One Exciting Night, 1922

Director: D.W. Griffith
"Around this house a terrible mystery, that one might say rules the world - the mystery of FEAR. Fear that is nothing, and yet every man trembles at this invisible thing from the cradle to the grave..."
A storm is brewing at the Fairfax mansion which bodes ill for the assembled party guests. While young John Fairfax pursues his romantic ideal, others pursue the half-million dollars in bootlegger's bounty hidden behind a secret panel. In this comedy thriller by D.W. Griffith, sinister figures stalk the halls, and not everyone will live until morning....

Returning to his ancestral home after several years abroad, John Fairfax attends a garden party with his aunt, where he falls for a girl named Agnes Harrington. He hastily invites Agnes and her family to a party at the Fairfax estate, not knowing that a bootlegger named Clary Johnson has been running his operation from there during John's absence. After hiding half a million dollars in a trunk, Johnson is shot dead on the premises by a mysterious partner-in-crime.

The following night, the guests gather at the Fairfax estate. John's hopes for romance with Agnes are hindered by her suitor, the wealthy J Wilson Rockmayne. Agnes' mother, in dire straits financially, has given Rockmayne her blessing in return for his silence over a potentially ruinous scandal. Agnes has only agreed to the union in the hope that she will win from her mother the love that she desperately craves.

A face at the window. Could this be the killer?
As the night progresses, a new servant, Samuel Jones, keeps an inscrutable eye on Mrs Harrington... a 'neighbour' who knew John's late father arrives and takes a morbid interest in last night's murder... a sinister masked figure prowls the estate... kitchen help Romeo Washington's cowardice is overcome by the charms of the maid. While detectives search for clues to the Johnson's killer and the whereabouts of the hidden loot, another victim is stabbed to death. The order is given: "Watch the front and back doors! If anyone tries to get in or out, shoot! And shoot to KILL!" 

Suspicion for the murders falls on John Fairfax. But can the detectives be trusted, or are they out to get the bootlegger's loot for themselves? Meanwhile, outside a terrible storm is brewing...

Much of what passed for 'horror' in the American cinema of the 1920's was patterned after the template forged by Broadway mystery plays such as Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood's 'The Bat' or John Willard's 'The Cat and the Canary'. Although it had precedents - notably Cecil B. DeMille's The Ghost Breaker of 1914 - D.W. Griffith's One Exciting Night was effectively the film that marked the cinematic birth of the 'old dark house' comedy-thriller sub-genre. Unfortunately, it had far less significance for Griffith, whose career was already in a financial and artistic decline.

One Exciting Night is a financial horror story. The fundamental inspiration for the film was economical -- Griffith's recent Orphans of the Storm (1921) had performed well at the box office, but United Artists, which he'd co-founded three years earlier, couldn't produce enough films to compete financially with the major studios. Looking for a means of turning a quick profit, he recognised in the Broadway thrillers a lucrative trend that could be translated to celluloid on a modest budget. When the film rights for 'The Bat' proved too expensive, Griffith wrote his own treatment on the same theme which was initially titled 'The Haunted Grande'.

Griffith cast his current muse and mistress Carol Dempster in the lead role. Despite his best efforts to mould her into a star, she faced indifference from the public (who saw her as a second-rate clone of Lillian Gish) and occasional hostility from her co-workers (who just saw her as an irritation). As the rakish young Fairfax, he recruited fellow Kentuckian Henry Hull, fresh from playing the lead in 'The Cat and the Canary' at the National Theatre. Cast and crew encamped at Griffith's Mamaroneck studio in Long Island, situated, incidentally, on a tract of land which had formerly enjoyed the nickname "Satan's Toe".

Henry Hull at the mercy of the hurricane
What finally emerged was sadly a bit of a mess. Dempster had complained, possibly out of self-interest, that the film lacked a dramatic climax. Griffith responded by conjuring up a hurricane. Claims that genuine hurricane footage was incorporated into the narrative were only partly true; most of what we see was engineered by the director. Cast and crew were regrouped and every floodlight and wind machine he could find were mustered for a sequence which doubled the film's initial budget to - ironically - about half a million dollars. Where was that bootlegger's swag when he needed it?

One Exciting Night premiered in Rhode Island on October 2nd, 1922. A hyperbolic poem decorated the pressbook: "I CAN THRILL YOU! ... I can make you sleep / I can make you dream / I can make you shudder / I can make you scream / I am ONE EXCITING NIGHT!". The critics, while not quite that enthusiastic, were generally kind. Griffith himself was uncharacteristically modest about the film, and was quoted as saying "we shall feel amply rewarded if it serves to make you forget your own little troubles for at least a few minutes". This from a director who just a few months before had seriously considered as his next project a series of eight or ten feature films outlining the history of the world.

Perhaps he'd spoken to his accountant. In his book 'D.W. Griffith: An American Life', Richard Schickel writes that One Exciting Night's final budget, including promotional costs, could have been as high as $984,000. To put that figure in perspective, he goes on to explain that one of the majors could have produced a similar picture for $200,000 at most. He adds; "instead of generating a quick half-million in profits, [it] generated a quick half-million in defecits".

Lobby card with Carol Dempster and C.H. Crocker-King
Today's audiences might find the film difficult to swallow. It's far too long at eleven reels, and tends to meander somewhat. Griffith betrays an unfamiliarity with the thriller genre by over-explaining everything that happens, telegraphing most of the plot twists as he goes. And many critics have rightly taken issue with the film's appalling racism. An intertitle reading "We'll make sure that nigger gets his share", seems less shocking after we've already seen Porter Strong (one of several white actors in blackface) grinning and eye-rolling his way through several unfunny routines as the stereotypically cowardly and dishonest negro servant Romeo.

On the plus side, Dempster is appealing as an atypically modern Griffith heroine. Sylvia Cushman of the Boston Telegram singled her out for praise, calling the picture "a great tribute to the New Woman ...the type that develops the body and the mind ...imitating and equalling the man". Henry Hull, later to fall prey to Warner Oland's lycanthropic bite as Dr Glendon in Werewolf of London (1935), brings a youthful energy to his role that belies his 32 years. And if you can stick around for it, the climatic storm scenes still generate some of the excitement that the film's title promises.

It's just a bit of a long night, is all.

(Some information taken from 'D.W. Griffith: An American Life' by Richard Schickel and 'The Films of D.W. Griffith' by Scott Simmon.)

End Credits:
Carol Dempster (Agnes Harrington), Henry Hull (John Fairfax), Porter Strong (Romeo Washington), Morgan Wallace (J. Wilson Rockmayne), C.H. Crocker-King (Neighbour), Margaret Dale (Mrs Harrington), Frank Sheridan (Detective), Frank Wunderlee (Samuel Jones), Irma Harrison (Coloured Maid), Percy Carr (Parker, the Butler), Charles B. Mack (A Guest), Grace Griswold (Aunt Fairfax), Herbert Sutch (Clary Johnson).
Screenplay: Irene Sinclair [D.W. Griffith], Photography: Hendrik Sartov, Asst. Photographer: Irving B. Ruby, Art Director: Charles M. Kirk, Special Effects: Edward Scholl, Original Music Score: Albert Pesce.
United Artists, USA
Running time 144 mins

Not available on DVD except through Ebay dealers. Track down the 1997 VHS copy if you can.

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