It’s not exciting and it doesn’t take place during the course of one night but those are hardly the biggest sins this film commits. Three reels of story in an eleven reel sack, now with added racism.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?
During the silent era, studios had hit on a working formula that allowed for both epic films and steady profits: they would produce numerous high concept, low to mid-budget programmers that would earn money quickly and lessen the risk of larger, more expensive films. Producer/director D.W. Griffith was coming off the relatively disappointing financial reception of Orphans of the Storm (it made money but not enough) and was looking for one of those inexpensive, high concept films to pay the bills accrued at his shiny new Mamaroneck studio.
The stage had been a steady source of successful silent films and at the time, audiences were in it for thrills and chills and laughs. The Bat (1920), which Mary Roberts Rinehart had adapted from her own novel, The Circular Staircase, was about a killer on the loose in an old dark house with thrills and chills and laughs aplenty. The Cat and the Canary (1922) was about a killer on the loose in an old dark house with thrills and chills and laughs aplenty. You get the idea.
Creepy films and Old Dark House pictures had been popular in Hollywood before, with Cecil B. DeMille directing The Ghost Breaker in 1914 and a remake in the works for a 1922 release. (Both films are now missing and considered lost.) The point is, there was clearly some money in letting a murderer loose in a posh mansion full of character actors.
Griffith did not want to pay the asking price for The Bat or The Cat and the Canary, so he adopted the pen name of Irene Sinclair and wrote his own version of an Old Dark House picture. However, like so many genre carpetbaggers, Griffith would discover that the quick and easy payday was neither quick nor easy after all. This happens all the time. “How hard can it be?” are just about the most famous last words in entertainment.
We’re going to be disassembling One Exciting Night and comparing it to proper Old Dark House pictures to understand the inner workings and why certain elements fell flat. First, a very brief synopsis so you know where we’re going with this.
There’s a brief prologue in Africa in which a corrupt colonial sends away the newborn infant daughter of his brother so that he can seize the child’s fortune. I am not sure if it’s supposed to be a secret or not but the daughter grows up to be Agnes Harrington (Carol Dempster) who is so hungry for a mother’s love that she has her teeny-tiny doll dry her eyes with her teeny-tiny arms, which is normal behavior for a woman who is old enough to legally rent a car in her own name.
Her “mother” (Margaret Dale) is the nurse we saw in the prologue and she has developed a taste for the good life, meaning to marry Agnes off to a wealthy man in order to secure her own comfort. We are then introduced to J. Wilson Rockmaine (Morgan Wallace), a roué who has set his cap at Agnes. The title cards helpfully inform us that he hopes to recapture his own faded youth by pursuing a young lady. But Griffith would know all about that, methinks.
Meanwhile, John Fairfax (Henry Hull), the son of the corrupt uncle from the prologue, is reclaiming the old family manor, which has been abandoned and now used as a front for bootleggers. One of those same bootleggers hid money in the house but was murdered by a shadowy, mysterious figure. The local law suspects John. Meanwhile, John and Agnes are starting to fall in love…
There’s more to it but basically, it’s all about the mysterious killer trying to get the money back. The problem is, Griffith burned through about six reels before getting to that point, everything else is setup. The last half hour or so (spoiler, I guess) is the cast running around the house trying to figure out what’s going on. And we get not one, not two but three blackface characters including Romeo Washington (Porter Strong), who was supposed to be the breakout comedy character in the film.
It’s not much of a mystery, let’s face it, but it’s not like the film spent a large portion of its runtime presenting title cards that assured us it was the most unique and exciting and surprising plot ever written; something totally new.
What’s that? I have been told that the title cards did, in fact, assure us it was the most unique and exciting and surprising plot ever written; something totally new. Oh dear.
Show, Don’t Tell
Those three words are among the first bits of advice that any good book on creative writing will impart. Don’t tell us that the house is creepy, show us the cobwebs, the rotting door frames, the gnarled old tree branches that tap ominously on the windows.
Well, Griffith does none of that. He opens the film by loftily announcing that unlike other movies, this picture requires the audience to pay attention the whole time and the story is different from anything heretofore filmed and furthermore, you are to avoid spoiling the picture by revealing its carefully-guarded secrets. Throughout the film, he continues to remind us that this is scary and suspenseful stuff and we’d best hold onto our boyfriends for protection.
(When I livetweeted watching this movie, more than one person commented that these title cards read like Ed Wood narration. Go ahead and read them in a Criswell voice and see what you think. I’m convinced.)
Thing is, I guessed all the film’s twists and secrets within the first ten minutes and as a devoted reader of classic mysteries and suspense, I am pretty much the closest modern thing to a mystery-loving silent era audience member. The surprises were so poorly planned that they were basically the equivalent of a cat hiding and leaving its tail out. Except, you know, not cute. I have seen games of peek-a-boo with infants that contain more surprises. “Squee! Daddy WAS there the whole time! Imagine!”
Griffith has managed to buffalo people into believing that he invented cross-cutting, feature films and cinematic gangsters so it’s not really surprising that he tried to bluff the audience into believing what they were watching was suspenseful and terrifying. The problem is that most of us have seen mysteries and suspense and horror and we know how it’s supposed to work.
The advertising for the picture took up these boasts, assuring would-be filmgoers that One Exciting Night was the only new thing to see at the theater and the only really creative film to be released in two years. That’s an incredibly nervy boast in the year of Nosferatu, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Häxan, Phantom, Manslaughter, The Smiling Madame Beudet and Tess of the Storm Country. And if you believe it, I have an absolutely cracking bridge in Brooklyn that I can sell you at a bargain price.
The Cast and Performances
In order to make a Manor House or Old Dark House mystery truly, well, mysterious, the author sets up a large collection of suspicious characters who could very possibly be (GASP!) the murderer. I would say that the absolute bare minimum for success would be six fleshed-out characters but eight or more is preferable, in my opinion. This genre is basically a character actor’s dream.
See, you need a big cast because you need a load of red herrings to keep the audience guessing. The motion picture version of The Bat had about ten, so did The Cat and the Canary. For its length, I would have expected One Exciting Night to have at least that number or more. Instead, we have the romantic leads, the aunties, the cad, the weirdo, the cop and the butlers and the last four essentially display no personality. The blackface characters can be eliminated as suspects because there was no way a racist like Griffith would allow even a fake black character to outthink the white cast.
So, despite the massive sets and numerous rooms, the house feels strangely empty. Fairfax suspects that the detective is crooked and after the money himself but there is no buildup to this hunch. And since Fairfax and all the women have alibis for the second murder, it reduces the number of suspects considerably. (Which would have been okay if the picture had gone for a “THEY ALL DID IT!!!” but, alas…)
And now we have to address the elephant in the room: Carol Dempster. I like to describe her as kind of the Yoko Ono of the silent era. That is, she gets a lot of blame for things that weren’t really under her control. Griffith decided he would make a fluttering, sentimental star of her but she was clearly built for bold adventure and all the weird girlishness he directed her to perform just comes off as bizarre.
Dempster gamely charges through the manor looking for answers and in these scenes, her performance works. But we had a solid hour of her simpering and playing with dolls and generally acting like a not-too-bright pre-schooler before that, which rather dampens any enthusiasm for her character.
Leading man Henry Hull was likely cast due to his experience playing the main romantic interest of the stage version of The Cat and the Canary. (He had been making movies off and on for years and played John Brooke in the 1918 version of Little Women.) He’s… fine? But what does he have to do besides run around the old dark manse? Not much. He’s not particularly funny, the love scenes aren’t particularly swoon worthy and the action scenes end up upstaging everyone with trees. I don’t blame Hull, who went on to become a venerable character actor. There’s only so much an actor can do.
Morgan Wallace, another future character actor, is similarly unimpressive as J. Wilson Rockmaine. He has a mustache and I am frankly shocked that he didn’t twirl it. And it’s not that I object the melodrama villains in the right context. The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador has a corker played by director Léonce Perret himself. But then again, that movie also had a tight plot, striking imagery and zero pretentions.
As for the blackface characters, we’re going to be addressing this in more detail later but I will say that Griffith was obsessed with making a blackface comedy with Al Jolson because of course he was. It never worked (at one point, Jolson ran away and Griffith sued) but we obviously can view this as a dry run and/or replacement. Goody gumdrops.
I’ll try not to be spoilery here (for what it’s worth) but there are extensive scenes of a Mysterious Masked Figure lurking through the mansion in a MWAHAHAHA manner. That would be all fine and dandy but this person puts on a very affected and uncomfortable stance and auditions for the Ministry of Silly Walks even when nobody is watching or could possibly stumble onto them. So… why, exactly?
It’s done 100% for the audience’s benefit, of course, but I happen to object to this kind of nonsense. Did Griffith really think we couldn’t understand that this was the villain without a silly walk? Another sin of filmmaking that I cannot forgive is failing to treat the audience as intelligent. This is also a sign that Griffith did not really understand the genre he was working with.
The House and Cinematography
In an Old Dark House mystery, the age and gloominess of the house is obviously a factor or should be. Secret passages and hidden alcoves keep the characters on their toes and the audience on the edge of their seats. Who can forget the clawed hand reaching out from behind a bookcase to strangle Tully Marshall in The Cat and the Canary?
Well, in One Exciting Night, there are passageways and secret alcoves, the house had been used as a front for rum-runners, after all, but as far as narrative purpose goes, these hidden spaces are really just used as extra closet space by the cast. Like, literally, people just casually walk up to a hidden panel and use it to store stuff.
Do the trap doors do anything to further the plot? In other words, would the story be any different if the cast was hanging out in a standard suburban dwelling? The answer is no. The trapdoors and secret passages never lead to much and it would have been just as effective to hide the money in the attic and have the masked figure lurk in cupboards, closets and stairwells, which they end up doing anyway.
Does the fact that the house has been abandoned further the plot? Again, no. We don’t even get that many cobwebs. The story is no different than if Fairfax had spent his entire life within its walls, the famous rum-runners are just there to leave money and skedaddle. So, we have a few distinct aspects of the story that are essentially just pointless window dressing and this is annoying because so many other films have used them effectively. Keaton and Lloyd managed it in a tenth this picture’s runtime. Heck, The Red Mill wasn’t even a horror picture and it managed to give us a skeleton in an old windmill. What gives?
And, frankly, I wish Griffith had thought of something more imaginative than smearing the lens with Vaseline to conceal the identity of the killer. Surely clever blocking and stylish lighting could have done the trick in a far less crude manner. (See Judex as a proper examples of masking a figure’s identity in a moody and stylish manner and also shadows, so many shadows.) In this genre where cinematography is king, it’s an unforgivable miscalculation.
The storm scene at the end is fine as storm scenes go but since we have zero emotional stake in the story, we have zero emotional stake in seeing the characters in peril. And since we guessed who the villain was the moment he was introduced, there’s no suspense there either.
Compare this scene to the epic storm sequence in When the Clouds Roll By (1919), which took the time earlier in the picture to establish an appealing and sweet romance between its leads. Even though it is a comedy, the audience is far more invested in seeing the leads make it through safe and sound because we’ve come to care about them.
Old Dark House films need a central mystery. Who is the killer? Where is the money? What is the motive for this violence? Why is this friendly scientist strapping the hero to an operating table? It doesn’t have to be terrific but some general attempt to keep things a secret is always appreciated. Remember, we’re really about the mood with this genre but respecting the audience’s intelligence is another key element.
The mystery in One Exciting Night is two-pronged: What became of the people on the prologue and who is killing the cast? (Spoiler, I guess.) But the very grammar of storytelling gives the game away because if you show a prologue and then you show a bunch of new characters hobnobbing with the prologue characters immediately after, the audience will naturally assume that one thing connects to the other. And, in this case, it does. That baby born in Africa is Agnes and it’s no plot twist. And as for the killer, Rockmaine is the only character with opportunity and motive since Griffith cleverly gave just about everyone else airtight alibis.
Like I said, it’s possible to figure out a film’s central mystery right away and still enjoy it if the atmosphere is moody enough, the cast is likable enough and the direction is clever enough. So, obviously, One Exciting Night is in trouble because it has none of these things.
This is Where We Look at Context
As a cherry on top of this already shaky film, it is also horrendously racist. White actors in blackface run around like fools, the unredacted n-word shows up in a title card directed at one of them, an African character is referred to as a “Kaffir” and described as savage and impressed by “white man’s magic” i.e. photographs. (Use of the word in South Africa now can lead to trial and a hefty fine.)
Ah, but now the pro-Griffith brigade is dusting off their favorite word: context. “Look at context! Nobody was really offended back then!”
Or, to put it in more academic terms, A Companion to D.W. Griffith states:
“(Blackface) was fairly unobjectionable a century ago… Cordoned off, like comedy in general, from the realm of the serious, it offered audiences enjoyment without necessarily implying any derogatory intent or injuriousness in the “real world.””
If you got through that passage without being tempted to smash your screen, you are a better person than I am. This is an academic text published by Wiley in the Year of Our Lord 2017, by the way.
Fortunately, Thomas Cripps already covered One Exciting Night in his seminal work Slow Fade to Black and he points out that its use of blackface was condemned by the Chicago Defender, one of the top black newspapers in the United States the time, and that even a supporter of Griffith’s warned him by letter that the use of blackface stereotypes to ridicule would cause pain to black filmgoers.
I would further note that considering both the protests against The Birth of a Nation and the fact that the Chicago Defender spearheaded a boycott that took down the Ebony Comedies film series, I would be a little careful about throwing the term “context” around. By the way, the Ebony Comedies creative team bragged that they did not use blackface or stereotypes like watermelon theft but that didn’t save them because, well, you need only look at their advertising to see. So, Griffith defenders are telling me that the same people who led this boycott would have been all chill with the nonsense in One Exciting Night? Because that’s a pretty bold claim.
And, as always, I highly recommend Returning the Gaze: A Genealogy of Black Film Criticism 1909-1949 by Anna Everett. It has condemnations of blackface from the pens of black writers written years before One Exciting Night was filmed.
As one final insult, the character of Romeo is given to bragging about his wartime escapades and showing off a medal for valor. It is later revealed that the medal is not his, which implies that a character like him would never be able to really earn laurels on the field of battle. Hmm. Tell that to the Harlem Hellfighters. How do you like that context?
Thanks to the good folks at Wikipedia, I have people running around declaring that One Exciting Night inspired the Old Dark House picture boom. Actually, that boom was well along and Griffith was hopping onto the bandwagon. Remember, he opted to write his own Old Dark House story when the cost of adapting The Bat or The Cat and the Canary proved to be prohibitive.
A search of trade periodicals reveals that other than re-release announcements (United Artists had a content shortage and did a lot of those), few pieces mentioned One Exciting Night in connection with the Old Dark House boom in Hollywood. I counted five direct references connecting the picture to another film in the same genre post-1923.
The fact of the matter is this: silent horror and horror comedies were influenced but it was by the stylish work being done in Germany. And I certainly would not leave France out of the equation because even though Louis Feuillade’s serials are not in the same genre, the shadowing figures robbing and murdering people in their beds certainly seemed to strike a chord with audiences.
There is absolutely no camera trick or suspense trope used in One Exciting Night that wasn’t already done and better in The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador, Les Vampires, Judex, The Haunted House or Haunted Spooks, all of which pre-date One Exciting Night. What the heck was it supposed to have influenced? The Bat was already a hit play, The Monster debuted on Broadway months before, as did The Cat and the Canary, and Hollywood had been making spooky manor house mysteries for years. One Exciting Night added nothing to conversation except as evidence that eleven reels is too darn long for a picture of its type.
(Contrast this with the craze in the aftermath of The Sheik. Hollywood had made desert romances for years but there was an immediate surge in production and even films in different genres claimed their leading men were the sheiks of their respective kind.)
I’m sure the break-even financial success of One Exciting Night was factored into studio decisions to adapt Old Dark House material, just as the receipts and reception of both versions of The Ghost Breaker, The Haunted House and Haunted Spooks would have been. It was and is standard operating procedure to discuss the success and failure of similar pictures. But show me one piece of evidence that proves filmmakers had no intention of adapting these hit plays and only did it because they saw One Exciting Night. Further, anyone claiming this will have to prove that it was One Exciting Night and not the 1922 remake of The Ghost Breaker that made the difference.
And if this was the case, why did they wait two, three, four years to do it? The Monster was adapted to the screen in 1925, The Bat in 1926 and The Cat and the Canary in 1927. Silent era studios were nimble and could shove out copycats in mere months.
Any time you deal with Griffith, you get people proclaiming that anything he was involved in set off a craze and was the first thing ever, from closeups to false eyelashes. It’s usually bunk but I will give him credit for standardizing hate group uniforms. But as for sparking the horror-comedy craze, well, I am going to need a lot more evidence before I buy that particular bill of goods.
Reviews of the time were generally gentler than the film deserved but theater owner feedback was a very different story. They wrote into trade periodicals in droves and with the same issues: too long.
“I would rate this a first class lemon. They call it a mystery comedy. The mystery is—where is the comedy? It takes six reels before it starts and then three murders.”
“Why do they make such long pictures? They cost a lot to make, make the exhibitor cuss when he thinks of his schedule and make the audience squirm in their seats and wish they hadn’t come, and then they don’t come later.”
“One grand lemon for us. Not a bad melodrama but did not draw. Ten reels.”
“First part of film is a bit draggy and eleven reels are entirely too long.”
“It is just serial stuff produced in the usual serial manner. Trick photography, improbable throughout. Long, tedious and unconvincing, people were glad to get out. Had poor attendance.”
“Dropped with a thud at the Stanton in its last five days. It had evidently exhausted its patronage in its fourth week and was submerged in the splurge on “Robin Hood” last week.”
“Failed to do any business on this. One thing, it’s too long.”
“Three reels too long. Otherwise, a good show. Print better than we expected for such an old release.”
(This last one referred to a 1926 re-issue screening. Stating that the print was in very good condition is a clue about the film’s reception. Popular films were replayed a lot and became physically battered as a result. A pristine print of a four-year-old release would almost certainly not be a blockbuster.)
In this respect, theater owners and audiences of the silent era were completely correct: One Exciting Night drags interminably, takes forever to get going and there isn’t much of a payoff when it finally does. Whoever heard of an eleven-reel programmer anyway?
One Exciting Night is suspenseful and mysterious to anyone who has never seen another mystery film and who also failed to develop a basic sense of object permanence. There are reasons why even the most die-hard Griffith defenders don’t exactly run to bring it up even though there are several faux firsts attached to it. An ideal cure for insomnia if the racism didn’t keep jolting you awake.
Where can I see it?
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