The Father’s Day Intertitle

An intertitle from TWINKLETOES, a Colleen Moore vehicle directed, improbably enough, by master of savagery Charles BEAST OF THE CITY Brabin.

But I’m not here to talk about TWINKLETOES, no sir! Since I’m a Raymond Griffith fan and my superb Dad is a cycling fan, Paul Bern’s movie OPEN ALL NIGHT seems the perfect combination of our interests. A would-be romantic comedy set during the Paris six-day cycle race, it also acquires some inadvertent interest by being a virtual paean to the merits of domestic violence…

Adolphe Menjou plays a happily married middle-class chap who shuns the more violent ways of his sex — we learn this as he observes, through binoculars, a neighbour thrashing his spouse with a flail, and shakes his head smilingly. However, his wife Viola Dana, who reads racy novels (ie s&m porn) in the bath, has a yen for a bruising, and taunts her husband as an ineffectual fop.

Enter a busybody friend, who arranges for Viola to be introduced to an authentic brute, France’s bicycling champion, with the idea that she’ll soon tire of such treatment and come rushing back to dear hubby. So we decamp to the velodrome, but by chance Adolphe meets the cyclist’s gal pal, and she’s feeling like a change herself and thinks un vrai gentleman might be just the thing…

For a silent rom-com, the movie features a lot of cycling — here’s the introduction to the sporting arena.

Untitled from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Note the offensive stereotyping of the African cyclist. They might have at least had the American chewing gum and the Brit smoking a pipe to partially compensate…

The six-day race was an odd event. Teams of two cyclists representing each competing nation would take it in relays, three hours cycling, three hours rest, for six days and five nights. This peculiar arrangement, seemingly designed by sadists, was intended to allow professional cyclists to earn a living all year round, and not just in the good weather. But the race was transacted in a smoke-filled velodrome, poisoned by the tobacco fumes of the society audience, who boozed and slept and cheered and booed and generally created a bizarre carnival atmosphere, well-evoked in the movie.

The whole thing ends with Adolphe reunited with his wife, manhandling her mildly, generating a small bruise, and winning her devotion. The muscular Frenchman, whose spectacular mustache suggests a forest fire raging in his nostrils, cheats and is defeated, and his squeeze rushes to his side. Mild brutality carries the day. The whole thing is deeply sinister in its sexual politics.

But! What of Raymond Griffith? Well, this was one of his early movies, after his Keystone period but before he’d garnered leading roles in features, so he’s along for the ride as a drunken Russian waiter from New York who’s planning to become “the next Hollywood sheik.” This allows for some good inebriated schtick, and this memorable final moment for him —

Untitled from David Cairns on Vimeo.

“No emotion!” was Griffith’s motto, which is surprising when you consider how expressive he is. And here he comes very close to being heartbreaking, but it’s all a set-up for making you laugh at him, and then he lets you off the hook by delivering a happy ending so you don’t feel guilty for laughing at that pitiable moment. Clever man.


8 Responses to “The Father’s Day Intertitle”

  1. Christopher Says:

    Sauvage Cyclists! ..interesting clips..

  2. I liked the incongruous idea that bike racers are big, brawny men, since the ones I knew were athletes, but hardly of the bulked-up muscular physique favored in the film.

    The sadism of the six-day bicycle race (very popular in the early ’20s), reached its peak in the dance marathon, where the dancers weren’t even professional athletes, just desperate.

  3. Yes, dance marathons and flagpole-squatting… David Blaine was born out of his time, really.

    Maybe the cycling physique has changed over time, I dunno. Probably the bikes were heavier things then…

  4. david wingrove Says:

    Unless I’m very wrong, OPEN ALL NIGHT is based on a novel by Paul Morand – an eccentric (if politically unsound) gentleman who wound up as the Vichy France ambassador to Romania during World War II. His wife was a Romanian princess, which probably helped.

    Never read any of his work, which is hard to find these days. however,

  5. Open All Night is certainly unsound, though not in that sense. The sexual politics are out of the stone age.

  6. In a welcome bit of Raymond Griffith news, Grapevine has released a DVD of YOU’D BE SURPRISED. (More info here: The transfer is said to be decent. Intriguingly, the screenplay is by Jules Furthman, with Robert Benchley providing the titles!

    Regarding OPEN ALL NIGHT, your clip and analysis are both lovely. Griffith is intriguing because he maintains that complex relationship with his audience. Moving spectators with superb dramatic acting and then laughing it all off in a second, he seems to say, Look what I can do (and at the drop of a dime)! And didn’t you enjoy it? He forces us to admire his virtuosity in the most pleasant, conspiratorial way, by showing he could act anything and then throw it aside with the lightest possible touch. He provides a layer of extra-textual comedy on top of what the writers and directors have provided.

  7. Wonderful news! I look forward to seeing that as soon as possible. I still look forward to the pleasure of showing a couple of his films to Fiona, but beyond that I was worried that the well was almost dry.

    My current feeling is that RG belongs somewhere at the top of the silent comedy tree, maybe above Langdon even. He’s certainly exciting to discover at this late stage — who knows what else is out there?

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