Oh look, it’s Death! Hello, Death!
This is THE UNHOLY NIGHT, a magnificently stagey old-dark-house comedy thriller from 1929, a year when they KNEW how to make films — by sitting a camera on some sticks and saying things in front of it. Lionel Barrymore directs, or supervises, or at any rate at least watches, probably, and the manly, hard-drinking ex-military hero is played by… Roland Young.
This casting is so deliriously awry it deforms what ought to be a dull, badly-made film into a triumph of creative mismanagement. Young, who doesn’t suit being actually young at all — he has no talent for youth — nails all the comedy, usurping the more dramatic aspects of the story, except where they involve weakness or sorrow, which he does well. The idea that he’s a tough guy who takes mass murder in his stride is a non-starter, but the scene where he thinks all his friends have been strangled (one of the film’s two sequences of camera movement strikingly glides across a roomful of garotted men) is disturbingly mournful, tearing a hole in the hi-jinks that leaves a cold wind riffling through the flapping script (story by Ben Hecht, presumably on a dare).
It is, as Micheal MacLiammoir said of Orson Welles’ audition for the Gate Theatre, “a remarkable performance, wrong from beginning to end.” Perhaps that’s unfair, but certainly if you ever wanted to see an actor conclusively disqualify himself from leading man roles, this would be a good place to look. Apart from that, he’s really good, credible and not stiff, which isn’t easy in this creaky thing. The script creaks as if typed on balsa, the unwieldy cast creaks as if whittled from teak (I never saw so many unemployable actors in uniforms just hanging around waiting to be murdered, or for this film to be over so they can go back on relief), the camera creaks – it’s forever attempting those adorable little false-start pans which don’t quite go anywhere, as if the operator started to think he was pointing in the wrong (a forgivable mistake in the circumstances), started looking for a better subject, then either gave up in despair or lapsed into an insulin coma.
I didn’t enjoy this as much as Tod Browning’s similar THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR, which has as many different, revolutionary kinds of “acting” as it has chairs (that’s thirteen of them, in case you hadn’t guessed), but that’s the same as saying I enjoyed it extravagantly, without actually ascending all the way to a non-refundable state of satori. In addition to Young, we get the massive Edinburgh-born features of Ernest Torrence (Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Snr), who looks as if he could wedge a cricket ball between his nose and chin and spin it like a globe of the Earth, and there’s a quick turn by Boris Karloff as a suspicious Arab. Boris may only be around for about fifteen minutes, but he does his best to cram a full feature’s worth of acting into them… if this involves telegraphing three subtexts at a time, that’s a challenge Boris is not only willing but anxious to meet. You’ll never see such sheer quantity of acting. He makes up for the rest of the cast (and there’s a lot of them). The credits don’t mention Boris, but they do list the entire “doomed regiment.” The doomed regiment are entirely forgettable apart from the guy with the prosthetic scars, but Boris does his best to embody an entire doomed regiment with every swing of his cantilevered eyebrows.
Barrymore, who if nothing else must have had a fine eye for grotesquerie, also gives us Sojin, wearing his best store teeth, and playing a suspicious medium (these films are NOT complete without a trick séance), and THIS dazzling Adonis, whose chin could be used to dig roads. I could look at him for hours, whoever he is.
I’m convinced that if this guy could only dance, he’d have been a big star. “The Dancing Jawbone,” they’d have called him. And everybody would have clapped.