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In the pea-soup fog enshrouding London each evening, an unknown assailant is strangling the members of a World War I British military unit. When Lord Montague (Roland Young) is almost murdered by the killer one evening, Scotland Yard detective Sir James Ramsey (Claude Fleming) has the entire regiment gather in Montague's mansion in an effort to prompt a confession. While assembled, the beautiful daughter Lady Efra (Dorothy Sebastian) of one of the unit's fellow officers -- who died in disgrace -- sends along his lawyer to read his will. It bequeaths one million pounds to the members of the company, a gift meant to create division and greed in their already troubled ranks. The presence of the money and the beautiful girl and a possible murderer in their midst sets the stage for this drawing room thriller helmed by actor-turned-director Lionel Barrymore.
The Unholy Night (1929) takes place almost entirely in the confined space of wisecracking aristocrat Montague's spacious home, a claustrophobic staging that may partly account for the film's theatrical stodginess, often a problem in early talkies. It was declared 'an all-talker and a 100% lemon' by Variety upon its release.
The film was written by Ben Hecht (and originally titled The Green Ghost); it was only his second film credit after Underworld (1927). Hecht's initial ambition was to become a novelist, but his success writing for the theater and movies lured him to Hollywood. Hecht was a friend, not only of Lionel Barrymore, but of his younger brother John and sister Ethel.
Director Barrymore, whose career began to take off in the sound era, was considered an innovator in the early talkie genre, inventing (simultaneously, along with several other industry figures) an emancipating sound boom. Barrymore was also notable for not going overboard with the fresh novelty of sound with the kind of constant music and chatter that marred some productions, and instead allowed silence to also intrude in his films when necessary.
The Unholy Night was Boris Karloff's second talkie following 1929's Behind That Curtain. Barrymore had first cast Karloff as a sideshow mesmerist in 1926 in The Bells, Karloff's first film containing horror elements. Barrymore offered Karloff a slightly larger role as the Hindu servant Abdoul in The Unholy Night. But such small parts, performed well, were not the needed career-boost for Karloff. Already in his 40s, Karloff said he had stopped writing home because 'I had nothing to write about.' Nevertheless, Karloff enjoyed working with Barrymore and in the biography The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood, recalled that "In those days, it took several hours to light a set and Lionel would use this time to help me and other players improve our scenes...When I played my big scene, finding my dead wife, I realized Lionel had analyzed the scene inside out and given me hints that enhanced my own interpretation."
Despite an inability to break through with larger roles and film fame, Karloff was encouraged by a meeting with Lon Chaney after The Bells in which the actor told Karloff not to be discouraged and to stick with playing unusual roles. Karloff, who was generally cast in small parts as 'heavies' finally achieved his first starring role and film immortality when he appeared in James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) at age 44; the seventy-ninth of Karloff's 163 film roles.
Though born to a respectable middle-class British family and groomed for some respectable career as a civil servant, Karloff's name became forever tied to that influential movie monster with his characteristically Karloff mix of menace and vulnerability. After years and years of struggle, Karloff may have been one of the few actors, unlike Peter Lorre or Bela Lugosi, who welcomed his horror typecasting, and audiences, surprisingly, warmed to him too, detecting the kindly actor beneath monster make-up.
Also in The Unholy Night cast as the duplicitous Lady Efra was former showgirl Dorothy Sebastian, known as 'Slam' to her friends for her proclivity for merry drunkenness. Sebastian later went on to co-star with and become the mistress of Buster Keaton.
Director: Lionel Barrymore
Screenplay: Joseph Farnum, Dorothy Farnum, Ben Hecht (story), Edwin Justus Mayer, Jacques Feyder (play)
Cinematography: Ira H. Morgan
Film Editing: Grant Whytock
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: William Axt
Cast: Ernest Torrence (Dr. Ballou), Roland Young (Lord Montague), Dorothy Sebastian (Lady Efra Cavander), Natalie Moorhead (Lady Violet Montague), Sydney Jarvis (Jordan), Polly Moran (Polly), Sojin (Mystic), Boris Karloff (Abdoul).
by Felicia Feaster