This article is part of the Reel Infatuation blogathon: https://silverscreenings.org/2017/06/20/reel-infatuation-blogathon-starts-friday/
When one thinks of pre-Code men, not many noble, upstanding men come to mind. There are lots of criminals, lechers, and brutes, but Lew Ayres received many of the best roles for decent young men. Perhaps it was because he had such a kind, youthful face and innocent quality. Even his gangster was a nice fellow. As I’m sure most of my readers know, Lew Ayres is my favorite actor. Thus, for the Reel Infatuation blogathon, I couldn’t resist writing about some of his characters. Choosing only a few characters for my topics was difficult, but I finally decided to feature one pre-Code character and one Code character.
Night World is my favorite pre-Code film, and Michael Rand is one of the main reasons for this. In the credits, it is obvious that Lew Ayres is the star, since his name is in big letters above the title. In a film full of infidelity, dishonesty, and crime, Michael is the only honorable patron of Happy’s Club. He is a refined, polite young socialite who has had some very tough luck recently. In an attempt to drown his sorrows, he is on a three-day “jag.” One can only imagine what is going to happen to him. Everyone likes to talk about him, but nobody wants to help him. However, that does not include a sweet chorus girl named Ruth Taylor.
When Michael Rand first appears in Night World, he has just entered Happy’s Club. He is dressed perfectly in a very handsome black, double-breasted suit, but one can immediately tell that he is “tight.” This description of drunkenness seems a little strange at first, but Michael’s behavior shows why it is accurate. Unlike the drunk from Schenectady, he has self-respect, so he is trying not to act drunk. He responds politely to everyone, and he is by no means silly. As he walks across the room, he keeps his knees very straight so that he will not stumble or stagger. Thus, he looks very tight. Lew Ayres is amazingly convincing in his portrayal of Michael’s intoxication. His speech is slurred, he squints when looking at people, and he walks just like many wealthy tipplers I have seen.
Everyone in Happy’s Club seems to be discussing Michael Rand. A patron says, “He sure is bringing in a load with him,” and a chorus girl says, “He’s been here three nights in a row, plastered.” I doubt that Michael, who is probably twenty-two and just out of college, has done much drinking in his life. Now he is practically drinking himself to death. This is not simply youthful foolishness, though. He is in despair because his mother caught his father in another woman’s apartment and shot him. He no longer feels any will to live, since he has lost all faith in both his parents. He sits at his table, sulking and drinking whisky out of a glass which he frequently fills from a huge flask he is hiding under the table. He is not getting happier, though; he is only numbing himself.
During the big dance number, “Who’s Your Little Who-Zis?” many customers’ perspectives are shown. In addition, the chorus girls are shown conversing during the dance; they talk among themselves and converse with the customers. This is when Ruth first seems to acknowledge Michael, since she and another chorus girl casually discuss his plight. At first she seems as unconcerned as the other people in the club, but then her expression changes. She has a look of pity and concern for him. Toward the end of the dance, Michael’s perspective of the dance is shown. Busby Berkeley uses some fascinating and unusual camera techniques to create the effect that the chorus girls are dancing on each other’s heads. Then there are four sets of chorus girls which form a kaleidoscope pattern. Finally, they are dancing on top of each other’s heads again. Michael looks very dizzy and very sad.
As soon as she has changed into an evening dress, Ruth visits Michael at his table. He tries to rise when he sees her come to his table. She tells him not to bother getting up since she’s not used to it. He is never too drunk to be polite. She tries to convince him that she knows him from the Riviera, and he believes her. She obviously is concerned about the way he is drinking, but she doesn’t scold him, since she knows he would just get defensive. She has a much more subtle approach. When he offers her a drink, she says, “No, thanks. I’m trying to live long enough to see good liquor come back.” He laughs pathetically and says, “This stuff isn’t so bad.” When he tries to drink the whole glass of straight whisky in one gulp, Ruth says, “Hey, hey, what’s your hurry? You know they can make it faster than you can drink it.” Trying to return the joke, Michael says, “Well, I betcha I’m making ’em work nights anyway.” She soon has to leave Michael’s table, but it is obvious she is reluctant to leave him. The other chorus girls tease her, saying, “I saw you bothering that Rand kid.” She responds, “Oh, he’s in a bad way. I was trying to talk him out of it.” Another chorus girl, who apparently doesn’t believe in simple compassion, says, “Out of what? A fur coat? Did he understand what you meant?” Ruth says, “He did, but you wouldn’t if I told you.”
As Michael sulks in his booth, Edith Blair, his father’s friend, observes him from her table. His father was killed in Miss Blair’s apartment. She visits Michael’s table, but he does not want to listen to her. He is polite but obviously very resentful. As they talk, though, she convinces him that she and his father were not involved in a dishonorable arrangement. She says that there was “nothing but honest friendship” between them, and I believe her. Perhaps it is because of her sweet face, beautiful voice, and gentle words, plus the tender background music the band is playing. I am sure the director used these to convince the audience that she is telling the truth. Mrs. Rand made Mr. Rand miserable, and he found a little sympathy from Edith Blair, who understood him. Poor Michael is so upset by what she is saying, but it does help him see the truth in the end. He is very effected when Edith says that his mother stood over his dead father and cursed him. After she has left, a waiter comes over and starts asking him if he can do anything for him; Michael gets very annoyed. A point of interest here is that his annoying waiter was also the waiter in the last scene of The Doorway to Hell in 1930, also with Lew Ayres. When the waiter won’t leave him alone, Michael begins to get loud. Happy comes over to quiet him down; obviously neither he nor the waiter knows how to handle drunks. After Michael turns over the table, Happy gives him his “short-arm jolt” to the chin.
The two men carry the unconscious young customer to the sofa in Happy’s office. Ruth comes running over, concerned and upset that Happy treated Michael like that. She lovingly situates him on the couch and carefully cools his forehead with a damp cloth. She is so sweet and caring to him. There is no reason why she should be so concerned about him, but she is already very fond of him. Before she leaves, she takes his watch and wallet, knowing that a less honest person would be happy to steal them. She then covers him with a bear skin rug.
When there is a break during the dance rehearsal that night, Ruth hurries back to check on her patient. It is good that she comes back when she does, since Michael is just waking up. He is terrified when he opens his eyes and sees a ferocious bear right in front of him. She jokingly saves him from the bear skin rug. They begin to converse, and she helps him realize what has happened. She makes him take care of himself, since she gives him water instead of whisky and offers him a mirror and comb to arrange his hair.
It is not long before Ed Powell, the philandering gambler who is interested in Ruth, interrupts their pleasant conversation. Ruth had a date to go to dinner with Ed, but the late rehearsal has delayed it. Michael starts to leave, but Ruth asks him to stay. As he tries not to listen to their conversation, Ruth tells Ed that it is too late to go anywhere now, but Ed replies that he has supper waiting at his apartment. She takes offense, since she did not agree to go to his apartment. Ed quickly implies that she is putting on an act because Michael is there. He says, “Maybe you can fool some guys, baby, but I got your number, you cheap, gold-digging little…” Here Michael interrupts him. He doesn’t like to hear Ruth’s character be slandered like that. Ed tells him to keep out, and Ruth keeps him from punching Michael. She asks Michael to leave, but he doesn’t like the way Ed is acting toward her. He says that he is going to take her home. Ed tries to hit him, but Michael hits him first. The doorman removes the unconscious gambler from the room. Ruth is flattered that Michael would fight over her. Looking a little sad, Ruth says, “Say, you don’t believe those cracks he was making about me, do you?” Michael looks down and drearily says, “I haven’t many illusions left. I’d like to keep the ones I have.” Smiling, Ruth asks, “And I’m one of them?” Michael looks at her and says, “I think you’re swell.” The sincere manner in which he delivers this line makes it just as romantic as any Shakespeare sonnet. The tenderness of that phrase is not lost on Ruth; she thoroughly appreciates it.
Just as Ruth leaves, Michael’s mother enters. She is cold and without affectionate from the moment she enters the room. She says that she has been looking for him in nightclubs and speakeasies all over town, but she is not genuinely concerned about his welfare. He quickly accuses her of being a bad wife to his father, whom she murdered. He says that they never even spent an hour together as mother and son; she was always just a beautiful stranger to him. He gives a stirring speech on the responsibilities of motherhood, which is more than “the mere accident of birth.” At first she tries to gain his sympathy by crying. When he is unmoved, she tells him the truth that she hated his father but married him just for his money. She hates him too since he is just like his father. Michael has an absolutely stricken look as she says, “You’re right. I never loved you. I never even wanted you. You’re exactly like your father, and I hated him.” Can you fathom how it must feel to hear your own mother say that to you?
He soon joins Ruth in the main part of the club, where she has ordered a steak and coffee for him. They sit together while he enjoys his dinner. After the rehearsal ends, Ruth puts on her street clothes and returns to the table. They begin to discuss tropical islands. Ruth tells Michael that she would leave New York City and go to a funny little tropical island if she were in his place. He says that last week he was reading about a big ship that sails every week and goes all around the world. He decides to take the ship that will be leaving that day; he is going to Bali. Ruth is obviously glad that he is going to start a new life for himself, but I think she is a little sad that she won’t see him again. After a moment of thought, Michael turns to Ruth and says, “Will you go with me?’ Looking disappointed and a little hurt, she says, “You do believe what Ed Powell said about me.” He smiles sincerely and says, “Oh, of course not. We’d be married first.” Ruth almost chokes on her coffee before saying, “Married?” She has experienced nothing but brutes like Ed Powell during her time in New York. She is shocked to find such a gentleman. He says that most people fall in love before they get married, then they fall out of love. He says they can be different by getting married first. Then he will court her all the way across the ocean; maybe they will be in love by the time they reach Bali, and they can get off there for their honeymoon. He says that he thinks she’s mighty nice; he’s only known her a few hours, but it seems like it has been years. She’s done more to snap him out of it in one evening than he could do for himself in a month, yet she hasn’t asked him questions or pried into his affairs. Suddenly he says, “Say, you do like me a little, don’t you?” She smiles and nods, but the audience knows that she likes him more than a little. She was falling in love with him when he wasn’t even conscious.
Before she can answer Michael’s proposal, a couple of gangsters barge into the night club and shoot the doorman, Happy, and his wife. Michael and Ruth are witnesses, so they prepare to shoot them, too. Michael’s brave words of defiance can’t get them out now. The lead gangster tells him to “kiss his girl goodbye.” After a brief, passionate kiss, they prepare to meet their fate. Just before the gangster shoots them, however, Officer Ryan, the local policeman, shoots the two villains from behind. The narrow escape of death makes Michael and Ruth even closer. As they climb into the police wagon to go to the station for some brief questioning, Ruth asks Michael, “What was the name of that island we’re going to?” He responds, “Bali.” “Oh, yes,” she says. Suddenly he asks, “What did you say your first name was?” She happily replies, “It’s still Ruth.” “That’s a swell name,” Michael says and kisses her. It’s natural that he doesn’t know her name, since she told it to him when she first visited him at his table. After that, everyone was calling her Taylor.
I like Michael for many reasons. Firstly, Lew Ayres is so handsome in this film. At twenty-three, he was at the peak of his youthful charm in this 1932 film. Secondly, he is so polite. Even though he is very intoxicated, he never forgets to rise for a lady when she approaches his table, and he always says, “Thank you.” If all modern men had the manners Michael has when he is inebriated, they would be so much more charming. Thirdly, I admire his costume in this film. One of the things I love about the 1930s is how neat and trim the men look. For the whole film, Michael wears a perfectly tailored black double-breasted suit. He is impeccably clean-shaven, and his hair is very short and nicely combed.
I can’t help feeling terribly sorry for Michael. He is such a nice young man, and he seems to have endured a bad up-bringing very well. He came from a very wealthy family, yet his mother cared nothing about him. When she tells him that she never loved him and never even wanted him, I feel the greatest sympathy for him. I can’t imagine how it must feel to have a mother who cares so little about you. He spent most of his childhood at boarding school. This at least was a blessing in its way, since it gave him proper discipline and etiquette. Unfortunately, it did not give him the affection and love he needed.
My favorite part of the film is when Michael proposes to Ruth. Now young couples are engaged for seven years before finally deciding to get married. Michael and Ruth have only known each other a few hours, yet they know they are right for each other. She needs someone to protect her, and he needs someone to really care for him. They don’t wait for months and years to get to know each other. They act on a romantic impulse and decide to get married and go to Bali. Michael says, “Why not? What have we got to lose?” All he can lose is a miserable, lonely existence in New York’s upper crust, and all she can lose is an under-payed job as a chorus girl, which she wouldn’t have any more, anyway, since the proprietor has gotten killed that night. Why not go to Bali together and at least have a chance at happiness? I’m sure they will live happily ever after.
In action, line, and character, Michael could be a Code character. As a matter of fact, he is a Code character who just happens to be in a pre-Code film. He is the sort of man who would never think of treating a lady with anything but honor and respect. Thus, he frequently played Codish characters in pre-Code films. Because of this, neither his image nor his characters changed because of the Code.
If you want to read my article about how Night World could be a Code film, read last week’s Breening Thursdays article about it here: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/06/15/breening-thursday-1-night-world-from-1932/. Be sure to come back in a few days to read my second article for the Reel Infatuations blogathon about another Lew Ayres character, Jerry Flynn from King of the Newsboys from 1938. I hope this article makes you appreciate a wonderful character played by a marvelous, forgotten actor, Lew Ayres.
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Michael Rand: A sensitive young socialite who is on a jag because his mother killed his father; played by Lew Ayres.
Ruth Taylor: A sympathetic chorus girl who befriends Michael, a handsome young man whom she likes and wants to help; played by Mae Clarke.
Happy MacDonald: The owner of the club where the events in the film take place; played by Boris Karloff.
Ed Powell: A gambler who has an eye for Ruth, “doesn’t believe in taking no for an answer,” and “never gives anybody an even break;” played by George Raft.
Mrs. MacDonald: Happy’s cold wife who dislikes everybody, including her husband, except Klaus; played by Dorothy Revier.
Klauss: The sniveling choreographer at Happy’s Club who is having an affair with the boss’s wife; played by Russell Hopton.
Edith Blaire: Michael’s late father’s friend, a kind young woman who was accused of having an affair with Mr. Rand but was just his sympathetic friend; played by Dorothy Peterson.
Tim Washington: The kind, wise black doorman who is a “philosophizer” and everybody’s friend; played by Clarence Muse.
Mrs. Rand: Michael’s heartless mother who never loved him or his father, whom she killed when she found him in another woman’s apartment; played by Hedda Hopper.
Officer Ryan: A policeman who is a good friend of the doorman, Tim, and saves the day when he rescues Michael and Ruth from the gangsters; played by Robert Emmett O’Connor.
Man from Schenectady: A drunk attending Happy’s Club who is trying to find someone from Schenectady; played by Bert Roach.
Waiter: One of the waiters at Happy’s Club who annoys Michael after he has been talking to Edith Blair; played by Jack Wise.