Ye Gods!

NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS was watched for either the Forgotten Pre-Codes series at The Daily Notebook or the Late Show: Late Films Blogathon, but ended up missing both. A shame, because it’s weird as hell and twice as interesting.

It’s the last film of director Lowell Sherman, that suave and portly screen Lothario who helmed plenty of sophisticated affairs in the early thirties — he died shortly after completing it, and it finally opened in 1935, after the Production Code was fully established, but it still has a certain racy vibe to it — where else can you see the hero of a film wilfully petrify a fishmonger?

Let me back up slightly and explain. The movie is from Universal, part of that great swarm of movies never released on home video — Universal have been good about getting their 30s horror films out, but have left the whole rest of their back catalogue festering in a vault, somewhere, it would seem. The film begins with this warning / statement of intent / helpless shrug —

Thereafter we meet an eccentric family, living under a barrage of explosions caused by mad scientist Hunter Hawk (Alan Mowbry) and his crazy experiments. When Mowbry eventually achieves his goal, a magic ring which can turn things to stone, his first act is to use it on all his annoying relatives, save the glamorous Peggy Shannon, whom he likes.

All of this is fairly high-concept and understandable, but then Hawke meets a leprechaun, gets drunk with him, and starts a relationship with his daughter (the free-and-easy, strongly implied extra-marital sex seems bold for post-code). This, to me, falls under the heading of Double Voodoo — when a film contains more than one unrelated aberrant concept, it is in danger of disintegrating into a bag of bits. It seems valid , for instance, for Dracula to meet the Wolfman, since they’re both Mitteleuropean folkloric characters of supernatural origin, but if you throw in the Frankenstein monster, the product of electro-galvinism, you risk incohesion.

NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS, it is fair to say, not only risks incohesion but pursues it relentlessly with slavering jaws. Hawke discovers that his ring can also transform stone into living flesh and blood, so he sneaks into the local art gallery after dark and brings to life all the Roman statues, who all turn out to have the personalities and powers of the mythic figures they represent. Soon, he and his leprechaun lover are running wild in the streets with Neptune (Robert Warwick, obsessed with fish), Hebe (Geneva Mitchell, obsessed with cups), Bacchus (George Hassell, unused to modern bootleg liquor) and too many others. Hawke casually petrifies anybody who gets in his way, behaving altogether more like a psychopath than one is used to seeing in a lead character of the period, outside of gangster films.

It’s very silly, mildly diverting and completely bananas — the early warning that most of the more insane parts are a dream is unfortunate, because it compromises the overall craziness which is the film’s chief merit and trait.

“He’s a hideous creature,” said Fiona of Mowbry, which is true, if a little unkind. But, as Hunter Hawk, his aristocratic bearing works well with his privileged, dreamy, inhumane character. No wonder his son Hudson turned out to be a burglar, forever trespassing in art galleries himself.

8 Responses to “Ye Gods!”

  1. Following on from what you say about Mitteleuropean folklore, I suppose Double Voodoo can work if there’s a strong enough authorial voice. You can pull any nonsense as long as it’s the work of a single culture (I’m thinking really here of The Mighty Boosh.)

  2. Yes, and if the tone is crazy enough to support such an adventure. Night Life aims for a kind of demented whimsy, but it feels slightly trumped up. That opening scroll suggests the filmmakers are in awe of the book’s zaniness, and it probably needed someone less straight-laced to adapt it. Sturges would have done something interesting…

  3. Sounds utterly fascinating. It might well have inspiured Cole Porter’s Out of This World. Liem Porter Thorne Smith was a Big Ol’ Gay Homosexual of pronounced cultural influence. His most enduring (and endearing) creation was of course Topper — whcih I was watchign just the other day for the umpteenth time. It was the first 30’s movie I saw as a child and scarred me for life, as I beleieved that being grown-up meant being just as carefree and soignee as Cary Grant and Constance Bennett.

    AS IF!

    One of Stephen Sondheim’s first real jobs was a staff writer on the Topper TV series.

  4. I enjoyed the film of Turnabout as a kid, but haven’t watched it since. There’s definitely a unique sensibility running through topper and I Married a Witch and that one — Universal probably picked the most unfilmable of all the books!

  5. Considering Universal’s perpetually precarious position, it’s amazing how bold they could be in the ’20s and ’30s.

  6. I’d forgotten that I Married a Witch was a Thorne Smith story! Gays gravitated with witchcraft like bees to honey back in the day. The best example is of course John Van Druten whose Bell Book and Candle was directed so spectacularly by Richard Quine. Here’s the big scene in my favorite movie gay bar, magnificently lit by the great James Wong Howe

  7. Douglas Bonner tells me via Facebook that Universal actually considered doing Pirandello’s SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR with John M. Stahl directing!

    I can see how occultism would make a good stand-in for certain gay themes. And certainly Bell Book and Candle resonates that way.

  8. NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS! I read the book about two years ago, and loved it!

    The GODS are a rowdy bunch, and we love them for it!

    Thank you for writing about the film.

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