The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) showed “Midnight Madness,” a film from 1928, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on Friday, May 30, 2014. Rather than being a film about nightlife in the big city, most of the action takes place at a cabin in the wilds of South Africa. It’s a place where midnight becomes ominous because of the presence of prowling, man-eating lions. The cabin becomes also a place of treachery because of the double-dealing of the principals, each trying to obtain something by devious means.
Jacqueline Logan plays Norma Forbes, a secretary to diamond broker Childers (Walter McGrail), who she wants to marry. Although Childers flirts with her, he has no intention of marriage. When wealthy South African diamond miner Michael Bream (Clive Brook) arrives at Childers’ office, he asks Norma for a dinner date. Norma declines but when she explains things to Childers, her boss manages to convince her to go on the date. Childers’ devious reason: He wants to know the location of Bream’s diamond mine so he can start a dig close to it. Bream doesn’t tell Norma the location on their date, but instead asks her to marry him at midnight. That explains the title of the film, but not the plot.
Norma doesn’t love Bream, but wants to help spend some of his money. At the cabin, however, their life together proves to be the opposite of luxurious. The land is dusty, bug-ridden and full of man-eating lions. Bream keeps hoping Norma will learn to love him, but things end up getting a lot worse when Childers shows up to dig for diamonds too.
The film reminds me of a couple of other films I’ve seen at the SFSSF, including “The Canadian (1926),” directed by William Beaudine, and “The Wind (1928),” directed by Victor Sjöström. In this plot, the woman is completely out of her normal environment and must deal with a brutish husband or other uncooperative family members. Clara Bow even provides us with a comic version of this plot in “Mantrap (1926), directed by Victor Fleming. The closed quarters of the cabin help provide the sexual tension, and the woman slowly loses her mind as an unhappy captive.
Researchers found the film in 1910 at the New Zealand Film Archive. The DeMille Pictures Corporation produced the film, and F. Harmon Weight directed it. Logan, as Norma, does all the real acting in the film. Brook’s portrayal of Bream seems about right for a diamond minor; he’s all business. McGrail gives a standard portrayal of the caddish type in Childers, but he’s offscreen much of the time. Steven Horne played several instruments while providing a score to this 61 minute diversion on a Friday afternoon.