SECRETS OF THE NIGHT is a 1924 comedy-thriller from Herbert Blaché, whom I was predisposed to dislike. The husband of Alice Guy, he supposedly discouraged his wife from taking part in their joint business (“Don’t come to board meetings, it puts the fellows off and they don’t feel free to spit,” kind of thing) and then bankrupted them. I get the impression they separated but I’m not sure. Blaché stayed in the business a bit longer than his wife, making his last picture in 1929.
If you’re looking for things to be offended by in Blaché’s film, you don’t have far to go — there’s a comedy negro stereotype played by a white guy in blackface, for starters. This is quite a few years after BIRTH OF A NATION, and though of course I knew that Hollywood patronized black characters and treated them as the butt of jokes for decades to come, the use of burnt cork or whatever on an actor who is blatantly the wrong race DID rather surprise me. It suggests that the director hadn’t moved with the times. (“My dear fellow, in the 1920s we degrade real negroes!”)
BUT — the film has comedy relief also from Zasu Pitts, and has elements of what would become a staple at this studio — Universal — the fright film. Zasu is introduced as a submissive reader, after Magritte, freaking out over Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, although the sentence she reads is clearly a title-writer’s invention, and you couldn’t fill a hardback book with Poe’s short story anyway. Still, it’s nice to see the tale referenced in a film from the very studio that would adapt it in 1932.
We can easily play Zasu’s trademark “Oh de-earr-r!” in our mental soundtrack.