The title Midnight Madness might conjure images of frothy, sophisticated high comedy, but the Cecil B. DeMille production is part of a cycle of city-woman-in-the-wilderness films released in the late silent era. Of Paramount’s The Canadian (1926) and Mantrap (1926), DeMille Pictures’ White Gold (1927), MGM’s The Wind (1928), and Fox’s City Girl (1929/30), The Canadian may be the best of the cycle—Midnight Madness may well be its nadir. It is an entertaining if somewhat far-fetched melodrama that is typical of the fare 1920s moviegoers experienced when they went to their neighborhood theaters to see whatever happened to be on the bill that week.
By the time Midnight Madness premiered on March 25, 1928, DeMille Pictures—the independent studio established by producer-director Cecil B. DeMille in 1925 —was on its last legs, and talkies were fast pushing silents out of first-run theaters. Even though DeMille’s personal productions The Volga Boatman (1926) and The King of Kings (1927) were major hits, the expense of a large studio and staff as well as high star salaries proved too costly for the fledgling studio. Its bread-and-butter programmers, including Midnight Madness, were a nearly unbroken chain of box-office flops, 51 in all. DeMille Pictures soon came to an end, but DeMille’s career was far from over.
Cecil B. DeMille grew up in a theatrical family. His father, Henry C. deMille, and older brother, William C. deMille, were established Broadway playwrights. His mother, Beatrice Samuel deMille, became a successful play broker, or agent (deMille was the family name, but Cecil used a capital “D” in professional life). After his graduation from the American Academy of Dramatic Art in 1902, Cecil embarked on his own career in the theater. As an actor, producer, and writer he found only modest success, and, by 1913, the possibility of making a living in the theater seemed more elusive than ever. That year he decided to take a flyer in the picture business, joining forces with his friend, and sometime-collaborator, vaudeville producer Jesse Lasky and Lasky’s brother-in-law, Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn), to form the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company.
Over the next decade, no director in Hollywood could match Cecil B. DeMille’s box-office record. However, when he went heavily over budget on his 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount head Adolph Zukor sought to clip DeMille’s wings. Although The Ten Commandments proved to be one of the biggest grossers of the silent era, when it came time to renegotiate terms in 1925, Zukor deliberately dictated provisions unacceptable to DeMille and the director’s contract was not renewed.
Financier Jeremiah Milbank, who had recently acquired Producers Distributing Corporation, teamed up with DeMille to establish Cecil B. DeMille Pictures Inc. The filmmaker purchased the former Thomas H. Ince Studio in Culver City, California, and became responsible for a slate of modestly budgeted program pictures and bigger budget personal productions for DeMille to direct himself.
Financially strapped DeMille Pictures could not afford to shell out top dollar for story properties. The Lion Trap, the Daniel Nathan Rubin play on which Midnight Madness is said to be based, appears to have been unproduced when it was acquired by the studio. The film adaptation was first announced in May 1927 as a vehicle for Jetta Goudal. The former Broadway actress had been signed by DeMille with great fanfare in April 1925 after being dropped from the cast of the Rudolph Valentino vehicle A Sainted Devil. She subsequently sued Famous Players-Lasky for breach of contract, complaining she was fired because Valentino’s wife, Natacha Rambova, thought her performance as the “vamp” opposite “the sheik” was “too realistic.” No doubt Goudal’s problems with Famous Players-Lasky added to her attractiveness as a potential star for the still bitter DeMille. A syndicated United Press story on May 18, 1925, quoted the director as saying, “Jetta Goudal is a cocktail of emotions. She has color and a wide range of interpretive power. I am planning to use her in a series of parts that will exploit to the limit her splendid Gallic vivacity.”
Goudal’s “vivacity” may have been “splendid,” but it wasn’t Gallic. She claimed to have been born at Versailles, France, in 1901, but she first saw the light of day in Amsterdam on July 12, 1891, the daughter of a well-to-do Jewish diamond cutter. Although Goudal later costarred in The Road to Yesterday, DeMille’s first personal production for his company, and a half dozen of the studio’s program releases, the director soon came to regret his decision to promote the stormy actress to stardom. Stories began to circulate that Goudal had “walked off her sets innumerable times in fits of temperament” and as early as January 1927 newspapers carried rumors that Lya De Putti, another European refugee at Famous Players-Lasky, was to replace Goudal on the studio’s contract roster. By July 1927, Jacqueline Logan was chosen to assume the lead in Midnight Madness.
Logan had a modest ten-year film career as a leading lady but gained screen immortality as a scantily-clad Mary Magdalene in DeMille’s 1927 religious epic, The King of Kings, ordering her slaves, “Harness my Zebras—gift of the Nubian King!,” as she set out by chariot to tempt Judas from the influence of Jesus of Nazareth. Although The King of Kings was a major box-office hit and remains one of the few silent films to be widely screened to this day, it was not enough to save DeMille and Milbank’s short-lived studio.
Logan’s costar, the British-born Clive Brook, may take the stiff-upper-lip routine a bit too far in Midnight Madness, but he fit right in among a mystifying cadre of rather stolid middle-aged leading men in the silent and early sound eras that included actors like Elliott Dexter, Percy Marmont, Eugene O’Brien, and Milton Sills. He began his film career in Britain in 1920 and by mid-decade moved to Hollywood and became a major star opposite the likes of Clara Bow and Marlene Dietrich. He later returned to England, where his best known film was the comedy On Approval (1944), costarring Beatrice Lillie and Googie Withers. His final screen role was in John Huston’s The List of Adrian Messenger (1963).
F. Harmon Weight directed 16 feature films in the 1920s but seems to have spent much of his career as an uncredited second-unit director. Little is known about him, but he handles the action in Midnight Madness efficiently and keeps the story moving. The film barely recouped its production costs, and it was one of the last films produced by DeMille Pictures. In 1928, after Milbank’s enterprise merged with several other companies, DeMille sold his stock and signed a three-picture contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, ending his brief career as a studio head. MGM did not renew his contract, and, in 1931, DeMille returned to Paramount, where he spent the rest of his career flourishing as a producer-director.
Presented at SFSFF 2014 with live music by Stephen Horne