Wednesday, December 28, 2011
ONE QUIET NIGHT (1931)
PLOT: Mr. Bates (Walter Catlett) has a case of the hiccups that would make a jackhammer feel inadequate. His condition is so bad that doctors fear it could be fatal! To make matters worse, he isn’t quite fond of Jimmy (Richard Malaby), the man who wants to marry his daughter Helen (Dorothy Granger) – the very mention of the prospect gets him hiccupping all over again! The latest remedy: doctors prescribe that Walter be taken to a house in the country for “absolute quiet.” The house is of course a spooky old place described by the doctor as being as quiet as “a tomb.” But did someone remember to tell the noisy ghosts that?!
REVIEW: This one-reeler for Educational Pictures features Walter Catlett, who is best remembered as a comedic character actor who added spice and accent to several classic musical and comedy features of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.
The set-up is compact and to the point, with Walter’s daughter Helen and her boyfriend Jimmy in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, awaiting the prognosis for Walter’s case of “near fatal” hiccups. In the brief opening, we learn of Walter’s condition, the fact that it was brought on and is exacerbated by Jimmy’s frequent attempts to ask Walter for his daughter’s hand in marriage, and the doctor’s prescription of rest at a “quiet” country home.
When the doctor, Walter, Helen and the driver, Chester arrive the house is completely dark. When the light switch is flipped a spooky white owl squawks and flies off (perhaps a predecessor of Harry Potter’s Hedwig?). Chester lets slip that he’s afraid to go upstairs which leads the doctor to confess that the house is allegedly haunted. The doctor leaves but not before instructing Walter to remember to take his medicine and avoid getting angry. And not before cackling menacingly on his way out!
As Walter sleeps his snores alternate with hiccups. Chester sleeps in the same room; right next to a window and when the wind causes the window shade to snap up both men are startled. As Chester rises, he casts an ominous shadow in Catlett’s direction.
After a brief exchange between the two, the sheet on Walter’s bed flies straight up into the air! He runs into the hallway where he sees a candle headed his way! After a momentary scare he realizes it’s his daughter, awoken by the commotion. She asks if her dad if he heard a scream and just then maniacal laughter is heard! As Walter turns he notices the eyes of painted portrait on the wall are darting about. His daughter runs off in fear and when Walter turns again he notices someone holding a much larger candle – a scary man with a top hat who looks a bit like Mr. Hyde!
This leads to a series of blackout gags where we go back and forth between Walter, Chester and Helen being scared. Chester is still dealing with the disembodied sheet in the other bedroom and prays to his “mammy” for help! The Mr. Hyde creature continues to menace Walter and Helen to the point where Helen faints. A scary arm with long, sharp fingernails reaches through the wall and strokes Chester’s face. Walter steps on a bearskin rug and is verbally chided by the bear for doing so! This is followed by Chester accidentally stepping on a lion-skin rug who threatens to bite his leg off if he doesn’t step off! A stuffed toucan then queries, “can’t a guy get some sleep around here!”
These gags culminate in the first big twist: as a ghostly figure with a hideous face heads down the stairs toward Walter and Helen, it trips down the steps and the headpiece falls off, revealing Jimmy underneath! Of course he tells Walter that he only did it to cure his hiccups since “the only cure is a bad scare!” Realizing his hiccups are gone, Walter changes his tune and thanks Jimmy, then asks him how he ever got the animals to talk.
“Animals, what animals,” asks Jimmy. “He means us!” exclaims the bear as the trio try to run out the door. Unfortunately it’s locked, but the helpful lion offers, “The key is on the table!”
This is followed by a second twist, as the trio is accosted by the Mr. Hyde monster and a couple of ghosts on their way out. It’s the doctor and his helpers. “That last scare ought to make the cure permanent – I don’t think he’ll suffer from hiccoughs from now on!”
Maybe not. Now that Jimmy is in Walter’s good graces, he once again asks Walter if he can marry his daughter. This starts the hiccough fit all over again – but this time it spreads to Jimmy and Helen, too!
In a fast-paced ten minutes (this was a one-reeler), this short manages to pull out nearly all the trappings of a typical “old dark house” scare comedy: the old house itself with its ornate furnishings and foreboding dark shadows, the scared servant (in this case, the driver), sounds and voices out of nowhere, things (like window shades and sheets) that move on their own, the portrait with moving eyes, scary monster and ghost figures, etc. It’s all stock material – nothing really new or original here, including the “scares as a cure for hiccups” premise that appears in countless live-action and animated comedies – but it’s elevated a notch by the performers who all sell the laughs and scares with great gusto and enthusiasm.
Of course the center of the action is the short’s star Walter Catlett, who is perfect here as his typical excitable, put-upon character. An ex-vaudevillian, Catlett had a lengthy career in both shorts and features for a variety of studios. Among the studios for which Catlett made comedy shorts were Sennett, Educational and Columbia (for which he would make a two-reel horror-comedy called “You’re Next” featuring Dudley Dickerson). In features, Catlett had the good fortune to appear in such classics as “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “A Tale of Two Cities.” On the classic comedy front, he appeared alongside such luminaries as Hugh Herbert, Abbott & Costello and Danny Kaye, and even had a part in Olsen & Johnson’s classic horror-comedy, “Ghost Catchers.” However, with all his many credits Catlett is undoubtedly most famously known by children around the world as the voice of “Honest” John Worthington Foulfellow, the conman fox from Disney’s classic animated feature, “Pinocchio.” Not only was Catlett offered an opportunity to play a brash and flamboyant comic villain in the role, but he also got to sing an enduring tune, “Hi Diddle-Dee-Dee.”
As for the rest of the cast, the beautiful Dorothy Granger (my all-time favorite classic comedy actress) displays her usual comic prowess in going toe-to-toe with comedic males (in a career spanning several decades she played opposite giants like Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields and The Three Stooges and enjoyed a recurring role as Leon Errol’s wife in his great shorts). The actor playing the doctor imbues the character with a very cavalier and cocky attitude that is both funny and alarming (would anyone really want a doctor who would go to such lengths to scare the wits out of them?). Chester, the driver is essayed by an African-American performer I don’t recognize. His role offers the usual conundrum: he’s relegated to a “scared servant” part but like fellow African-American comedic actors Mantan Moreland and Dudley Dickerson he is quite funny going through those motions.
On top of all the great acting, there is the surprising element of talking rugs and taxidermist dummies. The bearskin and lion skin rugs and stuffed toucan provide some of the biggest laugh-out-loud moments in the short. As classic horror-comedies go, “One Quiet Night” is worth watching for all of its fun elements, and being a one-reeler that plays at a swift clip it doesn’t give a viewer time to reflect upon how shopworn some of the gags and overall premise may be.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: This short only has three credited players – Catlett, Granger and someone named Richard Malaby. Catlett and Granger of course are known performers but I have no idea who Richard Malaby played – he only has one other acting credit to his name and I couldn’t find a photo of him. Since there are three other major parts in the film (the boyfriend, the doctor and the driver) it’s anyone’s guess who Malaby played. I’m guessing he’s the boyfriend but he could be the doctor. Or perhaps he’s the driver. Who knows?
Therefore, for this particular entry we’ll do “Spotted in the Credits” instead. Almost (more on that in a moment). This film was directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. For the general public who has heard of Arbuckle, most know him from the infamous scandal that brought his star down. What they may not know is that after three trials he was acquitted of the charge of accidentally causing Virginia Rappe’s death. The star, who mentored Chaplin and worked with Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton was once just as famous and beloved as those three giants of the silent screen. Fatty was given some opportunities after his acquittal to appear in sound shorts (including a couple co-starring Shemp Howard) as well as to direct shorts starring the likes of Al St. John, Lloyd Hamilton and Lupino Lane, among others. Just two years after directing “One Quiet Night” and also starring in a half dozen shorts for Vitaphone, Warner Brothers offered him a shot at a feature. It was never to be, as Fatty suffered a fatal heart attack the very same day the offer was made.
So, I mentioned above that this is an ALMOST “Spotted in the Credits.” Why? Because in original release prints of “One Quiet Night” the short’s direction is credited to William Goodrich. Despite Arbuckle’s acquittal, the scandal was just too fresh in the public’s mind for him to draw attention to himself, hence the alias (which often was shortened to just "Will B. Good" - as suggested by Buster Keaton). In later years when Arbuckle's post-scandal directorial efforts were re-released theatrically and to TV stations by other distributors, Arbuckle’s real name was restored to the credits in place of the pseudonym.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
For my money, the best dialogue comes from the bearskin rug, lion skin rug and stuffed toucan, but here are some of the memorable human exchanges as well:
JIMMY: Mr. Bates, can I marry your daughter?
CATLETT: No! HICCUP! A thousand HICCUP times no! Confound you HICCUP you’re the HICCUP fellow who HICCUP started this HICCUP hiccup mess!
CATLETT: It’s like a HICCUP tomb!
DOCTOR: Exactly what you need – absolute quiet!
DOCTOR: Driver, take Mr. Bates’ bags to his room.
CHESTER (THE DRIVER): Me go upstairs in this house? No sir, pos-i-tive-ly!
CATLETT: What did he mean?
DOCTOR: That’s a lot of nonsense, Mr. Bates. Some people think this house is haunted.
DOCTOR: They think there’s ghosts.
DOCTOR: Of course to us, that’s silly!
CHESTER: Do you mind if I leave all the doors open?
CHESTER: In case I wants to leave quick!
CATLETT: What are you puttering around about? Why don’t you go to sleep?
CHESTER: I just can’t sleep tonight. I reckon I got the in-so-amonia!
CATLETT: “In-so-amonia!” Chester, you certainly do murder the English language!
CHESTER: I hope that’s all that’s murdered down here tonight!!!
BEST VISUAL GAGS:
All the aforementioned scare gags and the actors’ reactions to same are very well done. Like the dialogue, the best visual also belongs to sight of the bearskin rug, stuffed toucan and lion skin rug as their mouths all move in a visually funny manner.
Rob King, an Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto wrote an essay about the comedy shorts of Educational Pictures for the magazine “Film History: an International Journal.” You can read about it and order a copy when you click here and here.