Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Objectivism in the Court! The Night of January 16th (1934), by Ayn Rand

Like myriad between-the-wars intellectuals, philosophical author Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a devotee of crime fiction.  (Ludwig von Mises, on the other hand....)  The fervent anti-communist writer and promoter of the rival belief system known as objectivism, who had left the Soviet Union for the United States in 1925 at the age of twenty, once informed hard-boiled detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, an avowed leftist, that his landmark novel The Maltese Falcon (1930) "has always been one of my favorite mystery stories"--while she simultaneously chided Hammett for his communist sympathies.

idealized depiction of
Ayn Rand on 1999 US
postage stamp
(What would Rand have thought of that?)
The outspoken Libertarian icon also denounced mystery writer Rex Stout as an insidious, anti-American "Red," while apparently not expressing any view, one way or the other, about the famed Nero Wolfe creator's beloved detective fiction.  On the other hand, Rand heaped praise on the popular post-WW2 crime novels of commie-hating Mickey Spillane, declaring sunnily that his writing "gives me the feeling of hearing a military band in a public park."  (Me, it gives the feeling of hearing a torturer at work in a gulag, but, hey, different strokes!)

I suppose Spillane's tough as nails, symbolically named sleuth, Mike Hammer, was a grand embodiment, in Rand's eyes, of man as a heroic being, boldly willing, if not eager, to murder Communists with his own bare hands for the sake of Lady Liberty.  Or something.

However, Rand also read and enjoyed non-hard-boiled crime writing as well.  In 1943 she went out to Hollywood to write the script for a film adaptation of her breakthrough novel The Fountainhead (1943).  Producer Hal Wallis thereupon hired her as a scriptwriter and script doctor.

Ivar Kreuger on the cover
of Time Magazine
For Wallis Rand over the next couple of years crafted a couple of scripts which were produced, including one for the Oscar nominated mystery film of sorts, Love Letters (1945).  She also wrote several scripts for films which were not produced, including an adaptation of Mabel Seeley's naturalist neo-Gothic crime novel, The Crying Sisters

Published in 1939, this was Seeley's second crime novel, after her superb The Listening House (1938).  I didn't like Crying Sisters that much when I read it years ago, but maybe I should give it a second look.  The male lead whom I thought was utterly unbearable Rand probably unreservedly adored.  Rand also praised a highly traditional "fair play" detective novel, Marion Randolph's Grim Grow the Lilacs (1941).

Ayn Rand's popular stage play The Night of January 16th (1934), a courtroom murder melodrama, indicates familiarity on the author's part with both hard-boiled crime fiction and more traditional detective fiction.  The two most immediate influences on the play were fictional and non-fictional, respectively. 

The fictional one was Bayard Veiller's 1927 courtroom melodrama The Trial of Mary Dugan (1927), a smash hit play which was twice filmed, and the non-fictional the story of entrepreneur and swindler Ivar Kreuger, the so-called Swedish "Match King" (so named for his control of much of the world's matches production).  Financially ruined with the onset of the Depression, Kreuger committed suicide in his Parisian apartment in 1932, not long before Rand wrote her play.  Naturally enough given his mysterious persona, people speculated that the Match King was really murdered or that he cleverly faked his own death.

Ivar Kreuger was just the sort of larger-than-life ruthless egoist whom Rand romanticized, it seems to me; and it's easy to see him as the dead man in The Night of January 16th: renowned financier Bjorn Faulkner.  When the play opens, Karen Andre,  Bjorn's former secretary and mistress (whether she's his former or his current mistress is in dispute), is on trial, charged with his murder.  It seems that late one night the great business titan came hurtling down to the pavement from Karen's luxurious penthouse apartment, atop the Faulkner Building, seat of Bjorn's empire. But did he fall, or was he pushed???  Or did he deliberately jump to his death, knowing that his business empire was about to collapse and desirous to end life on his own terms?

District Attorney Flint and defense attorney Stevens joust over the truth, in the event calling on a parade of sometimes colorful witnesses: a private eye, Homer Van Fleet; a Swedish housekeeper, Magda Svenson; a cleaning lady, Mrs. John Hutchins; the policeman on the murder scene, Elmer Sweeney; a woman handwriting expert, Jane Chandler; a Norwegian bookkeeper, Sigurd Jungquist; a notorious gangster, Larry Regan, and a deceased gangster's widow, Roberta van Renssalaer, aka Ruby O'Toole; and, last but not least, Bjorn's wife of recent vintage, determined young heiress Nancy Lee Faulkner, and her indulgent banker father, John Graham Whitfield.

As the play develops, there are twists and turns which come right out of the props box of classic crime fiction.  This play could easily have been reworked as a novel by Freeman Wills Crofts, say, or even the great Agatha Christie herself.  But ultimately Rand chooses not to solve this mystery.  Instead she presents her audience with alternative explanations of the facts, one being that Karen is guilty of murder, the other that...well, I should leave you to see or read it for yourselves.

The great gimmick of the play, which likely led to its initial success and continued longevity, is that the jury that decides Karen's guilt is randomly chosen from the play audience: there are two different endings to the play, based on how the jury decides. 

Producers had a lot of fun with this gimmick, sometimes impaneling celebrity juries, for example.  Some of the notable jurors from the Thirties included sports figures Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth, actor Ricardo Cortez, James Roosevelt, eldest son of the president, and Helen Keller (!), as well as four then sitting US congressmen.

The play, suitably revised (or unsuitably in Rand's view) by one Nathaniel Edward Reeid, caught on for amateur performances, including in high schools.  When my Mom, a twelfth grade English teacher, staged this play, in little Tri-Valley High School in Hegins, Pennsylvania, in 1956, teachers from the school served as the jurors, to the great amusement of the audience, my Mom told me.  (Below you will see one of the juries from my Mom's production, along with some scenes from the play.)

from my mother's high school production at little Tri-Valley High School in 1956
Defendant Karen Andre gets emotional on surprise witness Larry Regan,
while defense attorney Stevens (with false mustache) looks on

The amateur version of the play is billed as a "comedy-drama," something which Rand, who never struck me as a notably mirthful person, doubtlessly disliked.  She saw her play as an intensely serious one which had been altered into mere melodrama by producers.  "Only the plot and the characters have been kept, but every abstract or psychological implication has been destroyed, so that it is now nothing but a rather vulgar melodrama."

I don't know, I still think it's a good piece of entertainment, but then I like plot machinations and I can manage without Rand's "abstract and psychological implications."  As it is, I think it comes through to us that Rand clearly sympathized with her rogue financier, Bjorn Faulkner, and his intrepid lover-secretary, Helen Andre; and expected us to find her not guilty.  (In its original Broadway run of over 250 performances, juries decided on acquittal by a 3-2 margin.)

Roberta von Renssalaer (aka Ruby O'Toole)
questioned by defense attorney Stevens
The humor in the play actually is pretty light handed, depending mainly on characters' dialect. There's also a brassy gangster's moll (wife in the amateur version), who is played for some laughs.  Rand specifically complained about what she termed the "flashy gun moll."  But even with these emendations, the play remains a serious criminal affair of illicit passion and death.

Some of the lines seem unexpectedly adult for a play that was being put on in high schools in the Fifties.  Hell, my philistine southern high school, when I was there in the early Eighties, probably would have deemed it unacceptable.  (As it was the school quit bothering to stage plays the year before I arrived there--the last one performed there was Lil Abner.) 

Here's censorious Swedish housekeeper Magda condemning Karen's sensuousness and sounding rather like that hateful old puritanical woman in the then recent James Whale horror film The Old Dark House (1932):

Magda Svenson on the stand with DA Flint
He [Bjorn] had a platinum gown made for her [Karen].  Yes, I said platinum!  Fine mesh--fine and soft as silk.  And she vore it on her naked body.  She had a fire in the fireplace, and she heated the dress.  And she asked me to put it on her as hot as she could stand; and if it burned her shameless skin, she laugh like the pagan she is and say it vas man, kissing her vild like tiger.

Pretty hot stuff for teenagers in the Fifties, I would have thought, if those lines actually were left in.  Maybe after that passage Karen was doomed with high school juries comprised of upright teachers.  Later on, she makes think even worse by announcing that she (like Rand) is an atheist. I wish I knew how Mom's jury decided.

In 1971, the play was reprinted in its original version, as Rand had intended it.  I plan on following this post with another on the differences between the two versions.  Even as adulterated, however The Night of January 16th is still an entertaining piece of twisty melodrama, "vulgar" or no.

the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, along with, I believe, DA Flint
Tri-Valley High School in 1956


  1. That was a fun post! Very nice follow-up to the post in memory of your mother.

    1. Thanks. I like to think of those days when my Mom was doing this sort of thing, must have been rather jolly.