Maybe it is Hollywood’s stern approach to World War II in recent decades that makes looking at older, less didactic films more enjoyable. I think that’s what made Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful such a critical and commercial smash – it wasn’t just another dour Schindler’s List (great movie, by the way) about one of the 20th century’s most appalling episodes. What is interesting is how films from the 1940s portray the war, the Nazis, and issues of justice and duty. While Across the Pacific (1942) did not deal directly with the Japanese, 1941’s All Through the Night pits small-time Broadway gamblers against shadowy Gestapo agents.
Critically, it was made in the heat of the moment – not with the cooling hindsight of history. It is hard to find a mainstream World War II comedy released in the last ten years, while Warner Bros. produced an action comedy starring Humphrey Bogart – fresh from the success of the Maltese Falcon – that turns the question of American intervention into an improbable cat-and-mouse story. Think of it as Casablanca-lite. When Gloves Donahue (Bogart) finds the owner of his favourite bakery dead he begins to investigate, finding singer Leda Hamilton (Kaaren Verne) and a network of German spies using antique auctions as a front. I said it was light.
That said, All Through the Night is still deliciously enjoyable, perhaps even more so to a 21st century viewer. The pleasure is similar to what I felt when watching Inglourious Basterds (I guess I was wrong about recent WWII action comedies) or anything that takes an overdone subject and recklessly adapts it to a new genre. Of course, in 1941 the USA avoided Europe and the Holocaust had not been fully exposed to the world. America’s standoffish position was perhaps what gave studios the room to make funny but 100% propaganda movies about the war.
Whatever the circumstances that made All Through the Night possible, a lot of credit must go to writers Leonard Spineglass and Edwin Gilbert. The script overflows with one-liners, wise-cracks, and memorable moments. Armfuls of jokes were handed to William Demarest, who plays Bogey’s gambling pal Sunshine. He wants to catch the Germans “with their panzers down” and chucks an axe at a Hitler portrait (“why don’t you stay in your own backyard?”). Bogart is surrounded by other character actors like Frank McHugh as the virginal Barney, who has to postpone his honeymoon for the entire movie. Now that’s dedication.
There is also a lot of action packed into 107 minutes. Gloves has to fight off agents in a toy warehouse with lighting director Vincent Sherman clearly borrowed from the German expressionists. Now that’s irony. The danger is provided by both Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre, actors Bogart would later spar with in Casablanca. Lorre always brings a slithery menace to the screen and chews the scenery with sly ease in every scene; it’s too bad he has only a few moments to himself in All Through the Night. He works for Gestapo officer Ebbing (Veidt), who heads the New York spy ring and plans to blow up an American destroyer. Ebbing is a stock Eurovillain, as are all the Nazis. Their austerity is not so different from later Bond villains or the roles Terrence Stamp gets handed these days.
Gloves would probably not have gotten involved in this racket if it wasn’t for Leda, a German expat conned into working for the Nazis. Here is another link to Casablanca: the stalwart American isolationist is only brought into a cause as global as the war by feelings for a woman. While Warner Bros. were promoting intervention, they cloaked this idea in a romantic bathrobe. Gloves turns a political issue into a personal one as he drives around New York looking for Leda, eventually deciding to thwart Ebbing’s plan. He and Sunshine pose as spies and sneak into Ebbing’s underground rendezvous, one of Bogart’s finest comedic scenes. That’s something you don’t see very much in World War II movies: two Americans bullshitting their way through a Gestapo meeting. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tarantino had watched it before writing the end of Inglourious Basterds.