Thursday, June 20, 2024

One Night at Susie’s (1930)

One Night at Susie’s is a 1930 First National pre-code crime/romantic melodrama.

Susie (Helen Ware) appears to be a boarding house operator but she has serious gangland connections. All of her friends are gangsters. One of those friends, Chicago Pete, got rubbed out years earlier and Susie has since raised his son Dick Rollins (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) as her own. Susie is determined not to allow Dick to get mixed in in crime, or to allow anyone else to get him involved in anything criminal.

Dick works as a press agent but yearns to be a playwright. Now he’s met the girl of his dreams, Mary Martin (Billie Dove). The problem is that Mary is a chorus girl. Susie doesn’t approve of chorus girls. They lead young men astray. Dick however has fallen for Mary in such a big way that Susie has to accept the situation, grudgingly. She still doesn’t trust Mary.

Susie’s forebodings of doom turn out to be accurate, although she’s wrong to blame Mary.

Dick ends up in prison but at least he now has time to write his plays. His plays are a springboard to stardom for Mary.

It’s not all smooth sailing for Mary. She finds out how the theatrical world works. If a producer does a girl a favour he expects a favour in return. He expects the favour to be returned in the bedroom.

There are other clouds on the horizon. They have nothing to do with the world of theatre. They’re connected to Susie’s world, the world of gangsters. Dick and Mary have never done anything criminal but it’s their misfortune that they find themselves useful pawns in gangster power plays.

This movie does have just a little of that very early talkie creakiness. The technical limitations imposed by the sound technology of 1928 to 1930 meant that camera setups tended to be a bit static and conventional. I personally don’t find it a huge problem in this film.

The acting is melodramatic but this is melodrama and I don’t mind movies that are unapologetically melodramas. Douglas Fairbanks Jr is frighteningly young (I believe he was twenty when the film was made) and he’s obviously a bit inexperienced but he’s likeable.

Billie Dove had been a huge star in the silent era but her career started to fade with the advent of sound and she retired from acting in 1932. She’s an acceptable heroine here but she lacks a certain vitality. Interestingly Billie Dove had been Douglas Fairbanks Sr’s leading lady four years earlier in The Black Pirate so she got to romance both father and son (onscreen).

Helen Ware gets the most interesting rôle. Susie means well but at times she’s blinded by her devotion to Dick Rollins. She can be judgmental and stubborn. She does consort with gangsters. She’s complicated and we’re not always sure what to think of her.

This is a very pre-code movie. The theatrical world is depicted in all its sleazy reality. If a girl wants to get ahead she has to sleep with producers. The movie also takes a flexible attitude towards marital infidelity. You can be unfaithful without actually being unfaithful. Moral rules don’t have to be followed rigidly. It also assumes that if you want justice you don’t rely on the police or the courts. It also assumes that telling the truth won’t get you anywhere with the criminal justice system. There’s also a rape. We don’t see it but it’s made pretty clear that a rape has at least been attempted. Pretty much every major plot point in this movie would have been forbidden under the Production Code.

Don’t think about the plot too much. It has more holes than a hoodlum who’s just been ventilated by a machine gun.

And don’t even try to understand the motivations of the characters. You’ll just get a headache.

The big surprise is that there are a few very nice visual set-pieces, especially the court-room scene with its surreal distorted perspectives.

One Night at Susie’s isn’t great but if you have a high tolerance for melodrama it’s worth a look.

The Warner Archive DVD offers an acceptable transfer.

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