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I've been interested in seeing this rare film for quite awhile, and
after locating a poor quality DVD (a copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy) I sat
down to watch in a state of keen anticipation. By the end, I was
shaking my head in bewilderment, wondering how the project could have
misfired so badly. This is a strange, disjointed attempt at
freewheeling fantasy, though you have to give the filmmakers credit for
sheer moxie. Night Life of the Gods is not good, but it's not a total
dud, either; it's highly original, and there are scattered moments that
work, but those bits are overwhelmed by strained efforts at whimsy,
punchlines that fall flat, and embarrassing performances by supporting
players who look like refugees from a small town community theater. I
don't regret seeing it and wouldn't mind taking another look someday if
a better print turns up, but let the viewer beware: this movie is
strictly for connoisseurs of Le Cinema Bizarre.
Night Life of the Gods was based on a novel by Thorne Smith, the novelist best known for his comic fantasies "Topper" and "I Married a Witch." Smith specialized in imaginative tales of the supernatural with decidedly risqué elements. This one tells the story of eccentric inventor Hunter Hawk (Alan Mowbray) who concocts a ring that can turn people to stone, and can also bring statues to life. He promptly turns his annoying family to stone -- except for his pretty niece -- and goes on a drunken stroll through the woods. There he meets Meg, daughter of a leprechaun, who promptly falls in love with him. They go to a roadhouse to dance, but when an argument breaks out Hawk turns several people to stone and flees. The next day he and Meg go to New York and visit the Metropolitan Museum. They remain after closing time and then bring several classical statues to life, including Apollo, Diana, Bacchus, Neptune, and Venus. They escort the gods and goddesses out of the museum, and take them to a department store to buy them clothes. The humor is supposed to derive from the incongruous behavior of these mythological deities in modern Manhattan, but this is where the script falls short: these gods aren't crazy, they're just plain silly. The actors seem desperate to work up a "screwball" atmosphere, but the material leaves them stranded.
Anyhow, once they're properly attired Hunter installs his charges in a fancy hotel. They invade the hotel swimming pool but Neptune can't resist poking people with his trident. Venus is given new arms but no one will accept a hug from her. (Why not?) Later, in a monomaniacal quest for fish, Neptune invades a fish market and gets into a Monty Python-style fish-slapping fight with merchant Henry Armetta. Unfairly, the merchant is turned to stone. By this point, word has reached the police and they close in on Hawk and the naughty gods. Hunter & Meg return the deities to the museum, transform them back into statues, and then turn themselves to stone. That's where the movie was supposed to end, but preview audiences rejected this finale, so director Lowell Sherman was forced to add a dream framework he disliked, one which wraps up the story on a resoundingly flat note.
One of the key problems with this movie is our protagonist, Hunter Hawk. Alan Mowbray was a gifted character actor, but he wasn't really leading man material, and it's difficult to like the guy he's playing: Hawk has a mean streak, and once he has the power to turn people to stone he uses it with reckless abandon. I'm not sure any other actor could have made this man more likable -- Roland Young, perhaps? In any case, the script is full of stupefyingly bad jokes. (Example: when Mercury is brought to life he says: "Thanks, I was bored stiff." Groan.) Gilbert Emery manages to earn some laughs as the unflappable butler, but there are too many quips that bomb, too many sour notes and too many loose plot threads for this movie to be a satisfying experience. Even so, watching Night Life of the Gods is certainly memorable, and never predictable except for that hokey, tacked-on ending. Even film buffs who think they've seen the weirdest stuff out there may watch this one in astonishment.
P.S. Since writing this piece I've learned a few more things about the movie. For starters, it seems the project itself was plagued by bad luck. Author Thorne Smith died suddenly of a heart attack during the summer of 1934, just as the film was going into production, and then director Lowell Sherman caught pneumonia as it was wrapping up. He lived long enough to complete a final edit but died before the film's release. There are some odd stories in circulation about what caused Sherman's illness; supposedly, he found the sound stage uncomfortably warm and took to directing the film in his underclothes! For what it's worth, I've examined a file of material concerning this film at NYC's Performing Arts Library, and found a photo of Sherman on the set: he's wearing shorts and a sports shirt, certainly casual attire for a director at the time, but not what anyone would call alarmingly under-dressed.
The film itself is lucky to have survived. Apparently the only known print was held by a collector who turned it over to the UCLA Film Archive in the 1980s, where it remains. A video copy was made before the print was locked away, and all copies now in circulation derive from that 20 year-old dub, which is why the image quality is so poor. As noted above I feel the movie is something of a misfire, yet it still deserves a decent restoration and a chance to find a new audience. Movies as strange as this one don't come along every day!
A one-of-a-kind comic fantasy from the pen of Thorne Smith, creator of "Topper", this strained whimsy has eccentric playboy Alan Mowbray invent a magic ring that turns people to stone. After rendering his annoying family into marble, he spends the night drinking with leprechauns, and then visits New York's Metropolitan museum, where he throws his ring into reverse and brings to life the statues of ancient Greek gods. Hectic shenanigans ensue when they all check into the Waldorf-Astoria hotel: Bacchus drinks rubbing alcohol, Venus de Milo acquires arms, Neptune starts a slapstick fight in a fish market, and so on. More witty than funny, the movie is afloat with Prohibition-era tipsy jokes, but manages to get an occasional naughty touch past the Hays Code restrictions. Mowbray captures the right energy and manic glint in his eye, and an imperturbable butler wins some laughs, but the others give overly broad performances that are comic, but in the wrong way. At this point in history, the curiosity value and Art Deco sets exceed the entertainment, or maybe they've now become the entertainment.
Thorne Smith wrote some of the funniest and most risqué books of the
era which my mother introduced her kids to in the 70's. We watched 'I
married a Witch' (which is now available on DVD - although I got my
copy in Spain several years ago) and my mum told me that she'd seen
Topper, Turnabout and that she'd heard that they had may have made
Night Life of the Gods. The book rocks which is why I wanted to see the
The DVD of this movie took me two years to find and was so appalling in quality that I couldn't finish it - and I really did try. even in postage stamp format the picture was bad. Alas, 70 years of culture and a really bad print really mucks things up. This movie had the opportunity to be THE screwball comedy of all time, it had great lines,sex and all in a time of innocence, I really wish I could have seen if the movie had lived up to it. I guess if it had it might not be in such a sorry state.........
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
First, the long post by wmorrow explains why everyone complains about the blurry print that's out there. (Great post, by the way.) It has the dark, smeary look of bad VCR work -- but it looks as if the print that was copied was pretty good. For one thing, the soundtrack is OK, and in brightly-lit closeups you can tell that a better transfer would reveal a decent image. I have longed to see this film since I saw it in the Henry Armetta entry of a clucky old film fan book called Immortals of the Screen. The film turns out to be oddball without being especially funny. Very broad acting, an attempt to portray a madcap family with a butler who blandly countenances every bizarre event, with elements of fantasy and science fiction. The gods don't appear until the final third of the picture -- and then they simply harass people in a swimming pool and at a fish market (instead of, say, changing the news or defying natural law...I don't know what I expected them to do, but they behave like the Ritz Brothers.) This film hasn't become a cult item because there wasn't enough comic inspiration in the first place. It also lacks a central charismatic star performance -- the cast of Night Life consists of some very skilled character actors and some "B leads." Who knows -- with a better print and a festival audience, this film might - MIGHT - have some impact.
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