Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "The Unholy Night," or Regi-Mental

There are awkward talkies, and then there are awkward talkies directed by Lionel Barrymore. As an actor he had an appetite for scenery, and as the director of the 1929 film "The Unholy Night" he gives his cast free rein to exaggeratedly express themselves all over the place.

This tendency is especially awkward when it comes to our star, Roland Young. His film career would be based largely on one characterization -- the dry-but-witty Englishman. But here, as a Lord who's targeted for death, he has to pop his eyes, wring his hands and largely waste his talent for underplaying.

We are in London, where fog has blanketed the city for days. You can't even see your hand in front of your face, much less someone else's hands around your neck! Yes, someone is strangling the great men of London, and Lord Montague (Young), aka Monty, has narrowly escaped becoming the newest victim. He slips into Scotland Yard and has a nice leisurely chat with the inspectors about what has happened. He also downs several brandy and sodas, leading him to make this observation:

"Being dead must be like living in America -- it's a dry state."

Get it? Prohibition?

I know you're out there, I can hear you breathing.

Monty finds, to his overdone dismay, that the other victims of the strangler terrorizing the city are all his regimental Army buddies (Regiment motto: We put the fun in World War One!). Stout fellow that he is, Monty offers to invite all the remaining officers to his palatial home and explain the danger that they're in.

And sure enough, by the power of Roland Young's sideburns, they gather!

Also in the house are Lord John's sister, the seance-loving Lady Violet (Natalie Moorehead) and her fiancee, a physician (Ernest Torrence). And then we are visiting by Lady Efra (Dorothy Sebastian), whose late father was also a member of the regiment, and her suspicious guardian, Abdoul (Boris Karloff). More murders then take place, and the murderer is somewhere in the house!      

Uncovering the bad guy requires a fake seance and a few other dramatic revelations that the actors react to as follows:



(See above.)

The story for "The Unholy Night" is credited to Ben Hecht. Considering that he did much better work later, we'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that his three other co-writers stripped all of Hecht's wit and cleverness out of this script.

Here are the complete credits for "The Unholy Night."

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