Loud, broad, and likeable-enough B comedy mystery. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released One Wild Night, the 1938 Fox programmer directed by Eugene Forde, and starring June Lang, Dick Baldwin, Lyle Talbot, J. Edward Bromberg, Sidney Toler, Andrew Tombes, and William Demarest. Executed with accomplished dispatch, One Wild Night's silly, energetic tone and reasonably humorous plot smoothes over a bothersome lead turn by Baldwin, making for a fun, unassuming little B for fans of the form. No extras for this rather nice-looking fullscreen black and white transfer.
Stockton, Ohio, 1938. The Mayor (Harlan Briggs), running for re-election on the platform, "We Have No Crime in Stockton," is at his wits' end with hot-headed Police Chief William Nolan (Andrew Tombes), who has been helpless in the face of recent kidnappings of three prominent citizens. The town's banker, Mr. Norman (J. Edward Bromberg), is also demanding that something be done, before another one of his rich clients is snatched. Enter the unwanted "help" of amateur criminologist--just one semester of it at college--Jimmy Nolan (Dick Baldwin), the son of Chief Nolan. Jimmy, aware of the crime wave in Stockton, is heading home on the train when he meets pretty Gale Gibson (June Lang), a Stockton society page news reporter anxious to break the kidnapping story. Misquoting enthusiastic Jimmy's concerns about his father's way of (not) solving the crime, Gale gets her big (incorrect) scoop, and Jimmy gets thrown out of his father's office...until they all learn that Gale has discovered one of the marked ransom bills--at Norman's bank. The ten spot is traced back to Stockton's smooth, assured bookmaker, Singer Martin (Lyle Talbot), so for the next 24 hours, Jimmy and Gale race back and forth, trying to solve the case--that is: when Gale hasn't been fired for the umpteenth time by her irascible boss, Collins (William Demarest)--with the help of Chief Nolan's shaky, smart-assed detective, Lawton (Sidney Toler).
Written by Charles Belden (Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo, Tear Gas Squad) and Jerry Cady (The Purple Heart, Thunder in the Valley, Call Northside 777), and directed by Fox's B unit whiz Eugene Forde (Step Lively, Jeeves!, Dressed to Kill, Berlin Correspondent), One Wild Night starts off the way a zippy B should start out--a frantic car chase opens the story, with the subsequent fast pace not letting up over the movie's 72 minute run time. I didn't go into the relatively obscure One Wild Night expecting either The Three Stooges or Noel Coward, but I was pleasantly surprised by the movie's coarse enthusiasm, as well as the healthy number of amusing throwaway gags from Cady and Belden. Their mystery framework, such as it is, is moderately involving, particularly the final twist revelation...even though the opening sequence, if you're paying attention, pretty much clues you into the fact that the kidnappings aren't real (SPOILER ALERT! the movie's best joke is the reason the "victims" took off in the first place: the cowardly "big wheels" wanted to get away from their bossy wives). Certainly the movie's weak link is the amateur criminologist angle, which should have been a perfectly fine addition to the farcical construct, particularly when played off pretty June Lang's peppy, spunky girl reporter (she's rather charming here--too bad her career never went anywhere).
However, Dick Baldwin's Jimmy Nolan is a truly off-putting creation, alternately gee-whizzing around with forced good cheer, or unattractively barking and yelling at everyone, his chin jutting out to unintentional amusement, in what I can only assume is a misguided attempt at boyish American get-up-and-go-ism (no wonder he was only known for being married to Andy Hardy's sister, Cecilia Parker). Luckily, the one-liners and throwaways distract from this irritant, particularly when delivered by soon-to-be-iconic Sidney "Charlie Chan" Toler (he secures most of the movie's laughs--watch his face when he sees that the horse he forgot to bet on came in at 400-to-1). Keeping a steady eye on the movie's bouncy tempo, director Forde delivers a succession of competent screwball scenes, aided by the game players (Talbot is super-smooth, as usual...and far too good for the material) and made glossy by the rather plush set decoration Fox scrounges up. The gradually frenzied comedic mayhem at the bank, when the stolen notes are discovered, is expertly built by Forde; Lang's escape from the suspicious, slang-slinging farmers ("Don't reach for your rod!" old Mother Hubbard warns an incredulous Lang) is hilarious as she leaves behind a trail of humorous, old-timey family photographs for everyone to follow, while Forde's "haunted house" finale, complete with disembodied hands groping at people in the darkness, is beautifully lit by cinematographer Harry Davis. You probably won't remember much about the inconsequential, light One Wild Night a day or two after watching it...but while you do watch it...you'll enjoy it.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.