16 October 2018 | Cineanalyst
One Boring Film
The only thing exciting in "One Exciting Night," D.W. Griffith's slow go at the old dark house formula, is the climactic hurricane sequence. Everything else tends to be extremely dull, drawn out, convoluted, overly explained, exposition-heavy, repetitive and racist. Not only unexciting--it's excruciating, really--it doesn't take place in one night, either, although it should have... it so much should have. In fact, the narrative takes place within nearly two decades. In the complete version of the film, at least, it's over an hour in before it gets to the night in question (I viewed the Critic's Choice VHS from the '90s, which runs 124 minutes). Everything before that should've been cut; it's just unnecessary subplot and filler. I know this was early in the subgenre of old dark house horror comedies, but still, Griffith demonstrated no appreciation that these things are supposed to be light and fast paced. Instead, he indulged in his worst tendencies of excess as a filmmaker: plentiful and verbose title cards, leading the spectator ad nauseam through every plot point, including frequently replaying scenes, too many characters and melodramatic subplots, bland and simplistic appeals to grande themes (greed, love, life, death), African-American stereotypes portrayed by white actors in blackface and minstrel show antics.
There are five title cards before we even see an image with scenery or characters in the film. Furthermore, Griffith contradicts himself in them by calling this a "little effort" before going on, "In this absolute departure from all OLD METHODS of story telling we leave much to YOUR IMAGINATION besides the detection of who is the villain. Therefore it is well to watch closely the early scenes as they become important later on." None of that is true. This was a bloated effort, it is very much in the vein of old methods of storytelling, with Griffith's usual Victorian melodrama and the old dark house stuff being ripped off the popular stage play of the time, "The Bat" (later adapted to screen in 1926 and 1930 by Roland West), and Griffith's storytelling leaves very little to the imagination, including the obviousness of the villain's identity long before it's exposed, and Griffith repeats things over and over again, so there's no need to pay particularly close attention. The film is so bad, though, the best way to enjoy it may be to barely pay attention and use your imagination instead. Just make sure to tune back in near the end for the hurricane, where the repetition in the editorial form of temporal replays are acceptable--I'm OK with seeing Henry Hull hit by the same flying tree branch twice.
The story begins in Africa where a mother dies, leaving a fortune to her infant child, but the next-in-line heir schemes to have a woman pretend the child is hers, thus concealing the baby's identity so that he may inherit the fortune. Upon his death, however, he admits the fraud. And, for the next two or so hours, this plot will be ignored. Jump to the states years later, and Carol Dempster agrees to a blackmail scheme to marry an older man so that he doesn't rat out her thieving and abusive mother. Now, forget that plot, too, because it doesn't really matter, and it's only mentioned a couple times later, including with one of the many flashbacks, lest we forget. Dempster meets a younger man, the hero played by Hull, who had also played the similar part in the stage version of another old dark house horror comedy, "The Cat and the Canary" (adapted to the screen in 1927 and a few times after that). Hull has a spooky house, so, of course, he sets about throwing a party and hiring some African-American servants. That a bootlegger is murdered in the house and that he's a prime suspect doesn't deter him in these activities in the least. Only after another man is murdered, and he's once again a prime suspect, and after he discovers that the bootlegger hid half a million dollars in his home does the situation become tense. This is also when the old dark house formula finally kicks in.
And most of the subgenre's tropes are here in spades--at least the ones that also appear in "The Bat": secret passages and mysterious panels, hidden cash, nighttime shadows, hands reaching out from hidden corners to grab people, flickering lights, a storm, people running around scaring themselves silly, comic relief, a whodunit murder mystery and a masked villain. Unfortunately, most of the comic relief is debasing slapstick of an African-American stereotype named Romeo played by a white actor in blackface, portrayed as a dishonest (Griffith's title cards inform us that he found the war medal he passes off as having earned), running around scared and wide-eyed at the sight of almost everything. Meanwhile, another blackfaced character is referred to by two different racial slurs and as "primitive," and that's not even counting Griffith's title card informing us that, "It is well known that Black Sam is the dark terror of the bootleggers' band." In the end, all of the blackfaced caricatures, as well as the extras that include some actual African Americans, are portrayed as either servile, stupid or lazy.
Another title card, "Pictures -- white man's magic to be treasured," seems to sum up well what Griffith thought of his own filmmaking prowess. Yet, while he was one of the more innovative of pioneering directors at Biograph and into his features of the 1910s; in the 1920s, with one or two exceptions, his work is among the most detestable, as the quality of his pictures suffered from the financial changes in Hollywood and as he failed to keep abreast of advances in content, tone or technical matters, with his dated racial and Victorian ideals becoming ever more burdensome within inferior goods.