Pre-Code Crazy: Night Court (1932)
My Pre-Code Crazy pick for April was a no-brainer. As soon as I saw Night Court listed in the TCM “Now Playing” guide, I knew what my selection for the month would be! The film stars Phillips Holmes, Anita Page and Walter Huston, and offers everything you could want in a pre-Code feature.
What’s it all about?
Cab driver Mike Thomas (Holmes) and his stay-at-home wife, Mary (Page) are a blissfully married couple, and their family is made complete by their bouncing baby boy. Their serene existence is rocked to the core, however, when Mary is imprisoned by a corrupt judge (Huston) on a trumped-up charge, and the couple loses custody of their baby. It’s up to Mike to put the pieces of his life – and his shattered family – back together again, and nail the judge who was the cause of all their woes.
Who’s the cast of characters?
Mike Thomas is young, hard-working, devoted to his pretty young wife, and a little prone to displaying a hotheaded streak of jealousy. Case in point, when Mike arrives home from work one morning, Mary tells him that she hasn’t been all alone: “He didn’t tell me his name,” she says. “[He was] very handsome, with big blue eyes and curly hair. . . he got kinda familiar. He bit me.” Mike instantly flies off the handle, declaring that he’ll kill the guy – until Mary reveals that she’s referring to their baby. He also exults in his wife’s innate goodness: “Gee, you’re sweet,” he tells her. “You know, when I think of them dames I gotta run around in my cab all night – and then you home here, so sweet and clean…” These two characteristics – Mike’s appreciation for Mary’s innocent nature, and his hair-trigger jealousy – combine with interesting results when he learns of his wife’s arrest.
Mary Thomas is the very embodiment of the happy homemaker. It’s obvious that she couldn’t be more delighted with her lot in life; in one scene, she tells her baby how lucky he is: “You’ve got the grandest father in the world. A great, big, tall, fine man with a grin on him that would take the heart out of any woman. And a home that’s a palace! Four great big rooms! Think of it – four rooms! With a real bathtub and a gas stove – oh, gee, we’re lucky!” She’s also as kind and thoughtful as she is “good” – but it’s the manifestation of her compassionate nature that lands her in hot water with the law.
Judge Moffett, who presides over the night court of the film’s title, is as crooked a jurist as you’d ever want to meet. Taking bribes, doling out unnecessarily harsh sentences, woefully bereft of empathy or any sense of justice – and keeping a juicy blonde on the side – this guy is a real winner. He’s also self-preservation personified, stopping at nothing – and I do mean NOTHING – to ensure the safety of his own neck. He himself tells his sidepiece: “I’m going to take very good care of myself and my future.”
What’s my favorite scene? (I’m glad you asked!)
Early in the film, we see a parade of detainees in Judge Moffett’s court that serves to both give us a flavor of the times, and a revelatory portrait of the character (or lack thereof) of the judge. There’s the tragic woman who is unable to find work and is arrested for prostitution: “Everything I had is gone . . . I want food, and when I ask for it, they think I’m trying to sell myself. Well, I will! Sure, I’ll sell myself! Who wants to buy me?” And the trio of oily gents who are clearly guilty, whose case the judge summarily dismisses, having previously received an under-the-table cash payoff from their defense attorney. But my favorite is the rotund, hiccupping drunk chick, who goes from insisting that she’s never touched a drop of liquor in her life, to cheering the 90-day sentence the judge gives her (“Atta boy, judge – atta boy, atta boy!”), to telling the judge to give her a kiss, to calling him a “big stiff!” I could watch her brief appearance again and again. (And I do.)
Why should you watch this film?
- First off, there’s not a dull moment in this 92-minute feature – it gives us assault, torture, larceny, bribery, mendacity – even murder.
- Admittedly, there’s far too little Anita Page for my liking, but a little Anita is better than none!
- Walter Huston, as always, serves up a top-notch performance, creating a character who is at once relentlessly corrupt and filled with self-righteous defiance. He steals every scene he’s in – you simply can’t take your eyes off him whenever he’s on the screen.
- The oh-so-satisfying climax is full of justice and well-deserved comeuppance. You’ll cheer!
Anything else? (You bet!)
- Night Court was based on an unproduced play co-written by Mark Hellinger, who went on to produce such film noir classics as The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), and The Naked City (1948) before his untimely death at the age of 44.
- The film’s director was Woody Van Dyke, who would later helm several entries in the Thin Man series.
- The cast also included Noel Francis as Walter Huston’s chick-on-the-side. You may not recognize her name (at least, I didn’t), but I bet you’ll know her face. She was also in Smart Money (1931), Blonde Crazy (1931), and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), but her film career was over by 1937. Reportedly, she later became a radio producer in San Francisco, but she died in 1959 at the age of 53.
Night Court airs on Monday, April 6th on TCM – make an appointment to catch this pre-Code goodie. And don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to see which pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending for this month!
You only owe it to yourself.