Saturday, November 27, 2021

Tonight's Movie: Midnight (1934) - A Flicker Alley Blu-ray Review

One of the Blu-ray sets I've most looked forward to this fall is In the Shadow of Hollywood: Highlights From Poverty Row.

The 2-disc set, which I first mentioned here in a news roundup last August, was released about a month ago by Flicker Alley.

Flicker Alley collaborated with Lobster Films and Blackhawk Films on this collection of low-budget films made outside of the major studios. The four films in the set consist of BACK PAGE (1934), WOMAN IN THE DARK (1934), THE CRIME OF DR. CRESPI (1935), and the film which is the subject of this review, MIDNIGHT (1934), also known as CALL IT MURDER.

MIDNIGHT is admittedly not an entirely successful movie, being on the creaky side, yet at the same time it's just the kind of little-known film I love to explore. Indeed, some of the reasons for that interest in minor films can be found in MIDNIGHT, including an actor several years away from mega-stardom; experimental editing and filming; and a thought-provoking theme conveyed in a fairly brief 76 minutes.

Spoiler Alert
: In order to convey what I found interesting about this film I'm going to go into more detail than usual, up to and including how the movie ends.

MIDNIGHT begins in a courtroom, with the voice of Ethel Saxton (Helen Flint) explaining why she killed a man. The viewer doesn't see Ethel until after we've seen everyone else in the courtroom, including jury foreman Edward Weldon (O.P. Heggie), whose question to the defendant is a key moment which leads to her conviction.

Fast-forward four months, and Weldon continues to believe he's done the right thing, but he's come under great pressure as the public sympathizes with the convicted defendant; even Weldon's family is disappointed in the verdict, which will cause the woman to be executed.

Meanwhile, Weldon's daughter Stella (Sidney Fox, STRICTLY DISHONORABLE) discovers that her beau Gar (Humphrey Bogart) is ending their brief romance and leaving town. She's also shocked to learn that Gar has a gun in his pocket and is seeing another woman. When Stella meets Gar just before he's due to board a train out of town, Gar ends up dead.

While I found Heggie's performance as the upright jury foreman too one-note, the construction of the film is quite interesting. I previously mentioned the unusual beginning to the film. Another notable aspect is a sequence cross-cutting between the convicted woman on death row, Stella arguing with Gar, and the agonized Weldon feeling weighed down with stress or guilt on the night Saxton is scheduled to die.

In a later scene, Stella is questioned by the District Attorney (Moffat Johnston), and the camera switches angles on every question, emphasizing the machine gun pace at which he's firing off questions. There are other odd bits, such as the jury deliberations sequence being filmed only showing the jurors' hands.

Multiple issues discussed in the film remain all-too-relevant today, including the role of the media in sensationalizing stories and swaying the public, along with the politicization of prosecution decisions. The D.A. sees Stella's situation as a potential threat to his career, with the sweet young woman having killed someone possibly casting doubt on the Saxton conviction; he cleverly engineers the situation so that it appears Gar's mob confederates rubbed him out. The randomness of one woman going to the electric chair and another being sent on a vacation to forget the whole thing is a sobering and thought-provoking conclusion.

In terms of performances, the young Bogart is one of those who comes off best, giving off lots of sleazy vibes while also being quite compelling.

I also found Henry Hull interesting as a newspaper reporter who initially seems pretty sleazy himself, worming his way into the Weldon home by paying off Weldon's lazy son-in-law (Lynne Overman), but as the film went on I found his character increasingly interesting. The final shot of the reporter leaving the Weldons' and lighting up a cigarette is memorable.

(Speaking of leaving the home, though, what's with the Weldons' front door opening to the outside of the house, rather than pulling the door inside to open it?)

I found Sidney Fox charming in STRICTLY DISHONORABLE but her performance here, like Heggie, is a bit one-note. Sadly Fox would make two more films in 1934 and then disappear from the screen; she died in 1942.

After seeing the movie I read a review by Danny at which I'm in agreement with. He does a nice job summarizing the film's strong points, and I enjoyed reading it.

MIDNIGHT was directed by Chester Erskine, billed in the opening credits as Chester Erskin. Erskine was also the uncredited script writer, based on a play by Paul and Claire Sifton.

The opening credits had other misspelling oddities, with Henry O'Neill's name misspelled O'Neil, Moffat Johnston's last name misspelled Johnson, and Lynne Overman's first name is spelled Lynn. However, regarding the latter name, when I visited Overman's final resting place at Woodlawn Cemetery in 2019, I noted the name on his crypt was Woodson Lynn Overman, and it appears from perusing IMDb that he was using the spelling Lynn at this early juncture of his career. Beginning with his next film, LITTLE MISS MARKER (1934), he used the spelling Lynne.

The cast also includes Margaret Wycherly, Cora Witherspoon, Granville Bates, and future director Richard Whorf.

The movie was filmed by William Steiner and George Webber.

The print is quite excellent, especially considering the film's age. All four films have commentary tracks; the MIDNIGHT commentary is by Leah Aldridge.

The physical set itself is beautifully produced; the reverse side of the cover features the title cards for each of the four films. In a nice touch, the back of the set's 24-page booklet has "The End" cards from each of the movies. The booklet features glossy stills throughout and is a definite plus.

The booklet essay was written by Jan-Christopher Horak, who retired last year as the head of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. When I first heard about this collection it struck me as the kind of movies I've loved discovering at UCLA -- for example, SOCIETY GIRL (1932) with Peggy Shannon, who's in one of the films in this set; it thus seems very appropriate that Horak was involved, including also contributing the commentary track for THE CRIME OF DR. CRESPI.

I very much enjoyed this first film in In the Shadow of Hollywood: Highlights From Poverty Row and love the concept; I'm looking forward to reviewing the other movies in the set.  I hope that Flicker Alley might one day release sequel collections!

Thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray collection. In the Shadow of Hollywood: Highlights From Poverty Row may be purchased at the Flicker Alley website as well as through retailers such as Amazon.


Anonymous Bert Greene said...

I thought the director (Erskine) tried pretty valiantly to keep the innately stagey story from seeming too static, and almost succeeded. But everything started fraying a bit towards the end, becoming too self-conscious about itself. An interesting if not entirely satisfactory curio. But still nice to see this longtime PD staple looking so sharp. Sidney Fox never left much of an impression on me, but she's pretty amusing in "Once in a Lifetime" (1932).

The Flicker Alley set itself is really excellent. I was stunned at how good the print of "Woman in the Dark" (1934) looked. Hope for an encore to this set. A lot of solid, interesting stuff hiding out in poverty-row (although whether decent prints worthy of blu-ray actually survive for them is always a big question).

6:25 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

It sounds as if you find this DVD set to be an interesting deep dive. I shall have to keep it in mind.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Walter S. said...

Laura, these movies are right down my lane. Thank you for the heads up, because I can't ever remember viewing them on television, or any other medium.

Bert, always good to hear from you. You always have good information.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Bert, your comments were interesting and appreciated. Thank you! I haven't seen ONCE IN A LIFETIME and will keep it in mind. I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of the films in the set soon, especially WOMAN IN THE DARK.

Caftan Woman, "deep dive" is a great way to put it. Definitely worthwhile.

Walter, so glad I could give you a heads up on some new-to-you films to explore. I'd love to know your thoughts when you have time to catch this set.

Best wishes,

11:11 AM  

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