star, whose ability to react entertainingly to whatever’s going on around him means that the actual action of the film needn’t be particularly funny. This is established early on, when RG is jilted at the altar, a particularly good situation for this unusual comic: he has no interest in our sympathy, so he can simply exploit the sutuation, moment for moment, to get the maximum comedy out of it. As I’ve said before, his reaction upon learning that he stands to inherit a million dollars allows him to make a rapid recovery from heartbreak and demonstrate an amazing mastery of detail and nuance and lightning-change emotional quicksilvering.
Resolving to escape women, and particularly the one he’s now expected to marry in order to inherit (yes, this is one of those “unbelievable farce-type plots” Buster Keaton inveighed against), Ray takes off on holiday and runs smack into the girl. They fall in love at once, and then the plot has to keep inventing obstacles to what promises to be the most premature happy ending on record, occurring as it does somewhere near the end of act I. Complications include a murderous Mexican bandit played by Wallace Beery, a man who imbibed gusto with his mother’s milk. Louise Fazenda plays Carmen, the hot-blooded spitfire/stereotype.
Directors Paul Iribe and Frank Urson, who made the splendid DeMille production of CHICAGO, keep the thing moving as fast as possible to hide the threadbare narrative, and do deliver on an exciting chase, which has some of the accelerated-motion POV thrills that make the climax of Griffith’s PATHS TO PARADISE so breathtaking. Fight scenes are notable for the use of floppy dummies to substitute for RG during the dangerous bits, which always cracks me up. It’s cheating, of course, and the kind of thing which Keaton would never settle for, but it’s still very funny. Griffith is pretty brave when it comes to falling off tables and such, but he clearly had no intention of getting himself killed. His acrobatics lack Chaplin’s balletic elegance or Keaton’s simpler flap-shoe grace — unlike his contemporaries, Griffith was at his very best in scenes of talk, emotion, embarrassment and general medium-shot facial expressiveness. I’m not for a moment suggesting that Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd or Langdon or Stan and Ollie couldn’t do those things, just that it’s an area of special emphasis with Ray G.