Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees loved hearing Cary Grant croon Cole Porter tunes in this biopic.
Our review of Night and Day (2008), published February 13th, 2012, is also available.
Cary Grant's first Technicolor film is a lavish musical loosely based on the life of songwriting great Cole Porter. Enhanced by twenty Porter tunes, which are performed by a varied cast that includes Jane Wyman, Monty Woolley, Eve Arden, and stage legend Mary Martin, Night and Day hews to familiar 1940s movie formulas: tap shoes one moment, hankies the next.
Facts of the Case
Yale man Cole Porter (Grant) can't keep his mind on his law classes. Although his grandfather plans for him to become a lawyer and the eventual head of the household, young Cole just can't concentrate on anything but music. When he finally makes the decision to strike out on his own as a composer, even though his grandfather disapproves, at least he has one friend in his corner: hedonistic professor Monty Woolley (playing himself), whose own career at Yale is threatened by his propensity for appearing in nightclubs. Cheered on by spunky chorine Gracie (Jane Wyman, All That Heaven Allows) and inspired by the faith of lovely society lady Linda Lee (Alexis Smith, The Young Philadelphians), Cole and Monty drum up the funds to put on a show.
Of course, the road to success is rocky. The show flops, and Cole goes out to fight in World War I, where he is injured. But he crosses paths with Linda again when she nurses him in a military hospital, and she sees to it that he gets a piano on which to work. With Linda's love and encouragement, Cole summons up the will to return to composing. His success will mean more than a career now: It means he will be able to marry Linda and support her, since he refuses to live off her own money.
At first he keeps hearing the same thing: His work is too sophisticated, too clever. Audiences just don't get it. But talent like Cole's won't be kept down forever, and when he breaks through, boy, does he break through. Hit follows hit, and with Linda by his side, soon Cole is working almost nonstop. But now that his career is taking up all of his attention, his marriage takes a back seat. Linda, who once urged him to make his music a priority, now feels neglected. When she leaves alone for Europe, Cole is forced to wonder whether his career is worthwhile without a wife to share it with. Then a terrible accident occurs, and he must summon up the strength to deal with new setbacks alone.
Night and Day is the kind of glossy biopic that big studios seemed to adore in the '40s and '50s. True, it might bear little resemblance to the life of its subject (see The Rebuttal Witnesses), but as an excuse to pull out all the best bells and whistles the studio system had to offer—stars big and small, elaborate musical numbers, lavish sets and costumes—the formula had little equal. The biopic offered something Hollywood prized then as now: brand recognition, a familiar name that was almost guaranteed to bring audiences in. When that famous name was combined with comfortable story conventions of early struggles and eventual success, coupled with some brushes with tragedy to reassure the audience that even fame and wealth weren't everything, the studio had a product that was practically guaranteed to be a box-office success.
As an example of the genre, Night and Day is a handsomely packaged product. The director is none other than Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame. Cary Grant embodies all the sophistication and class we associate with the music of Cole Porter, and his pleasant voice lends a friendly touch to numbers like "You're the Top" and "Night and Day." The earnest tone of his role doesn't allow him to demonstrate the wit with which Porter is equally associated, however, which is a pity, especially considering Grant's flair for comedy. Nevertheless, he gets to show off his acting chops in some of the darker, more self-lacerating moments in the second half of the film, when the lighthearted boy wonder has to take stock of his life and find the courage with which to bear up to hardships. Opposite him, leading lady Alexis Smith is all porcelain elegance with little animation; she has dignity, but no real distinction.
Since the film casts Porter in a heroic mold and wife Linda as helpmeet-turned-martyr, it is up to the supporting characters to provide the comedy and zest. Fortunately, we have the priceless Monty Woolley (The Man Who Came to Dinner) in a prominently featured role to bring his inimitable mustardy zip to the action. A completely unique combination of teddy bear, cactus, and dry sherry, Woolley is one of the great character actors of Hollywood's golden age, and he's an asset to his every scene. His performance of "Miss Otis Regrets" is not to be missed. Another screen great, the lovely Jane Wyman, appears here in pert golddigger mode. Her musical numbers, particularly her slyly playful "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)," are highlights, and viewers who are used to seeing her suffer nobly in her '50s melodramas will be pleasantly surprised to see how perky a comedienne she could be—and how charming a singer. Other familiar faces include the always enjoyable Eve Arden (Our Miss Brooks), in an unlikely but amusing turn as a French chanteuse (she sings "I'm Unlucky at Gambling").
As with most movie musicals of the golden age, the rather hokey plot (which of course includes a "meet cute" for our stars) is little more than a clothesline on which the musical numbers hang, and the performances of Porter songs are interestingly varied. Some get the big treatment, with a full production number, dancing (staged by Le Roy Prinz), and an orchestra; my favorite among these is "Begin the Beguine," with its sultry tropical setting, sinuous dancers, and soulful male vocalist. Other numbers get a more intimate, casual treatment, which in some cases wears better. Some of the more fanciful interpretations strike me as a shade bizarre, such as the Eskimo setting for Mary Martin's performance of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and the regretful, ballad-like rendition of "I Get a Kick Out of You," but perhaps the musical director was trying to give a fresh spin to material that was, after all, very familiar to contemporary audiences. At any rate, we certainly can't complain of a lack of creativity. We even get a fictionalized peep into the process of writing "Night and Day," as Porter sits at the piano in the military hospital and gradually comes to work the rhythm of a ticking clock and dripping raindrops into the tune evolving in his mind.
I'd like to say that this transfer (presented in full frame in accordance with its original aspect ratio) lives up to the lavishness of the '40s sets and costumes, but even taking into account its advanced age, it's a little disappointing. There is a great deal of speckling and imperfection. Color and clarity are good but not great. Perhaps I've been spoiled by the recent breathtaking restorations of such Technicolor films as Singin' in the Rain, but I expected better. Audio is much better, very clear and free of hiss, and although it's regrettable that the filmmakers didn't have stereophonic sound to work with, the mono soundtrack is actually quite respectable.
Like the other recent Warner releases of Cary Grant pictures, Night and Day features a nice assortment of extras, even if their relevance to this particular film is negligible. The half-hour short "Musical Movieland" is a delightfully cheesy bit of Hollywood self-promotion filmed in what I believe is two-strip technicolor. The wafer-thin storyline features a singing tour guide who is showing a group of tourists around a movie studio, where they stop to watch a variety of musical numbers set in different locales—Holland, England, Native American territory, the Pacific Islands, a storybook land, and of course the classic Big White Set of countless Hollywood musicals. As an example of a kind of ephemera that is hard to find these days, it's a lot of fun, but the rewatchability quotient is probably pretty low. The 15-minute 1946 short about Desi Arnaz and his then-newly formed orchestra features their performances of several musical numbers, including Arnaz's signature song, "Babalu." Believe it or not, this is the less cheesy of the two musical extras, and the picture quality is quite respectable. For me the most enjoyable extra, however, is the Bugs Bunny cartoon "The Big Snooze," in which the wascally wabbit torments the sleeping Elmer Fudd by popping into his dreams and dressing him up in a green bustier gown. That alone gets big points from me. Getting back to Cole Porter, there's a handsome trailer gallery for films featuring Porter's music; the quality of the trailers is quite nice, and they are even offered in widescreen for CinemaScope movies.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I think I can hear a growing, discontented rumble from some of my readers. "This isn't the Cole Porter we know," you're saying. "What's this guff about romance? Everyone knows he was gay and his marriage was just a convenience." Why, now that you mention it, you're right—but you didn't expect a 1946 film to feature a gay hero, did you? Silly rabbit.
"That's all very well," you reply, "but where does this movie get off, claiming Porter fought in WWI and even got injured on the battlefield? He made up all those stories about joining the army and being in the fighting."
You're right again. Porter evidently got a kick out of the way Night and Day perpetuated his fiction about a heroic war record. But again, I remind you, this was 1946, and American audiences were probably still hankering for tales of valiant soldiers fighting the good fight for their country. Depicting the hero spending the war years in the comfort of a Parisian café wouldn't have had them cheering in the aisles, you know.
"So okay, you've got a point," you say. "But this movie makes it look like Porter refused everyone's financial support so he could work his way up on his own talent. The guy was spoiled rotten! His mother pulled all kinds of strings for him, and don't tell me he didn't have money in mind when he married."
Ahem. Are you seriously suggesting tampering with that beautiful old Hollywood institution, the self-made hero? Are you going to tell me that audiences wanted to watch a wealthy, privileged young man become a wealthy, successful middle-aged man without even suffering for his art? Now, really. Be sensible.
There, I thought you'd see it my way. I'm glad we could have this little talk.
If you're seeking a less idealized picture of Cole Porter, you may fare better with the new film De-Lovely. But if you want to sit back with a good old-fashioned movie musical featuring some of the best songs ever sung on screen, you'll enjoy Night and Day. Sure, it's fictionalized. It's formulaic. But it's a sweet, rose-colored valentine to a great talent, and in that respect it seems unkind to judge it too harshly.
Not guilty. Cary Grant will have to behave a lot worse than this to get convicted in my courtroom.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Looney Tunes Cartoon "The Big Snooze"
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