Midnight (1939)

“When I was a child, they daren’t leave me in a room with an armchair.”

Synopsis:
A penniless showgirl (Claudette Colbert) posing as a baroness in Paris accepts an offer from a wealthy man (John Barrymore) to be seduced by his wife’s (Mary Astor’s) lover (Francis Lederer). Meanwhile, a taxi driver (Don Ameche) in love with Colbert does everything he can to find her.

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Review:
Mitchell Leisen directed this sparkling romantic comedy, released during what is commonly referred to as Hollywood’s Golden Year (1939) — and perhaps overlooked as a result. The screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder — their second after the disappointing Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) — shows ample evidence of their potential for collaborative genius, which would later result in award-winning films such as The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). The performances are all spot-on, but it’s really the script that deserves most credit, moving us quickly and engagingly into a milieu filled with posers, rivalry, self-preservation, and enormous hats. We’re never sure where each scene will lead to, and — like the characters — are consistently surprised by what comes next out of each person’s mouth. Colbert and Ameche (not to mention Rex O’Malley as Astor’s droll, fey sidekick) prove themselves more than capable of surviving in a world of extreme snobbery and classism: working-class Ameche draws upon collective strength in motivating his fellow cab drivers to help him find Colbert, while Colbert relies on both her beauty (Lederer is amusingly smitten the second he lays eyes on her) and quick wit to come up with on-the-spot rationales and back-stories for her newly adopted persona — including plenty of hilariously left-field (yet convincing) one-liners: “And yet, I had warning… Why else should his grandfather have sent me as an engagement present one roller skate covered with Thousand Island dressing?” This film is a treat to rediscover.

Note: For a detailed overview of Brackett and Wilder’s contentious yet successful decade-plus collaboration, click here.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Claudette Colbert as Eleanor
  • Fine supporting performances across the board
  • Charles Lang’s cinematography
  • Many memorably zany moments
  • Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder’s consistently amusing screenplay: “I think [that hat is] a dream on you. You know, it does something for your face — it gives you a chin.”

Must See?
Yes, as an all-around good show and classic screwball.

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3 Responses to “Midnight (1939)”

  1. All told, not must-see – though it is occasionally lightly amusing and Barrymore’s participation helps.

    I had seen this once before, years ago, and had a memory of it being… well, better than it is. On a revisit, I did notice that Brackett and Wilder’s script does well in terms of construction (i.e., the setting-up of various incongruous circumstances for comic effect) – but the material just isn’t that funny. (The team would go on to significant improvement in comedy with ‘Ninotchka’ and ‘The Major and the Minor’.)

    Here and there, there is a sparkle of wit (a minor character: “It always rains when Stephanie gives one of her dull parties. Even nature weeps.”) but the script is way-too-reliant on its situation when it needed more verbal fun.

    Barrymore’s character is a clever invention – and as an invention, he is used wisely. But, alas, his under-written role mostly succeeds visually; Barrymore can effectively accomplish a lot with just ‘a look’. (It’s almost as if Brackett and Wilder were here paying homage to Barrymore’s comic genius on display in ‘Twentieth Century’ – but they should still have given him more comic lines if that’s the compliment they were paying.)

  2. I didn’t have any memories at all of watching this many years ago as a teenage film fanatic — it didn’t impact me much then, but apparently I was in exactly the right mood for it this time around.

  3. That’s understandable; our current mood can have much to do with how much we’re enjoying something.

    Since I did (for some reason) have a kind of positive memory, I was surprised that I couldn’t trust it. I was in the mood to enjoy something screwball. But I don’t think this film fits that definition in the true sense.

    All of the requisite comic types are certainly in place – but (even though there are tiny hints of it) it’s missing that ‘madcap’ element, that essence of eccentricity that tends to be a solid screwball ingredient. As a result… well, Colbert, for example. Charming as she is here, she just seems to be doing prep work for a better take on ‘adventures among the rich’: ‘The Palm Beach Story’.

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