Why is it important to restore forgotten old movies to their brightest luster and offer them on disc for buffs to sniff over like truffle pigs? Because sometimes you find the truffle, that surprisingly tasty item with no reputation. Such is the case for Leigh Jason’s 1942 drama Lady for a Night, a Republic picture of lavish ambition in the post-Gone with the Wind sweepstakes. It was sparklingly spruced up on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films in 2013, and I find it sufficiently surprising to call it to your attention.
Let’s dispose of the story quickly. Jenny Blake (Joan Blondell) is a wealthy woman who co-owns the Memphis Belle, a gambling boat in Memphis. Her co-owner and presumed lover is Jackson Morgan (John Wayne). Please notice that the Production Code forbade Lady for a Night from saying right out that Jenny and Jack were ever lovers, never mind that Jenny’s involvement in the proceedings might have anything to do with prostitution. All those spangled bargirls are undoubtedly just platonic company for the male gamblers. But just in case your minds are in the gutter, that goes a Mississippi mile to explain why the social set is scandalized by Jenny’s attempts to crash society.
Jenny knows that drunken and debt-ridden Alan Alderson (Ray Middleton), the last male scion of a decayed local family, is about to lose his plantation to the auction block. Jenny’s got money, and Alan’s got social status, so she proposes marriage to achieve her dream of becoming “quality”. We presume the marriage is never consummated, and for that matter, it’s not clear that Alan is pervious to female charms, but that’s another line we shan’t pursue in this busy story.
Alan’s father is the upset but impotent Stephen Alderson (Philip Merrivale), and Stephen’s spinster sisters are Julia (Blanche Yurka) and Katherine (Edith Barrett). Yurka plays the evil Julia as if she’s channeling Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). Anderson was, at one time, mooted for the film, according to the American Film Institute website. Barrett played a similarly mousy sister in Charles Vidor’s exquisite and under-seen in Charles Vidors’ Ladies in Retirement (1941).
Lady for a Night continues with Jenny, after buying her way into society, throwing a big ball that would have been boycotted if not for behind-the-scenes machinations by Jackson. When one alderman declines to show up, Jackson states that he’s an ex-alderman as of tomorrow. This sequence is climaxed by a big production of the French can-can. Jenny has paid $2,500 and sent to New York for the dance troupe. Was this an act of self-sabotage? An attempt to throw something in the crowd’s faces? It doesn’t quite play like that, and everyone applauds because they follow Jackson’s “applaud-or-else” signal.
Lady for a Night‘s last act is a big murder trial that arrives out of the blue, and we’ll have more to say about it later. While all this is happening, an array of African-American characters and extras are presented to our attention from the first frames. These roles conform to the standard stereotypes of servants and poor but happy workers who speak in supposedly comical dialects and malapropisms. This is the element that makes Lady for a Night a challenge to modern sensitivities, and this is where the film becomes quietly radical, as I will argue.
You can see from the summary that the story presents itself as about class, specifically “the quality” vs. “trash” as the dialogue continually has it. The low-class and specious origins of the gambling and prostituting characters, who are allegedly offensive to polite society, signal the characters we’re expected to identify with and root for. The script’s strategy for this is continually to validate these “trashy” white characters via the approval and association with the black characters.
Lady for a Night‘s opening scene has more black extras and bit parts than any film of its era that wasn’t all-black. These are largely members of the Hall Johnson Choir and will recur throughout the film, especially in the scene where they perform “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel“. Although that song sequence has them in raggedy duds amid stereotyped cutting-up, the point of the scene is that they’re having a better time than the dignified “quality folks” with whom they’re contrasted.
Returning to the opening sequence, the first person speaking onscreen is Leigh Whipper as a “conjure man” called Joe Cupid. He’s talking about giving your spouse a love potion, which very cleverly foreshadows the charge of poisoning that will end the story. Whipper was distinctive and memorable in Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men (1939) as possibly the only angry black man in any 1930s Hollywood film. I can’t believe his casting in Lady for a Night was accidental.
Although we don’t know who she is or how she relates to the other characters, we’re also introduced to Chloe, played by someone named Hattie Noel – not Hattie McDaniel, but clearly imitating her, except being even more sassy and feisty. In one scene, Chloe literally breaks down a (white) door that refuses her entry. Put that in your stereotype.
In this opening scene, Chloe gets into an argument with Napoleon (Lew Payton), the black driver of the local decayed aristocrats who live literally in The Shadows – the name of their estate. That name indicates their low fortunes and an implied and suppressed merging of black and white, or do I read too much into it? Napoleon tells Chloe that he’s “quality folks” and she’s “poor trash”, and she argues angrily that she’s got as much money as anyone and as much right to be on the street. This argument goes on longer than we’d expect if it were mere comic relief; in retrospect, Chloe is the first character to articulate what Blondell and Wayne’s characters will say about “quality folks” and “real people”.
Then the whole black cast, in loud Sunday go-to-meeting clothes with checked jackets and such attire, gets packed into the rowdy balcony of the theatre where the Queen of Memphis’ Mardi Gras celebration will be announced. Nobody says it, but we understand they’re not allowed anywhere in the theatre except the balcony. Lady for a Night quietly acknowledges the contemporary Jim Crow South, a subject taboo to the Production Code and general Hollywood, which was always afraid of upsetting the Southern market.
A moment earlier, two white prostitutes named Flo and Mabel were in the middle of a joke about “how’s tricks” when they got turned away at the main door and directed by the doorman to the “balcony entrance”. “All right, Joe,” says one who knows him, “but just you wait till you ask me to put it on the cuff again. Just you wait!” Her friend makes a crack about gambling, and we’ll learn they work on the local gambling ship, the Memphis Belle. This is our first hint that prostitutes and those of the socially untouchable demi-monde are associated with African Americans. Lady for a Night will keep using one as short-hand for the other.
When the masked Mardi Gras Queen and primary vote-getter is revealed as Jenny, the “jezebel” who owns the Memphis Belle, all the white “quality folks” are shocked while Chloe leads the black applause for “my Jenny!” Jenny tells off the crowd, and everyone leaves in a huff, this social event spoiled by the invidious upstart qualities of money. In other words, Jenny is coded as not only on “the wrong side of the tracks” regarding class, but she’s also aligned with African Americans visually and thematically. Is Lady for a Night very, very subtly implying a mixed-race origin for Jenny, in keeping with the Edna Ferber novel Showboat and its famous 1934 film version? That’s the most famous gambling-boat story of the era.
If you think I’m crazy to suggest it, I direct your attention to Sam Wood’s 1945 film of another Ferber novel, Saratoga Trunk, which never hints aloud that Ingrid Bergman’s character is of mixed race because that would have been against the Production Code and gotten the film banned in the South. Most especially, it would have been banned in Memphis, whose primary censor, Lloyd Binford, was a particular bane of Hollywood. He was notorious for demanding cuts of African-American characters and themes before a film could play in Memphis, and he was always faulting Hollywood for trying to sneak anti-segregationist propaganda into movies.
Lady for a Night keeps making the point that white society, including the mayor and governor, is in the pocket of Jenny’s partner, Jackson. He blackmails them into attending Jenny’s ball, and he’s also the one who counts the votes and announces Jenny as the Mardi Gras Queen in the opening sequence. His power as the local political wheeler-dealer is established in that scene, and that was the film’s first whiff of money’s corruption and cronyism being used to subvert the expectations of the “quality” folks.
Many studio-era Hollywood films adopt a populism that valorizes the “common people” and their simple tastes over the pretensions and hypocrisies of the moneyed classes. The moneyed classes are something to break into, but those who do the breaking must be prepared for snobbery and resistance to the nouveau riche. Those who worked in Hollywood were perfect examples of nouveau riche upstarts, and they knew on which side of the hoity-toity their bread was buttered.
I have already wondered whether Jenny was self-sabotaging when she spent $2,500 for the can-can. While the “quality” views the display stiffly, except for the woman who keeps fainting, Chloe loves it so much that she begins dancing and encourages Napoleon to “break down” his dignity and “get unreliable”. I perceive a political dimension in her message. This is one of those musical sequences in Hollywood movies about entertaining ticket buyers. Lady for a Night aligns its entertainment values and audience’s with vulgarity and sexiness. The shocked reactions of the upper crust are presented as old-fashioned, hypocritical, and worthy of mockery, while Chloe validates and expresses the film’s own opinion.
Finally, when Jenny’s on trial for murder, she makes another speech to the crowd that echoes her Mardi Gras Queen speech. But this time, her speech is much harsher, and again, she’s applauded by Chloe, who cues and echoes what’s presumably the theatre audience’s response. Jenny addresses the “quality” with the following tirade, and I submit that these are genuinely shocking words in the context of 1942:
I wanted to be like you. I didn’t see the meanness, the cruelty, the jealousy. I heard laughter but I didn’t know how empty it was. I wanted to get away from the Flo’s and Mabels and Jackson Morgans because they were like myself, trash. I know now I left real people, warm people, for trash. [gasps in crowd] Yes, trash that sits around hating, sits around waiting for slavery to come back, for cotton to come back, for the ghosts of their sons to come back. Zombies, the living dead who haven’t the decency to lie down and stay buried!
Once again, Chloe validates Jenny, jumping to her feet and shouting through tears, “That’s it, honey! Give it to ’em!” I can’t help wondering how Binford reacted to this speech directed at the quality of Memphis. Research hasn’t yet informed me.
How have Jenny’s personal class resentments suddenly manifested as a critique centered on the legacy of slavery and the Civil War? These have been unspoken elements in the atmosphere, and if the black characters have been used to validate Jenny’s social aspirations, here’s the moment when she repays the favor by saying what a black character wouldn’t be allowed to say.
That reference to zombies is interesting (at least for the paradox of calling white people zombies) and possibly anachronistic. I don’t know if people in 1870s Memphis knew much about zombies, but the 1940s audience did. For example, one year after Lady for a Night was released, Barrett co-stared in I Walked with a Zombie for producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur.
More relevantly, the zombie reference harks back to Chloe’s “voodoo babbling” scene in a different tongue. “Voodoo tells me that we belongs to the levy, and let’s get back there while there’s still tide enough to take us,” she tells Jenny. And this, in turn, harks back to the conjure man, who shows up two or three times. Once you look for it and look past conventional ideas about stereotypes, you can see that certain elements are used consistently to imply alternative sources of knowledge. Lady for a Night’s screenplay respects this perspective instead of trashing it. Chloe is consistently the smartest and most assertive character outside of Jackson and the most direct and unpretentious. She gets away with these qualities because she’s “comic relief”.
The screenplay of Lady for a Night is credited to the married team of Isabel Dawn and Boyce DeGaw from a story by short story writer, playwright and Hollywood screenwriter Garrett Fort. Fort is best known for contributing to landmark horror movies of the early 1930s. By this time, not long before his death, he was heavily inspired by the Sufi-influenced mysticism of Indian guru Meher Baba. He’d attempted to collaborate on a screenplay about Baba with Mercedes da Acosta, who’s primarily famous for being a lesbian. You can’t invent this stuff. I cannot help wondering if Fort or Dawn and DeGaw were attempting, on some level, to stick one in the eye of the Southern censors.
As for director Leigh Jason, he was very active in B pictures without distinguishing himself. This was his third film in a row starring Blondell. He’d worked twice with Barbara Stanwyck in The Bride Walks Out (1936) and The Mad Miss Manton (1938). I also commend his wacky comedy Out of the Blue (1947).
Just as fascinating trivia, Wikipedia claims that the famous B-17 Bomber known as the Memphis Belle was named after the gambling boat in this movie!
Over the years, Lady for a Night has probably been seen most by John Wayne fans, and I doubt they were happy to see him as second fiddle in a stuffed shirt to Blondell. He’s hardly in the film, and perhaps that’s also prevented more people from seeing it on its own terms. If you’re prepared for stereotypes in a post-Civil War Southern setting, give it a spin and see how it constructs its message to the “quality” from the “trash”. At least some of it may surprise you.