Bogart extra light.
“Midnight” is a pretty popular word when it comes to film, appearing hundreds of times in film titles over the past century. Seven films alone have been called simply Midnight, with the most well-known probably being a 1939 comedy starring Claudette Colbert. Today, we look at a 1934 Universal release that was nothing special in its day, but has since generated some interest due to the presence of a fellow in its cast named Humphrey Bogart.
Midnight originated as a play of the same title that was produced by the Theatre Guild and opened in New York on December 29, 1930. A couple of years later, a film adaptation was developed by Chester Erskine. Erskine, who also produced and directed, began a five-week shoot in May 1933. An arrangement was struck with Universal to release the picture early the following year. At that time, the name Bogart meant little, but that would change over the following decade and as a result, Midnight was re-released as Call It Murder with Bogart’s name above the title. During the video era, bootleg copies of the film have been available on VHS under the latter title even though the original film remained under copyright.
Now Image Entertainment, by arrangement with the copyright holder, has made Midnight available on DVD using source material that has all the original titling and credits intact.
Jury foreman Edward Weldon, a great believer in obeying the letter of the law, convinces his jury members to convict Ethel Saxon, a woman who has confessed to murdering her wayward husband in a “crime of passion.” Some time later, the day of Ethel’s execution arrives and a gathering takes place at the Weldon home. Present inside are Weldon himself (suffering from all the unwelcome attention resulting from his role in Ethel’s conviction), Bob Nolan (a reporter who has bribed Ed Weldon’s son-in-law in order to be there), Weldon’s daughter Stella who has fallen for gangster Gar Boni whom she met at the trial, Gar Boni who has come to say goodbye to Stella (and then leaves on the pretext of having to go to Chicago), and other members of the Weldon extended family. Outside is a crowd of reporters, cameramen, and interested onlookers. As the midnight execution time approaches, Weldon refuses a last-minute request from Ethel’s lawyer to intercede with the governor and then Stella, learning that Gar Boni may have a new girl friend rather than any plan to go to Chicago, rushes out to find Gar.
Then at midnight, the breaker is thrown for the electrocution of Ethel and at the same time a shot rings out as Stella and Gar struggle after he has admitted that it’s over between them. With the execution over, Weldon goes to plead his case to the crowd outside — that he was only doing his duty as the law demanded. As he finishes, Stella returns in a daze claiming that she has shot and killed Gar. Weldon is then faced with following the letter of the law as far as his daughter is concerned.
Midnight, despite its stagy limitations, does tell an interesting story concerned with the issues of social conscience and justice. In that respect, it is much in the same vein as many socially conscious films of the early 1930s — films focused on issues of the day or “torn from the headlines” as WB liked to advertise its product. Edward Weldon is a man who believes in the letter of the law and when he perceives that justice is not being served by the actions of legal counsel in the Ethel Saxon trial, he speaks up to ask the damning question whose answer condemns Ethel in his mind. Having so decided, he proceeds to lead his jury members to reach a guilty verdict. It is thus ironic that he is faced with a comparable situation when his own daughter apparently kills her boyfriend in another “crime of passion.” Midnight does a good job of building the pressure on Weldon as the execution hour approaches through a variety of plot devices involving different members of his family and interesting lighting and editing techniques.
For a somewhat minor film, the latter are fairly unusual. Director Chester Erskine (listed in the opening credits as Chester Erskin) tended to be multi-threat guy in his career, often writing as well as producing, as he does with Midnight. The film was in fact his directorial debut and it seems clear he was quite influenced by German expressionism of the 1920s. His use of shadows and unusual camera angles is striking and his compositions are out of the ordinary. For example, the opening sequence presents a succession of shots showing the faces of everyone in the court with the exception of the main person involved — the testifying witness. On another occasion he uses the buttons and shield on a police uniform as a focal point to cut from one policeman standing guard outside the Weldon home to another standing guard outside Ethel Saxon’s prison cell and then back to the Weldon home.
Humphrey Bogart’s role as Gar Boni in Midnight is a slight one, much on a par with the level of role that characterized most of his film appearances in the early 1930s. Bogart’s time in Hollywood from 1930 to 1934 was a succession of short contracts with the likes of Fox, Columbia and WB intermingled with returns to the Broadway stage. His film parts ranged from rugged glamour boys to gangsters to even a cowboy. By 1934, Bogart had pretty well given up on films after the completion of Midnight (which was actually filmed in New York). That year would be a turning point, however, for one play he was doing in New York led to an offer to play the gangster Duke Mantee in Robert Sherwood’s play “The Petrified Forest.” When Bogart reprised the role in WB’s film adaptation in 1936, he was on his way. In Midnight, there are three main sequences in which he appears. His work is not particularly compelling and aside from a few familiar mannerisms and turns of phrase, there’s little to suggest that here was an icon in the making.
Bogart was billed fifth in Midnight. Ahead of him were the three principals — O.P. Heggie as Ed Weldon, Sidney Fox as Stella Weldon, and Henry Hull as Bob Nolan — and Lynn Overman (providing some rather forced comic relief as Weldon’s son-in-law). Heggie does a good job conveying the pressure that Weldon is under on the fateful night and Hull is quite natural and jaunty as reporter Nolan. Sidney Fox, however, seems to possess few acting abilities. (After being considered in the same breath as the young Bette Davis of the early ’30s, she soon fell out of favour. Midnight seems to have been her last film.)
Having seen terrible-looking VHS versions of Midnight under its re-release title of Call It Murder, I wasn’t expecting much from Image’s DVD release. It’s a pleasure to report, then, that for a film nearly 70 years old that hasn’t undergone any restoration, this DVD looks quite good. To use Image’s words, “this edition…is digitally mastered from a mint-condition 35mm nitrate fine grain master.” Well, mint condition it’s not, for there are plenty of speckles and scratches and the occasional fluctuation in light intensity. That said, though, much of the time the image exhibits good contrast with some nice deep blacks and fairly clean whites. Shadow detail isn’t bad at all. If you want to see the earliest appearance of Bogart on DVD to date, the quality of this disc won’t be an issue. The mono sound too is in pretty good shape, with little in the way of age-related hiss.
This is a film that reflects its stage origins quite substantially. Little seems to have been done to open up the story to allow some extra locations to add some variety. Thus we find ourselves confined to the Weldon home for the majority of the film. Fortunately, the director’s inventiveness with camera angles and lighting compensates to some extent.
There are some scenes in the film in which the exchanges between the actors are very mannered to the point of being uncomfortable. Perhaps the most glaring example is the conversation between Bogart and Sidney Fox that takes place in the Weldon home. The dialogue is unrealistically delivered by both actors, and both seem very self-conscious. Going strictly on the evidence of this sequence, one wouldn’t have had too much confidence in predicting a shining future for either.
Image’s DVD presentation is its usual bare-bones release. There are no supplementary features at all, unless you count the slightly extended production notes that start on the snapper’s back cover and extend to the interior.
Midnight is no shining light of 1934 filmmaking, but it is an inventively-shot picture that tells a story of some interest. The film suffers from staginess and some questionable performances, but it does offer an early example of Humphrey Bogart at work. For those with any interest in Bogart at all, I’d say it’s worth at least a rental. The DVD looks reasonably good for a film of such vintage.