By Kris Tronerud
USA, 1951. 115 min. Philip Waxman Productions. Cast: John Barrymore, Jr., Preston Foster, Joan Lorring, Howard St. John, Dorothy Comingore; Cinematography: Hal Mohr; Produced by: Philip A. Waxman; Based on a Novel by: Stanley Ellin; Written by: Stanley Ellin, Joseph Losey, Ring Lardner, Jr.; Directed by: Joseph Losey
One of the greatest pleasures of being a movie nut is the re-discovery of those long gone, lovingly remembered films which appeared to us in our youth, before we knew we were â€˜aficionadosâ€™, before we even knew why we loved movies, when our reactions were primal and unaffected by critical sensibilities or intellectual preconception. These films take root in our memories with the vivid resonance of a childhood friend. Sometimes, of course, the rediscovery is a painful disappointment, as we realize that our fond recollection was based primarly on the bust size of the heroine or on a fantasy landscape that now reveals itself to be composed of monsters in suits with visible zippers lurking in papier machÃ© lairs. Every so often, however, a film re-appears on the cinematic horizon and holds up admirably to viewing by now jaundiced and demanding eyes, revealing that it burrowed into our young psyches for deeper and more substantial reasons. For me, the reappearance of Joseph Loseyâ€™s The Big Night on TMC (and now in theaters) was just such a happy reunion.
It is easy to see why The Big Night would grip the mind and heart of an impressionable 14 year old with such raw power. A classic â€˜journey of discovery/coming of ageâ€™ odyssey, with an arc neatly compressing a lifetime of experience into 12 hours of overheated Freudian drama, Night tells the story of George (John Drew Barrymore), a moody young man who looks older but feels younger than his age, is tormented by his peers for his shyness with girls and is locked into a loving but inarticulate relationship with his single parent dad (Preston Foster). A birthday celebration for George in his fatherâ€™s bar is interrupted by the appearance of Judge, a corrupt newspaper bigshot who calls out Georgeâ€™s father, and proceeds to administer a brutal cane beating, to which his father submits without protest. In a story device reminiscent of another great noir, Robert Siodmakâ€™s The Killers, George sets out to find out why his much admired father would allow this humiliation, encountering a cast of colorful and damaged characters along the way: a charming but hollow college professor-turned prizefight tout, his long-suffering girlfriend, her aging spinster sister (Citizen Kaneâ€™s Dorothy Comingore in her last movie role), and of course, the sinister Judge, all of whom, in their own way, assume a mentoring role in Georgeâ€™s awakening. In the space of one violent, alcohol-fueled night, George comes to grips with the inevitable discoveries of youth: the fallibility and imperfection of our parents, the disruptive onset of sexuality, and the unavoidable assumption of responsibility.
Though the obviously low-budget Night is far from perfect (in one howler of a scene, which surely should have been re-filmed, George forgets to put down his fatherâ€™s gun while comforting a neighborâ€™s crying child, obliviously sticking it in the childâ€™s face!) and is hobbled by an unconvincing wrap-it up-in-a hurry ending, Losey and Ring Lardnerâ€™s crackling dialogue (delivered by an excellent cast) and Hal Mohrâ€™s striking urban photography give Night a slick, polished â€œAâ€ movie look and feel. But, while the script is filled with great noir lines (â€œSome men… love one woman in the whole world. If she turns out to be the wrong one…well, itâ€™s just toughâ€) and takes place in a typically noirish demi-monde, Night is not the typical noir tale of corrupt characters whose misdeeds condemn them to a vortex of inextricable fate. In director Joseph Loseyâ€™s world, people are trapped not by fate, but by their own tortured inability to understand themselves or connect with others, overwhelmed by psychosexual currents they barely comprehend, and his point of entry is always through his characters, rather than through an external â€˜styleâ€™, portraying with great power their anguished attempts to explain their inner maelstroms to others and, especially, to themselves.
Throughout his turbulent and sometimes brilliant career, Losey was prone to accepting commercial assignments and then turning them on their ear to suit his own preoccupations, obsessions, and personal style. His best known early work, The Boy With Green Hair reaches far beyond its sentimental, fairy tale structure to become a broad, pacifist condemnation of prejudice, and Hammer Studios were apoplectic when he transformed Childen of the Damned, which was supposed to be a simple-minded Evil Children on the Loose flick, into a bleak, socially conscious condemnation of conformity and bureaucratic evil, whose most responsible character turns out to be a sociopathic biker hoodlum. The Big Night is no exception. There is a poignant and powerful scene in Night wherein George, waiting for Judge to show up at a nightclub, is temporarily distracted, moved, and aroused by the performance of the clubâ€™s black chanteuse (jazz singer Maury Lynn in an entrancing cameo). Outside the club, George tries, awkwardly, haltingly, to tell the young singer that he has not only enjoyed her performance, but is also attracted to her, only to inadvertently insult her with the racist language of his upbringing. That Losey chose to depict the sexual awakening of his very white protagonist with a black character perfectly illustrates the collision course with mainstream Hollywood that would result in Losey becoming, finally, a European director. Shortly after Night, Losey, in order to avoid betraying his friends to the McCarthy committee, as Elia Kazan was about to do, moved permanently to Europe where he was to make his masterpieces, Accident and The Servant.
At the heart of is the sensitive and compelling performance of a very young John Drew Barrymore as George, and it is also easy to see why Night appealed to, and resonated with, the young actor with the enviable pedigree. Born into the First Family of American Film, (his parents were the great, and greatly flawed, John Barrymore and silent film icon Dolores Costello), John Drew was simultaneously struggling with a distant father, a disapproving mother, and the impossibly high expectations the critics and public held for the son of John Barrymore. Like George, physically mature beyond his age, Barrymore enlisted in the army at the age of thirteen(!) and was only rescued by the last minute intervention of his distraught family. Ignoring his motherâ€™s opposition, he used his name to secure two successive leading parts on Broadway, only to bail on both productions, apparently unable to cope. Finding the movies a path of less resistance, he followed up a feature role in The Sundowners with The Big Night, whose story of a young man struggling to understand himself, his familyâ€™s expectations, and his inability to understand or express his love for a loving but unapproachable father must have held great appeal for Barrymore. Indeed, his performance is the first great â€˜mixed-up teenâ€™ performance of modern film, pre-dating Rebel Without a Cause by four years. It must have been frustrating for Barrymore to see James Dean achieve the overnight sucess that had eluded him with a performance, and a role, that seem directly patterned after his George LeMain in The Big Night.
This pattern of seeming to be on the verge of something big, only to have it fall apart was to be a constant for the rest of Barrymoreâ€™s erratic career, considerably accelerated by his inheritance of the family demons of substance abuse and dissipation. When his excellent performance as a gang leader in High School Confidential failed to spark the big break, he, like many of his generation, fled to Europe, where he made a series of better than average peplum and costume dramas, and, in The Trojan Horse, he played a very non-traditional Ulysses with the intense, charismatic and slightly mad star quality for which he is now best remembered. Buoyed by his European success, he returned to the States to make a number of high profile guest appearances on television, primarily in the very popular â€˜adult westernsâ€™ of the period. (Your writer was delighted at the time to see the star of The Big Night re-appear as an insane, whip-wielding preacher in the TV remake of Winchester â€˜73). Just as he seemed poised for a long and fruitful career as a respected TV character actor, the old spectres of alcohol and insecurity returned with a vengeance. When Barrymore did not show up for work in a coveted guest star appearance on Star Trek, Hollywood gave up on second chances for this scion of Hollywood royalty, and, after four marriages, allegations of family abuse, several run-ins with the law, and at least three distinct career arcs, all ending in failure, John Drew Barrymore simply faded from sight, becoming, for decades, a classic hippie-style recluse, literally now, in the wilderness. After a long illness, John Drew Barrymore died in 2004, cared for by his daughter, with whom he had reunited: the fourth generation of Barrymore stars, and the first to successfully overcome the family penchant for self-destruction, Drew Barrymore.
There is a moment, early in The Big Night, when Georgeâ€™s father has placed a birthday cake on the bar in front of his overwhelmed and delighted son. Clearly, this is something that has not happened often, and, cheered on by his fatherâ€™s onlooking friends and customers, George takes a deep breath to blow out the candles, but, after he has finished, one candle still burns. The look of deep hurt and disappointment at ruining the perfection of this rare moment of family love is still flickering on Barrymoreâ€™s childlike face as the door opens behind him, and Judge enters, seemingly summoned by Georgeâ€™s hurt and sorrow, to ignite the violent and turbulent Night that follows. It is a uniquely Loseyan moment. The return of The Big Night from its undeserved theatrical and home video exile should serve not only as a reminder to a new generation of moviegoers that John Drew Barrymore was far more than just Drewâ€™s father, but also as the rescue of a long unseen, rough little gem from the early career of one of filmâ€™s most unique and original voices: Joseph Losey, the poet of humanityâ€™s fractured, wildly imperfect soul, and its struggle to overcome its own tragic limitations.