BluRay/DVD Reviews

SONG OF SONGS/THIS IS THE NIGHT

By • Jun 15th, 2011 •

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Here’re two obscure films from Hollywood’s naughty, edgy pre-code era, that time in early sound film before 1934, after which strict censorship codes dictated what exactly went up on that movie screen! Universal and TCM put their heads together and released two exotic, exciting pre-code film: SONG OF SONGS and THIS IS THE NIGHT on DVD.

SONG OF SONGS

With his pre-code films dealing with forbidden subjects, maverick director Rouben Mamoulian surely pushed the buttons of early 1930’s Hollywood censors! Mamoulian’s debut film, APPLAUSE (1929) was set in a seedy burlesque house, a protagonist in his DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931) was Miriam Hopkins’ doomed prostitute, Ivy, and various songs in his revolutionary musical LOVE ME TONIGHT (1932) dealt with possessive lovers and undressing!

In his 1933 film, SONG OF SONGS, Marlene Dietrich strays from her famous, mysterious, exotic-beauty persona to play Lily, a simple peasant girl who is talked into posing nude for a brash young artist, Richard (Brian Aherne). Her love affair with Richard is very brief, and she soon takes up with a lecherous Baron (Lionel Atwill). Mamoulian’s handling of the subject of posing nude is amazingly mature – it’s not there for the peep-show value, but gives us an insight into Lily’s initial discomfort with the task, and how she relaxes afterwards. The film does take the Victorian-era stance that once you pose nude, it’s a hopeless downward moral spiral, but it’s a lot of fun, anyways. This is Dietrich’s first American film made without her “svengali-like” director Josef von Sternberg. To me, it is no accident that Atwill’s baron bears a close resemblance to that obsessive directorial genius. Mamoulian’s earlier films constantly burst alive with still now inventive uses of film technology (two examples include his single-take transformation of Jekyll into Hyde, and the brazen musical orchestration of everyday street sound effects that open LOVE ME TONIGHT). SONG OF SONGS is filmed in a rather pedestrian way. In fact, it often looks like Mamoulian is imitating von Sternberg’s use of shadow and exotic costuming.

THIS IS THE NIGHT

THIS IS THE NIGHT is much more than simply being Cary Grant’s screen debut. It is a lively early sound romantic comedy that often plays like an experimental silent film. Its night-time scenes are tinted soft blue. The film begins with a skit involving a Parisian smut peddler scamming a tourist, where they communicate using the same styled gibberish talk used by Chaplin in the opening of CITY LIGHTS. After this skit, an entire city block breaks into a wicked song about a gold-digger, Claire (Thelma Todd) accidentally losing her dress while partying with her sugar daddy boyfriend (Roland Young). Claire’s plans with the boy-toy are dashed when her unsuspecting but jealous husband (Cary Grant) changes vacation plans. The real star of THIS IS THE NIGHT is Lila Damita, who plays the sexy mistress to Grant’s girl hungry but jittery buddy, Bunny (Charles Ruggles, the perfect actor to play a man called “Bunny”). Damita’s Hollywood career never took off the way it should have. All eyes are on her in this film (her nickname in Hollywood was “Dynamita”). Damita, who was first married to director Michael Curtiz, then had a rocky seven-year marriage to Errol Flynn (Her union with Flynn produced a son, Sean)

THIS IS THE NIGHT could have been done in an experimental way where it’s technical wizardry excites cinema-philes and bores audiences. It’s a fun little ride meant to amuse a mass audience. Its director, New York born Frank Tuttle, would later helm such noir masterworks as the 1935 George Raft THE GLASS KEY and the film that made Alan Ladd a star – THIS GUN FOR HIRE.

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