Saturday, June 13, 2020
"MIDNIGHT" (1939) Review
"MIDNIGHT" (1939) Review
I believe that I can say in all honesty that I have been a major fan of some of Billy Wilder's work for years. Movies like "SUNSET BOULEVARD", "SOME LIKE IT HOT" and "DOUBLE INDEMNITY" have been among my top favorite movies of all time. But all of these movies have not only been written or co-written by Wilder, but also directed by him. It is rare for me to say the same about any of the movies he had written before he had become a director. Rare, but not completely impossible. One such movie is the 1939 comedy classic, "MIDNIGHT".
Directed by Mitchell Leisen (whom Wilder detested), "MIDNIGHT" told the story of an American showgirl named Eve Peabody, who finds herself stranded in Paris during a rainstorm. Tibor Czerny, a Hungarian taxi driver, takes pity on her and drives her around Paris in a fruitless attempt to help her find a new job as a singer at a nightclub. When Tibor offers Eve refuge at his apartment, she decides to give him the slip - despite her attraction to him. Eve manages to crash a Parisian socialite’s late night party, where she meets Georges Flammarion, a wealthy industrialist who is desperate to end his wife Helene’s affair with a wealthy playboy named Jacques Picot. Georges hires Eve to pose as Baroness Czerny, an American married to a wealthy Hungarian aristocrat, in order for her to seduce and lure Jacques away from Helene’s arms. Unfortunately for Eve, one of Tibor’s taxi colleagues discover her whereabouts and the Hungarian appears at the Flammarions’ estate as Eve’s husband, the Baron Czerny.
Thanks to Billy Wilder and Preston Surges, Mitchell Leisen had an undeserved reputation as a hack director with a penchant for set décor, due to his homosexuality. In other words, they saw him as nothing more than a window dresser. This opinion of Leisen remained fixed by film critics for years, until recently. Perhaps these same critics had finally remembered that Leisen had directed movies such as "EASY LIVING", "HOLD BACK THE DAWN" and especially "MIDNIGHT", which I believe is one of the funniest screwball comedies from the 1930s. How could film critics ignore this elegant and hilarious tale of love, adultery and deception in pre-World War II France? Did they believe that someone other than Leisen had directed it? I do have to give kudos to Wilder and partner Charles Brackett for concocting this sharply funny tale of love and deception. But c'mon! Their script alone did not make this movie the classic it is today. Leisen deserved a great deal of the credit.
First of all, Leisen found himself with a first-rate cast for "MIDNIGHT" and created magic with them. Claudette Colbert brought great wit and charm to the role of the stranded Eve Peabody. As her performances in both "MIDNIGHT" and 1942’s "THE PALM BEACH STORY" attested, Colbert seemed to have a talent for portraying witty and charming golddiggers. Don Ameche portrayed Hungarian Tibor Czerny, Eve’s would-be suitor with an earnest aggressiveness that I found charming and occasionally disturbing. Ameche gave Tibor a tenacious air that struck me as slightly intense. Portraying Eve’s wealthy benefactor was the legendary John Barrymore in what was probably his last great role on film. He was very witty and effective as the manipulative, yet unhappy Georges Flammarion, who recruits Eve into a deception to win back his wife’s affections from her playboy lover. Mary Astor, who would reunite with Colbert in "THE PALM BEACH STORY", did a fabulous job as the jealous and acid-minded Helene Flammarion. Francis Lederer gave a charming, yet competent performance as Helene’s lover, but I did not find him particularly impressive. Also included in the cast was Rex O’Malley, who deliciously portrayed Helene’s faithful and witty companion, Marcel Renaud. O’Malley’s character struck me as a more comic version of a similar character he had portrayed in 1936’s "CAMILLE", starring Greta Garbo. Last but not least, the cast included famous columnist Hedda Hopper portraying a French socialite, whose late night party that Eve crashes.
"MIDNIGHT" has a lot to offer – even for today’s viewers. It had a competent director in Mitchell Leisen (despite his past reputation with critics), a first-rate cast led by Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche and a sharp and funny screenplay written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. But what I really love about this movie is its setting – Parisian high society in the late 1930s. Thanks to certain contract directors like Josef von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch, Paramount Studios had developed a reputation for possessing an European infliction in its house style by the 1930s. And "MIDNIGHT" possessed this infliction in droves, thanks to Leisen's talent for creating an atmosphere. The movie also benefited from scenes that featured Eve crashing Madame Stephanie’s late night party, Tibor and his fellow taxi drivers’ search for Eve through the streets of Paris, Eve waking up in her new hotel suite in the nude, her meeting with Helene at a Parisian couture house and the dazzling party held by the Flammarions’ country estate, which included an entertaining Latin band. All of these scenes would strike any viewer as examples of the Lubitsch "touch". Yet these scenes and many others were photographed by the Utah-born Charles Lang and directed by Leisen, who was born in Michigan.
For a movie that is eighty-one years old, "MIDNIGHT" has not really aged one bit. It is still a very entertaining film filled with superb comic acting and razor sharp wit. I certainly had fun watching it and I suspect that many others would feel the same.