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.

Sublime fatuity.

11 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Reaction Time”

  1. Interesting. The music used to accompanythis clip is from Chaplin’s score for A Countess From Hong Kong.

    Raymond Griffith is a bit like Max Linder.

    Frank Urson’s Chicago is interestig (with great turn by a surprisingly svelte Eugene Pallette) but it muffs the ending, leaving Roxie “sadder-but-wiser” in a way that breaks sharply with Watkins’ play and Fosse’s great musical of same.

  2. The “score” on my copy of The Night Club is a fairly distracting assemblage of bits of pilfered music. Whereas Miss Bluebeard (featuring Griffith’s breakthrough role) which I’ve got on now, has a nice piano score incorporating snippets of Raymond Scott and La Vie en Rose and all manner of things. And it works.

    I do prefer Urson and Iribe’s compromised ending to the one in Roxie Hart, where Ginger Rogers has apparently become brood mare to the journalist narrator. That’s just creepy.

  3. Roxie Hart had to have been the worst ending I ever saw in a movie that I utterly enjoyed up until that moment (it had a great cast -okay, I only tolerated George Montgomery, it needed someone a bit more charismatic). At the ending I was stunned she married him, and the only moment I liked in that ending was how surly Ginger was when she reported another brat was coming due. Now, if she’d taken a Roscoe .38 to George, that would have been a happy ending. For me, anyway.

    The silent Chicago sits and waits, as I have a pile of films in the pipeline to watch.

    Chicago wasn’t a huge success in its initial B’way run, just respectable, but it was negatively compared to the huge hit Broadway (the play) from the same season.

  4. Christopher Says:

    hes a bit of a Charlie Chase……I kinda like the music on the clip,tho it is obnoxiously loud and that chirpy Vic Mizzy sounding cue that comes busting in dosen’t fit with the action.

  5. judydean Says:

    Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns devotes a whole chapter to RG. At that time (1975) only three films in which he starred were available (how many now?) but Kerr is full of praise for his comic persona and his speed of working. I’ve never seen Hands Up but it sounds like it would make a great double bill with The General, and the plot of Night Club has similarities with Seven Chances, a farce which Keaton somewhat reluctantly adapted for the screen.

  6. Hands Up! is on YouTube and is highly recommended.

    At present I’m aware of three RG star vehicles, plus two in which he has supporting roles, and one Keystone short. That’s all that seems to be circulating just now, leaving quite a number unaccounted for. Some are known to be lost, and even Paths to Paradise, possibly his best extant feature, is incomplete.

    He has a bit of the Charlie Chase cheeky chappie, and a bit of the Max Linder man-about-town, plus quite a lot of the rogue and a bit of the chump. His light comedy skills would have equipped him perfectly for talkies except he lost his voice as a teenager and it never came back.

  7. Speaking of Skolimowski, in June the Edinburgh Film Festival is doing a micro-retrospective to celebrate the rerelease of Deep End.

    Here’s part 1 of the Raymond — very more-ish!

  8. The only other 1926 Griffith feature I see that’s not lost and I’d read had good reviews at the time it was made was You’d Be Surprised. I’m guessing it still exists since one of the IMDb reviewers is known to me as reliable.

    I’d love to see the Christie short The Sleeping Porch, where his damaged voice was used as part of the plot. I don’t know if it’s any good, but I’d still like to see it.

    Weird note: This morning I flipped the channel to TCM today just when Lew Ayres was stabbing Griffith in All Quiet on the Western Front.

  9. It’s a sign! Of something.

    I’ll be keeping an eye out for You’d Be Surprised. And there are no doubt a good few surviving Keystones — the one I saw was redeemed by some splendid Griffith reactions.

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