Midnight (1939) dir. Mitchell Leisen
Starring: Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, John Barrymore
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
In the screenplay of this breezy, charming romantic comedy, one must look very deep to find the trademark Billy Wilder cynicism and ultimately realize that the final product definitely comes up short in this respect. The lack of knee-slapping pessimism does not, however, detract from how enjoyable the picture is. Wilder’s screenplay, co-written with partner Charles Brackett is such a perfectly formed bauble of fairy-tale romance with healthy dollops of sexual frankness (which, frankly is a more-than-equal Wilder trait to that of cynicism) that it can steadfastly maintain a place amongst other terrific examples of its type.
Finally, what makes this urban, continental variation on the Cinderella tale soar is the exquisite visual panache of the great (and truly underrated) director Mitchell Leisen. His touch, though light as a feather, earns its heft (so to speak) thanks mainly to his fine eye for composition, his razor-sharp sense of pace and his deft ability to handle the proceedings with an elegance befitting its deliriously romantic setting of 1930s Gay Par-ee. In Leisen’s hands La Ville-lumiere bubbles and sparkles with such frothy sophistication that one is reminded of just how awe-inspiring Paris is, but more importantly, how the essence of one’s memories of Paris itself can, in some ways, actually benefit from the eye of the motion picture lens, and, more to the point, the perspective of a director as stylish as Leisen.
And there’s nothing more stylish than Paris in the rain – precisely the setting our heroine, Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) finds herself in at the beginning of “Midnight” as she stumbles off the train in full evening attire with neither an umbrella nor a penny to her name. Luckily, she catches the eye of dashing Hungarian émigré cab driver Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche) who agrees to chauffeur her about the city as she searches for a singing job, but more importantly, for an opportunity to land her a rich husband.
Even though she and Tibor are clearly a match made in Heaven (something both the audience and the characters are equally and plainly aware of), Eve is tired of poverty, and rather than prolong the inevitable, she sneaks away from the man who would shower her with the riches of love (but not much else) and sneaks her way into a private party and classical music recital. It is here where she meets the irascible Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore) who sees in Eve the kind of spunk and good heart that attracted him to his own wife Helene (Mary Astor). Alas, Helene is dabbling in a rather open affair with the dashing Marcel Renaud (Rex O’Malley) and a heartbroken Georges sees an opportunity to win his beloved wife back with the assistance of Helene.
In the meantime, the love-struck Tibor, aided by the watchful eyes of every cab driver in Paris searches under every rock for Eve. This, of course, becomes increasingly difficult since the radiant gold digging chorus girl has appropriated his surname and is now firmly ensconced in high society with the rather noble moniker of Baroness Czerny.
The action eventually leads to a Grand Ball where all the players cavort in a manner only befitting one of the finest romantic screen comedies that borrows generously from one of the great fairy tales of all time. Needless to say, it can hardly be called a “spoiler” to suggest that Cinderella results in a happy ending and that the same can be said for “Midnight” which hurtles like a runaway train through a multitude of breakneck twists, turns, dips and ascensions until its inevitably delirious conclusion.
With movies like “Midnight”, it’s the ride that truly counts. And what a ride! One never feels like the final destination has come un-earned.
It almost goes without saying that the cast is utter perfection. Colbert proves, yet again, why she was one of those most beloved stars – not only of her generation, but also of all time. The camera not only loves her to death, but she embodies all that is WOMAN! She is graceful, sexy, bubbly and sharp as a tack. Most importantly, she makes us laugh and is not afraid to have us laugh both with her and at her.
Don Ameche is not only charming as the Hungarian cab driver, but he too is blessed with such a truly buoyant sense of humour that it’s no wonder his career lasted well into old age. Contemporary audiences will, no doubt, remember his finely wrought performances in “Trading Places”, “Cocoon” and, most notably, David Mamet’s “Things Change”.
Mary Astor and Rex O’Malley make a perfect illicit couple and deliver highly nuanced performances which respectively blend haughtiness and warmth, and smarminess and charm. Astor is especially surprising. She often strikes me as humourless, but not only does she display considerable lightness, but she’s also really sexy.
The genuine treat in “Midnight” is, predictably enough, the genius that is John Barrymore who alternates between all-knowing reprobate and a love-obsessed fool. His lines readings and comportment are nothing less than perfection itself – all the more amazing since he was, no doubt, completely and utterly plastered for much of the film’s production.
“Midnight” is a class act all the way. It’s also more fuel to the fire that is: “They don’t make ‘em they way they used to.”
Now isn’t THAT the truth?
“Midnight” is available on DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment