Midnight (1939)

Film Title: MidnightPoster-Midnight-1939_05

Year: 1939

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Silent or Talkie: Talkie

Genre: Comedy

Starring:

  • Claudette Colbert
  • Don Ameche
  • John Barrymore
  • Francis Lederer
  • Mary Astor

Review

In the early 1930s with the rise of Hitler in Germany, Billy Wilder, a German Jew, immigrated to Paris and then landed in Hollywood in 1933. There he teamed with Charles Brackett, a partnership that would last until 1950 and began writing screenplays. Midnight was their third collaboration. It is a classic screwball comedy involving mistaken identities, farce, witty fast-paced repartee, or as critic Andrew Sarris has noted of the genre, it is “a sex comedy without the sex.” Although Billy Wilder is best remembered as a director, before his directorial debut with The Major and the Minor in 1942, he, often with Brackett, penned fifteen screenplays, 3 of which were nominated for Academy Awards.

As Midnight opens we see a train from Monte Carlo pull into the Paris station. A down-on-her-luck showgirl, Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert), is asleep in a decidedly third class compartment dressed in an evening gown. She is roused by a station attendant, Eve: “Well. So this, as they say, is Paris, huh.” Train guard: “Yes, Madame”. Eve: “Well, from here it looks an awful lot like a rainy night in Kokomo, Indiana.” and steps out into the rain. She is penniless. Trying to win the sympathy of an apathetic group of taxi drivers, one, Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche), a Hungarian by birth, finally takes pity on her and agrees to take her around to a series of nightclubs so that she might audition for work. After failing at even Chi-Chi’s to secure employment, Eve ruefully intones, “I guess my voice is of the bathtub variety,” Czerny then takes Eve out to dinner. The two get cozy and there’s a definite sense of attraction developing. But Eve has been down this road before: “Listen. Back in New York, whenever I managed to crash a party full of luscious big-hearted millionaires, there was always sure to be some snub-faced kid in the orchestra playing traps, and so, at four in the morning, when the wise girls were skipping off to Connecticut to marry those millionaires, I’d be with him in some nightspot learning tricks on the kettledrum and he always had a nose like yours.” Czerny offers up his apartment to Eve, no strings attached, as he’ll be driving all night. Eve declines, knowing the inevitable outcome of their attraction if she hangs around. She’s after bigger game, and she ducks out of Czerny’s cab.

Almost immediately she finds herself in a crowd of swells queuing up for admittance to a dreary concert being presented by their friend, Stephanie (Hedda Hopper). Eve joins the crowd, the only catch being that guests are being asked to present their invitations for admittance. Thinking quickly, Eve pulls out her pawn ticket from Monte Carlo and distracts the doorman with a little flirtation so he won’t actually look at the ticket, and secures entry to the affair. Once inside she catches the eye of Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore), who bemusedly watches her every move. Uh-oh, the doorman discovers that he has inadvertently taken a pawn ticket as admittance. He shows it to Stephanie who interrupts the concert to inquire if there is an Eve Peabody among her guests. Flammarion watches Eve and figures out the situation. Just as Eve thinks she’s pulled it off, she is accosted by Marcel Renaud (Rex O’Malley). But it turns out that Marcel is simply seeking a fourth for bridge! At the bridge table she meets Helene Flammarion (Mary Astor), Georges’ wife, and Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer) a millionaire playboy who seems just a little fonder of Helene, and vice-versa, than propriety would allow for. Eve is paired with Picot, but unfortunately they lose 40,000 francs in the game. In the meantime, Georges has strolled into the salon and notices that Picot’s eye seems to be more entranced with Eve than his wife Helene. He surreptitiously places 40,000 francs in Eve’s handbag, thus avoiding her embarrassment and even more importantly her discovery as an imposter. In the course of the evening Eve has been forced to introduce herself and she picks the first name that comes to mind, Czerny. Georges pointedly asks Eve if she is the Baroness Czerny; it seems the Baron is an old friend and has talked about meeting an attractive young American. Eve is forced to improvise and digs herself deeper and deeper into her ruse. The next morning when Georges encounters Eve again, he proposes a plot. “From the moment you looked at me, I had an idea you had an idea,” Eve tells him. But no, Georges has seen that Picot’s attention might be diverted from Helene to Eve. “You really love her, don’t you?” Eve asks, and she accepts Georges’ proposition. This way she can repay Georges the favor he did her, and maybe snag herself a rich husband in the bargain. But don’t discount Czeny’s attraction to Eve. He organizes the cabbies of Paris in a city-wide search for her!

Midnight is a prime example of the classic screwball comedies of the era. Its director, Mitchell Leisen, has been somewhat overlooked among the works of masters of the genre such as Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, Gregory La Cava, Howard Hawks and others. But Leisen was also responsible for the outstanding screwball comedies Hands Across the Table (1935) and Easy Living (1937). But what makes this film and others of the genre work is something New Hollywood has forgotten and Old Hollywood was a master at: story, story, story, and the kind of cast that can pull it all off. Both Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche are at their most charming and charismatic. Colbert, of course, was present at what is pretty much considered the birth of the genre in It Happened One Night in 1934. Ameche had been toiling under contract to Twentieth Century Fox and had risen to leading man status. Midnight revealed a comedic talent that he would later employ in the radio series The Bickersons (with Frances Langford) and on Broadway and then returning to film in 1983 in Trading Places. Mary Astor, it seems could do anything. From her early stardom in silent films playing opposite John Barrymore in Beau Brummel (1924) and Don Juan (1926), to her turn as the heartless Bridget O’Shaughnessy opposite Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941), to her Princess Centimillia in another screwball classic, Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942), and her Academy Award winning performance in The Great Lie (1941) opposite Bette Davis, through a series of kindly mother roles (most notably as Judy Garland’s Mom in 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis) and finally playing deliciously nasty characters in Desert Fury (1947), Return to Peyton Place (1961) and her final screen appearance in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Of working with John Barrymore’ who needed cue cards for his lines in this film Mary Astor recalled that, “even with cue cards and only a faint idea of what the picture was all about, he had enough years of experience behind him to be able to act rings around anyone else.” Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, Mary Astor, and John Barrymore, along with Brackett and Wilder’s brilliant script and Mitchell Leisen’s capable direction make this a film a must see.

On Video

This Universal release is on par with others that they’ve released from the Paramount library of this period. That is to say that the picture and sound are just fine without being exceptional. Also included on the disc is an introduction by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne who gives some interesting background on this production. The theatrical trailer is also included.

Conclusion

At a bargain price there just is no reason not to pick this one up. It is a classic of its genre and a very, very funny film. Invite some friends over and enjoy!

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