Midnight (1939)

Midnight (1939)

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

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.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Claudette Colbert Films
  • Don Ameche Films
  • John Barrymore Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Mary Astor Films
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Mitchell Leisen Films
  • Monty Woolley Films
  • Romantic Comedy

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.


  • Genuine Classic


3 thoughts on “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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