In the opening scene of Hugo Haas’ overwrought 1959 melodrama Night of the Quarter Moon (a.k.a. Flesh and Flame), Julie London looks just like Bette Davis in King Vidor’s Beyond the Forest. All London needed was a peasant blouse and a cigarette, and she’d be Rosa Moline.
That’s not the only thing that struck me as curious during the film’s first few minutes. London, for instance, has no dialogue while her property is being ransacked and her windows are being smashed by a couple of rowdy neighbor boys. No screaming, no protests. But why are they on the attack? That question is answered by the flashback.
John Drew Barrymore plays a rich white boy, Roderic ‘Chuck’ Nelson, who falls in love with London’s Ginny when he sees her swimming nude during a visit to Mexico. Ginny, however, has a big secret to tell: she is a quadroon, i.e., one quarter black. (That accounts for the “Quarter Moon” in the title.) The trouble begins when Barrymore marries her and takes her home to meet his wealthy family in San Francisco.
Barrymore – who looks awfully good in tight swimming trunks – does a convincing job of portraying the shell-shocked (World War II veteran) husband who confronts racism and bigotry not only from the Community but from within his own kin. When he is arrested for defending his wife against the neighbors’ assault, the police inquest and the behavior of his own mother (Agnes Moorehead) cause him to suffer a recurrence of post-traumatic shock syndrome. Following his breakdown, his family confines him to their mansion and prevents his quadroon from seeing him.
Ginny’s cousin is played by Anna Kashfi, whose husband, Nat King Cole, doles out rational advice on how to get Barrymore away from his evil family influence. (In real life, Kashfi was about the become Marlon Brando’s ex-wife.) Meanwhile, Ginny finds herself being sued by her crazed husband’s family for tricking him into marrying a Negress. Miscegenation was such big news in those days that the case knocks the Cold War right off the front-page headlines.
In the courtroom, the question comes down to how Ginny can prove that Chuck knew she was part black before they were married. The solution is simple. The judge (Robert Warwick) is told that Ginny’s husband had seen her swimming naked, and then the accused (partially) disrobes in front of the judge to show that she is the same color all over. That moment alone is enough to turn Night of the Quarter Moon into a camp classic.
Despite the exploitative subject matter, Night of the Quarter Moon is capably directed by Hugo Haas, who was no stranger to lurid themes. (One Girl’s Confession, Thy Neighbor’s Wife, and Born to Be Loved are a few of his other films.) Personally, I was intrigued by the way Haas and co-screenwriters Franklin Coen and Frank Davis tried to shock late-1950s audiences, though today Night of the Quarter Moon is nothing more than a camp fest. But an enjoyable one at that.
© Danny Fortune.
Night of the Quarter Moon / Flesh and Flame (1959). Dir.: Hugo Haas. Scr.: Frank Davis and Franklin Coen. Cast: John Drew Barrymore, Julie London, Anna Kashfi, Dean Jones, Agnes Moorehead, Nat King Cole, Jackie Coogan, Charles Chaplin Jr., Cathy Crosby, Billy Daniels, Ray Anthony, Edward Andrews, Arthur Shields, Robert Warwick.