What happens at the stroke of midnight? What happens when those bells chime twelve times through the darkness of a Europe night?
The shining dress turns to rags, the horses are once again house mice, and the carriage transforms back to a simple pumpkin. And the true identity of beautiful Cinderella is made known.
This is the story of Midnight, the fantastic screwball comedy from the minds of the famous writing duo, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. Wilder would go on to become one of the great director/writers in Hollywood history, the mastermind behind classic films like Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and Double Indemnity (among many others). But, in 1939, he had limited professional experience behind the camera. What he had though, was plenty of experience behind a pen. And he and Brackett had done wonderful things with that pen. In 1939, they would finally get the praise and laud they deserved, writing two brilliantly comic screenplays that would go down as some of the best movies ever made: Midnight and Ninotchka.
As long as I am doing a series of reviews on films from 1939, I might as well write about Midnight and Ninotchka in succession. While Ninotchka is universally considered the superior of the two films, that shouldn’t take away from Midnight‘s fantastic appeal as a screwball comedy.
This movie is particularly significant in the context of 1939 because it was one of those films that was both star-maker and star-enforcer. In the case of Wilder and Brackett, it was certainly a star-maker. But, for others involved in the film, it was more of the enforcement variety. The actors in the film were all movie-stars in their own right, and they were all incredibly busy in 1939. Besides Mary Astor (the silent film star who would be making movies all the way until 1964), the headlining stars of Midnight were all in multiple films in 1939. Francis Lederer and John Barrymore were both in two films. Claudette Colbert, who played the movie’s main character, Eve Peabody, was in three films in 1939. And Don Ameche, the headlining co-star, was in five films that year.
The thing is, all these stars are known for other films. Ameche is remembered more for his role in 1943’s Heaven Can Wait (or his role in Trading Places with Eddie Murphy). Lederer is remembered for his work in Pabst’s silent masterpiece, Pandora’s Box. Astor is remembered more for her work as a silent film star, as well as her role as the lead lady in The Maltese Falcon. And, of course, Colbert and Barrymore are remembered for countless roles in many blockbusters dating deep into the silent era and beyond.
But, one star is known particularly for this film, as well as one other film (1937’s Easy Living). That star is the film’s director, Mitchell Leisen. Leisen is not remembered as one of the great movie directors. In all honesty, he was not one of those directors who was a working auteur. He didn’t dominate a film’s aesthetics or form to make his movies instantly recognizable as his own. I hate to criticize, because I actually consider him one of my favorite directors (he’s in my list of the Top 100 directors), but he seemed—whether he was actually doing this or not—to be more of an imitator than a contributor. His work seems more like the work of a student to Ernst Lubistch and Leo McCarey. Perhaps that sort of directorial ownership of a film is why Lubistch’s Ninotchka is considered the better of the two Wilder/Brackett films of 1939.
But, in Leisen’s defense, he did produce two of the finest screwball comedies of all time. Midnight and Easy Living are superb examples of everything that makes the genre great. Take for example, the movie in question.
Midnight is about Eve Peabody, an American showgirl with less than pennies to her name, who has just arrived in Paris late at night. The first person she meets is Don Ameche’s Tibor Czerny, a taxi driver who is cordial and helpful. After he offers his apartment as a free place to sleep that night, and after he takes a quick stop, Eve gets second thoughts and bails. She sneaks off to a concert, using a pawn ticket to get in in place of an actual ticket. Keeping up with her ruse, she adopts the first surname that comes to mind, Czerny, and claims she is a wealthy baronness. Her deception leads her into even more precipitous situations as she ends up in a backroom bridge game with a group of aristocrats, among whom are Astor’s Helene Flammarion, Barrymore’s Georges Flammarion (her husband), and Lederer’s Jacques Picot (her lover). The “Baronness Czerny” does a good job convincing most everyone.
Except of course, for one man: Barrymore’s Flammarion. Flammarion instantly recognizes her as an imposter, but does not intercede. Instead, he notices that Picot seems immutable smitten with Colbert’s character, and Flammarion sees potential to end the affair that he knows his wife is having with Picot. Barrymore’s character makes a deal with Colbert’s: he will completely finance her chicanery, if only she agrees to woo Picot away from Helene. She agrees, and is soon caught up in the notion of fame, fortune, and the impending glory of Parisian socialite status.
Meanwhile, Czerny the cabby is looking everywhere for the lost girl, even recruiting an army of taxi drivers to prowl the city in search for her. When he finds her, he attempts to woo her away from Picot. He knows the truth, and he can ruin everything for her and Flammarion. And, that is when things get really interesting. The movie’s name is Midnight, and “midnight”, in this context, is Czerny. He is the one whose arrival can ruin it all. But, in the original Cinderella story, midnight was the bad guy. In Wilder and Brackett’s story, that is turned on its head.
As a result, we are given a riotous story full of hijinks and banter than embraces everything great about the genre. Actually, were it a little more famous, it would probably go down as the quintessential screwball comedy, most particularly due to its magnification of the three most important recurring themes in the screwball genre.
First, it is a story of class division. This may be the most important of the under-girding archetypes of screwball comedies, as I established in the first part of my “Great American Screenplays” series. Barrymore’s Flammarion is fairy godmother to Cobert’s Cinderella, making enough magic to somehow blur the rungs of the social ladder, though, at all times, the ladder is still there, creating distinctions and differentiations against which the characters are constantly bumping. Wilder and Brackett embrace the fact that somehow, there can be a way to streamline society, but also recognize that the existence of social hierarchy is one of the more interesting elements of culture. Just like in Sullivan’s Travels or It Happened One Night (another Colbert masterwork), we are given a well-aged screwball comedy that is purposeful and exact in making us laugh at, with and around the social network.
Second, it is a tale of mistaken identity. Whether fake or intentional, the story is rife with this issue of identity. And, whether you want to view that as a deep study of personhood or just a funny element to life surrounded by strangers who have no idea who you are, it always seems to work in the confines of the genre. Isn’t that what life is? It is existence surrounded by people who don’t know who we are. And, everything we do is designed to somehow express what differentiates ourselves from all the other people the strangers have come to know. How much is fabricated and how much is legitimate is the essence of this style of comedy, which is so accessible because we can see it so much. We see from this element of screwball farce as well as form the element regarding class division that screwball works through satirization of a superficial world.
Third, there is the divorce comedy, or, better put, the comedy of remarriage. Ultimately, this is where we get the classic “sex without the sex” repartee that defines much of the great screwballs of the 30s and 40s. It is one of the predominant ways that screwballs have aged so well: they are accessible to everyone through intimation and insinuation, which allows the jokes to bridge gaps caused by age or generation. This is further evidenced by the tendency of the humor to play out in clever lines of dialogue, rather than set-ups followed by punch-lines. This is really where the “great screenplay” claim that I have made regarding this genre comes most to light. The elements of adultery and divorce are certainly present, but they are more plot points, while the trajectory points towards reunification despite separation. As Tolstoy said, “all happy families are alike; all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.”
It is in the remarriage element that the funniest parts of the story unfold. The whole existence of the mistaken identity theme, or the class politics theme, is due to the fact that Flammarion is trying to rekindle (or remarry) his wife. The jokes become more authentic toward movie’s end, when a non-wed couple is forced to divorce, only to get married, instead. The trend that defined this particular sub-genre of screwball comedy (made all the more famous in the following year’s The Philadelphia Story).
So, where Leisen may not have made a directorial mark with a Shakespearean mastery of the language of cinema, he certainly got the job done through his uncanny ability to get the most out of his players. Everyone is fantastic in this romantic romp, and both actors and director are indebted first and foremost to Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, two men who define what it meant to write one of the “great American screenplays” of the 1930s and 1940s. They created, in Midnight, a stunning example of quintessential screwball comedy, one that has aged well and is still remembered today, despite its being buried in the wave of popularity that was Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and other classics that came out that year.