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A Month with Mitchell Leisen: Midnight (1939)
The clock has chimed midnight for a Month with Mitchell Leisen, and what better film to conclude my fun little project than Midnight, an enchanting comedy from the enchanted year of 1939?
Judging from the majority of my sources, Midnight and Remember the Night are two of Leisen's most discussed films. After waiting forever and a day for Netflix to send me a copy of Midnight, I decided, "The hell with it," and bought it on Amazon for a great price.
I usually don't go for "blind buys", but this was worth every penny. Midnight is the type of screwball comedy that is right up my alley: a story about smart people in foolish situations, snappy dialogue, comic timing so smooth it's almost balletic, and a fun time had by all. But I shouldn't be surprised, because who should have worked on the script but Charles Brackett… and Billy Wilder.
Let me veer off course for a moment to discuss the great Billy Wilder. Adept at pretty much every genre (except westerns, which he never made because he hated horses), Wilder's comedies were truly distinctive. He dared to write protagonists with somewhat gray morals, but who you always rooted for anyway. He could take utterly implausible, even ridiculous plots and make them believable (his underrated directorial debut, The Major and the Minor, is the perfect example). His more romantic films were tart rather than sweet, like a perfect glass of lemonade. Wilder did many things, cliches and mush weren't among them. Now, according to the introduction to the Midnight DVD hosted by TCM's Robert Osborne (yay!), Leisen made a good number of alterations to Wilder's script. This is par for the course in show business, but while Preston Sturges harbored no ill will for Remember the Night being edited, Wilder was miffed, and decided then and there to direct his own screenplays so that he'd have more control over his work. The rest is cinemtic history.
And now, on with the review!
A train pulls into Paris, France, and it contains down-on-her-luck chorine Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert), who has literally has nothing but the gown on her back and not a penny to her name. She's on the run from a gambling trip at Monte Carlo gone wrong, and all looks hopeless, until she meets Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche), an amiable Hungarian cabbie (complete with an all-American accent). Charmed by her pluck and beauty, Tibor drives her around town looking for a job, and it's clear there's chemistry between the two. But Eve has higher ambitions than love alone; she wants and needs money, and she wants and needs it fast, so she slips off and sneaks into a formal party. When she worries she's been found out, Eve tries to escape, but is instead spotted by wealthy Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore). Georges bails her out when she's in danger of being discovered, sets her up at the Ritz for the night, and even buys her a whole new wardrobe. Eve is suspicious, but Georges reassures her it's not what she thinks: he wants Eve to lure the handsome young Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer) away from Georges's wife Helene (Mary Astor), since Jacques seems to have taken a shine to Eve. Eve agrees: after all, Jacques is young, handsome, and rich, and maybe she can score a rich husband while driving a mistress back to hers, so everyone wins, right? To protect her identity, Eve refers to herself as "Baroness Czerny", wife of a Hungarian baron. Since this was more than seven decades before the advent of Facebook or Google, everyone (save for Georges) buys it.
Meanwhile, though, Tibor has been tirelessly searching for Eve, and eventually finds her. He threatens to expose Eve's secret, and Eve is forced to choose a life of impoverished love, or wealthy comfort.
No gold star for guessing which option ultimately wins out.
Tiresome Trivia for the Day: Fans of 80s comedies will recognize Don Ameche as wealthy, scheming old codger Mortimer Duke from Trading Places. I have to say, Ameche aged remarkably well… some people become unrecognizable when they reach their golden years, but watch Midnight and then Trading Places: Ameche literally looks like an older version of himself. And Trading Places also featured Hollywood's most iconic loser in love, Ralph Bellamy, as Mortimer's equally sneaky brother, Randolph.
Kids of the 90s will also recognize Ameche as the voice of Shadow from Homeward Bound: the Incredible Journey.
Despite any creative differences they had, Leisen and Wilder work a certain magic together with their contrasting sensibilities. According to Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director, David Chierchetti writes that there were difficulties with Claudette Colbert, who was notorious for insisting on being photographed from her left side. Coincidentally, co-star John Barrymore had the same quirk, as he had the most famous profile of the 20th century. Midnight was made during Barrymore's declining years (he would die just three years later), and his alcoholism made it difficult for him to remember his lines, so he had to read them off of cleverly hidden cue cards. Leisen had this to say about Barrymore:
We had one scene where he takes Claudette down a long narrow corridor. There was no room for the idiot cards, with the lights and the camera, so I told John, "I'm terribly sorry, but you're going to have to memorize this." He said, "My dear fellow, do you want me to recite the soliloquy from Hamlet?" And he proceeded to recite it right then and there. I said, "You can remember the lines, why the idiot card, John?" He said, "Why should I fill my mind up with this shit just to forget it the next morning!" We managed to get his cards in there somehow. (Chierchetti, p. 123)
Still, any drama behinds the scenes don't show in Midnight, for Barrymore is an utter delight, toning down the usual hamminess and slyly ribbing his own debonair image. Colbert is also a treat, that rare actress who could be simultaneously blue collar and cosmopolitan. It would have been easy to make Eve shallow and vicious, but Colbert makes her plucky, quick-witted, and pragmatic. You don't even completely disagree with her viewpoints, despite knowing how the film will end. I will admit the ending is a little too silly, even for a screwball comedy, but it's too minor a flaw to ruin the film.
Lengthy, Shallow Rant for the Day: How about those costumes?! Designed by the great Irene (whose resume includes Shall We Dance, To Be or Not to Be, andYou Were Never Lovelier), Midnight has some of the most gorgeous costumes I've ever seen in a 1930s film. I know it's a cliche to grouse that "people really knew how to dress back then!", but here's the thing: they did, at least in the movies. Colbert spends the first half hour or so in a shimmering, short-sleeved gown with a plunging neckline and a hood! Gowns with hoods need to come back in vogue right now! This is the era of hoodies, so doesn't it only make sense that gowns nowadays come with detachable hoods? She also wears a lovely evening dress with large, sheer puffy sleeves that float around her like black clouds. And if you loved the flamboyant accessories from The Women, there's more of those in Midnight, including caps topped with little golf tees and splashy brooches, most memorably a mind-blowing one that's shaped like a centipede and the size of a rolling pin! I. Want. It!
If 1939 was a magical year for movies, then its stardust is evident in Midnight. It was embraced by critics, even curmudgeonly Pauline Kael, who called it "Rapturous fun-one of the authentic delights of the 30s", and allowed that "Ameche has an important role; he isn't bad--for Ameche."
Seek out this sparkling, sophisticated comedy, you won't be disappointed. I hope you enjoyed A Month with Mitchell Leisen, I know I did!
Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Directo, David Chierchetti, Photoventures Press, 1995.
Claudette Colbert: An Illustrated Biography, Lawrence J. Quirk, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1985.