Please Don’t Call My Husband A Clown: The Awesomeness of New York Nights (1929)
The movie starts off with a gunshot victim being taken to the hospital. The officers have to awaken the doctor on duty, who yawns, sees by his watch that it’s five in the morning, and remarks, “Why can’t these losers get shot at a decent hour?”
That’s New York Nights.
The guy who’s responsible for the shooting, Joe Prividi (John Wray), pulls out an I.O.U. for $25,000 from the poor sap who’s been shot, and proceeds to eat the paper – “Somebody’s always gotta pay for a four-flusher,” he observes. “One way or the other.” Next, he tells his driver to pull over to a flower shop (“It can’t be no more than locked,” he says when his driver points out that the shop is closed), and proceeds to break in and steal a box of flowers – practically right in front of the beat cop outside.
That’s Joe Prividi.
Joe delivers the flowers to Jill Deverne (Norma Talmadge) – the very married Jill Deverne, mind you – on the occasion of her birthday. After chastising Joe for his cheekiness (“You stop this silly flower business, do you hear me?”), Jill joins her songwriting husband, Fred (Gilbert Roland), and his partner, Johnny (Roscoe Karns), who are working on a new song in the couple’s apartment. When Fred gets stuck on a lyric – and after she finishes gazing lovingly at him from across the room – Jill swoops in and provides the perfect line.
That’s Jill Deverne.
Jill and her best buddy, Peggy (Lilyan Tashman), work as dancers in a show. While waiting backstage, Peggy spies another showgirl, Ruth Day (Mary Doran – credited, for some reason, as Mary Koran), putting the moves on Fred and telling him that is wife doesn’t appreciate him. Peggy pounces like a mother bear, first warning Fred about this “little phony,” and then telling Ruth that she has “the crust of a cafeteria pie.”
That’s Peggy and Ruth.
When Jill shows up, she happily informs Fred that she has arranged to have his song included as part of her show. (“That song will put us on the map. This is the beginning of big things for us,” Fred crows, to which Jill more warily responds, “I hope so, Freddie.”) Before Fred leaves, Jill takes his money from his pocket, but returns it a few moments later, stating that she’d almost forgotten his promise to her. Jill doesn’t elaborate, but we soon find out that the promise Fred made was to stop drinking.
Now that you’ve met the major players, let’s take a look at the action. To celebrate Jill’s birthday, Fred arranges a dinner party at the Footlights Club, a swanky joint owned by Joe, but he keeps Jill and Peggy waiting for hours. After Jill gives up and goes home, Fred and Johnny show up, three sheets to the wind. (So much for promises, huh?)
Never one to let an opportunity pass him by, Joe takes advantage of the situation by offering Ruth $1,000 to, shall we say, do a number on Fred. We actually don’t know exactly what he paid her to do, because he propositions her behind a closed door. What we do know is this: (1) Fred winds up staying out all night long, and (2) he and Ruth weren’t just playing tiddlywinks.
When Fred gets home the next morning, he offers an elaborate story to Jill about his whereabouts, not only insisting that he hadn’t been drinking, but denying that he was even at the club, and then totally throwing his buddy under the bus by saying that Johnny got arrested. Eventually, Jill believes his tall tale, and is just about to skip off to the kitchen to prepare Fred’s eggs, bacon and biscuits when Peggy shows up to put the kibosh on the whole “happily married” thing. Turns out that Peggy had a bird-eye view of the goings on the night before – she not only informs her friend that Johnny was stinko, but that he was at the club, that he was with Ruth Day in a private dining room, that the joint was raided by police, and that the entire incident was covered in the press – and “if you gotta have proof,” Peggy tosses the morning paper at her pal, “read that.”
After inviting her friend to vacate the premises, Jill proceeds to go completely off, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve ever seen. It was splendid! Majestic! Check out just a sample of what she said to Fred:
“I thought you were different – that someday you’d make something of yourself. That’s what I’ve been living on all these years. I’ve wasted enough of my life giving you chances. From now on it’s going to be MY chance. I’m going to get mine while I’m still young.” She scoffs and looks around. “Living in a place like this. Sacrificing everything! And for YOU. And I was glad to do it, too. Isn’t that a joke?
“Oh, don’t think I haven’t turned down men. Rich men. Men that would’ve given me everything I want – and love and respect, too. Well, from now on things are going to be different. I’m going to have my share of happiness! I’m through! Through! You cheat! You liar!”
Okay, that wasn’t a sample of what she said – it was pretty much everything she said. But I just couldn’t leave anything out – it was such a glorious soliloquy, y’all.
Anyway – I’m stopping here. I don’t want to give away any more of the film, and trust me, there’s a whole lot more to go – more than 40 minutes of movie fairly brimming with violence, abuse, alcoholism, deceit, poverty, attempted murder – oh, and Norma Talmadge dancing on top of a piano. But I’ll let you discover all that for yourself! Meanwhile, here’s some . . .
Norma Talmadge, who played Jill, had been a popular star of the silent era (along with her sister, Constance), and this was her first talkie. I’d never seen her in a movie before this one, but I really enjoyed her performance. You could see the traces of her silent picture acting, but all in all, I think it was a fine debut. Although Talmadge was praised by critics, the film wasn’t well-received, and in her next movie, DuBarry, Woman of Passion (1930), neither was she. It would be her last film.
I may just have to devote an entire post to Norma Talmadge in the future – the more I read about her, the more interesting she becomes. But I’ll offer just this additional tidbit here: Talmadge and her co-star Gilbert Roland (who was 12 years her junior) had been an item since 1926, when they starred together in Camille. They finally broke up in the early 1930s and Talmadge married “Toastmaster General” George Jessel. (Didn’t I tell you she was interesting?)
I’ve seen Gilbert Roland in a few other movies, but the only one in which I remember his character is The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), where he played the ill-fated Gaucho Ribero. I’m not sure what I think about his performance in New York Nights. It strikes me as not being very good – but I like the movie so much that it’s barely noticeable.
In the scene right after Jill leaves Fred, there’s a big party. Watch for the solo dancer who’s the first person you see. I’ve never seen anything like it. And speaking of that party, I can’t think of many (or any) other parties I’ve seen depicted on screen that I wanted more to attend. Those guests were having a ball! Live music, drinking, dancing, singing – it even had two tap-dancing bartenders, and they were JAMMING.
At 42:38 in the movie, you can spot Jean Harlow at the party. (I wish I could take credit for discovering that, but I read it online.) Check it out – it’s kinda cool.
The song that Fred writes at the start of the film (and which is played numerous times throughout the film) is “A Year From Today.” The song (which I’ve been humming for two hours now) was written by Al Jolson, Dave Dreyer and Ballard McDonald.
The film was based on the 1928 play Tin Pan Alley, which played 69 performances on Broadway and included Claudette Colbert and Norman Foster in the cast.
The character Joe Prividi does this weird thing with this feet several times during the film. It reminds me of a cross between a cat covering up poop and a bull getting ready to charge. Either way, I’m not sure what it’s supposed to mean – but it’s certainly eye-catching.
Jill reminds me a lot of Jerry (Norma Shearer) in The Divorcee (1930). Both women were completely devoted to their spouses, both had that spouse step out on them, and both gave their men holy hell before walking out on them. I kinda love them both.
In one scene, Peggy remarks to Joe: “You’re from Chicago, aren’t you? How come you ain’t wearing a wooden kimono?” I had no idea what a wooden kimono was, so I looked it up: it’s a coffin. I was pleased to discover the answer, but rather offended at the rap toward Chicago. Hmph.
Peggy was a fascinating character – and not just because she was portrayed by Lilyan Tashman (y’all know how I feel about her). She was a good and loyal friend, but she wasn’t one to bite her tongue or sugarcoat the truth. In fact, I at first questioned her motives when she told her best friend that her husband was a cheater – she was so blunt and unsympathetic: “Say, how much longer are you gonna let that guy put it over on you? Honest, it burns me up – just because you love him, you let him get away with murder,” Peggy tells her. “It’s time you woke up – got some sense in your head. . . . Do you think it’s easy for me to come here and break the news? And you’re a coward if you won’t face the truth.” At one point, Peggy even calls Jill a “poor, blind little fool.” But after repeat viewings, I’ve decided that that was just Peggy’s way. She wasn’t delighting in the news she was compelled to share, but she wasn’t going to allow her best friend to be deceived either. All things considered, she was pretty darned awesome.
So that’s about it – except one more thing I forgot to mention: New York Nights is on YouTube, so you can check it RIGHT NOW. Or any time you want. No excuses.
You only owe it to yourself.
Note: This is my final post in the NaBloPoMo challenge for the month of November – thanks for joining me on this wild writing ride! It’s been a gas!