#281) Midnight (1939)

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#281) Midnight (1939)

OR “Power of a Czerny”

Directed by Mitchell Leisen

Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. Based on a story by Edwin Justus Mayer and Franz Schulz.

Class of 2013

The Plot: Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert), a showgirl from New York, ends up in Paris with only an evening gown and an empty purse. She becomes chummy with taxi driver Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche), and although there is a mutual attraction, Eve runs out on him. She ends up crashing a black tie affair, posing as “Baroness Czerny”. Only Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore) catches on, but is willing to keep Eve’s cover if she helps break up the affair between Georges’ wife Helene (Mary Astor) and the charming Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer). A weekend at the Flammarion estate goes well until Tibor shows up as “Baron” Czerny and all kinds of hilarity ensues.

Why It Matters: Both the NFR write-up and the expanded essay by film expert Kyle Westphal praise underrated director Mitchell Leisen, and, when they get around to it, mention the cast and screenplay.

But Does It Really?: Where has this movie been all my life? Buried under all the other great movies from 1939 is this charming, funny update of Cinderella. Colbert expertly leads a very fun cast, with Ameche and Barrymore in fine support. Yes, the unsung Leisen expertly navigates this ship, but it helps when you’ve got a well-structured Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett screenplay to work with. “Midnight” is tough to track down, but it is worth it if you love well-crafted farce.

Everybody Gets One: Alright, I’ll give the man his due. Though largely forgotten today, Mitchell Leisen rose to the rank of director after being a costumer and art director for the likes of Cecil B. DeMille. Leisen primarily succeeded helming light, pleasant-looking screwball comedies like “Midnight”. This is also the only NFR appearance for actor Monty Woolley, best known for his role as “The Man Who Came to Dinner”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Taxi drivers on every corner, that’s the big one. If this film was made today, Tibor would be a Lyft driver, and I don’t see them organizing anytime soon.

Take a Shot: Eve says the title once about an hour into the film, stating, “Every Cinderella has her midnight.”

Seriously, Oscars?: Oh, if only “Midnight” hadn’t been released in 1939, the undisputed “greatest year of movies”. Like its long-delayed NFR induction, there were just too many other films from that year worthy of recognition, and “Midnight” received zero Oscar nominations.

Other notes

  • Claudette Colbert has a lovely handle on Wilder/Brackett dialogue. It usually comes off best when uttered by smart-alecky characters like Ameche’s, but Colbert elevates the material, which is hard to do with writing that’s already this solid.
  • Don Ameche had to wait another 47 years before finally winning an Oscar for “Cocoon”. Isn’t that nuts?
  • I love Claudette Colbert, but Eve is from the Bronx? Please. It may be the only aspect of the part that first choice Barbara Stanwyck could have improved upon.
  • Almost didn’t recognize Hedda Hopper without one of her giant hats. Hedda had been a Hollywood actor for over 20 years by the time she appeared in “Midnight”. It was around the time of this film’s release that Hedda’s gossip column started to take off.
  • I can’t tell if this movie is leisurely paced or if it just got much bigger laughs in the ‘30s.
  • So John Barrymore is capable of giving a non-theatrical performance. The story goes that Barrymore was in decline from years of heavy drinking (he died three years after “Midnight”) and relied on cue cards for his lines. Any struggles Barrymore had off-camera are undetectable in the final film.
  • How does anyone in France take the police seriously when they’re wearing those little capes?
  • I’ll guess that no one suspected Eve was the imposter because Zoltan Karpathy had the night off.
  • Not surprising for a Wilder/Brackett screenplay, there are a lot of gems in the dialogue. Two of my favorites: “My mother taught me a few things, too” and “Let’s wait for the cognac”.
  • Eve has a pretty sweet set-up at the Ritz. It’s like “Home Alone 2”, except there’s no egomaniacal loser telling her where the lobby is.
  • Only in a Wilder screenplay would a character be knowledgeable about the Hungarian subway system.
  • Tibor got 1600 cab drivers to help him find one woman? Forget Missed Connections; French taxis are the way to go!
  • Why is Mary Astor always involved in a love triangle in these movies?
  • Shout out to Rex O’Malley as Marcel, Helene’s gay bestie.
  • Coincidentally, “Midnight” was added to the NFR the same year as another modern take on Cinderella: “Ella Cinders”.
  • The single funniest shot in the movie involves Tibor driving up to the Flammarion estate. “Park it!”
  • One line with a whole different meaning nowadays: “You have such a gay wife.”
  • And then Tibor and Eve embellish their charade by inventing a daughter named Francie. DON’T TALK ABOUT OUR CHILD, TIBOR!
  • You may need a refresher course on French divorce proceedings of the ‘30s before watching this film’s third act.
  • A society that approves of a husband spanking his wife with no hesitation; that’s why you’ve never seen this movie.

Legacy

  • The production of “Midnight” made Billy Wilder seriously consider directing to ensure that his writing wasn’t touched. I believe the only actor from “Midnight” Wilder used in one of his films was Hedda Hopper in “Sunset Boulevard“.
  • Leisen would go to direct another Wilder/Brackett screenplay: 1941’s “Hold Back the Dawn”. Wilder was a year away from directing his first Hollywood movie; I presume he took good notes during production of “Dawn”.
  • Like “Ball of Fire”, “Midnight” was remade only a few years later with the same director. Mitchell Leisen helmed 1945’s “Masquerade in Mexico”, with Dorothy Lamour in the lead.
  • Mitchell Leisen may have gotten the last laugh on Billy Wilder. Towards the end of his career Leisen directed a few episodes of “The Twilight Zone”, including obvious “Sunset Boulevard” knock-off “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine”.

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