powered by AFI
Soon after appearing with Myrna Loy in the classic romantic comedy-mystery The Thin Man (1934), leading man William Powell was offered a long-term contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio that produced that box-office hit. Prior to inking the deal with MGM, however, Powell agreed to a short-term deal with RKO which resulted in a pair of Thin Man imitations, Star of Midnight, co-starring RKO contract star Ginger Rogers, and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), co-starring Jean Arthur. Both of these films were widely acknowledged as the best of the many Thin Man clones hitting screens at that time, thanks to the involvement of Powell himself.
Audiences flocked to The Thin Man for a number of reasons, but the most attractive ingredient was the witty and loving relationship between Nick and Nora Charles, as seen in a sophisticated (and often gin-soaked) Art Deco high life. The RKO imitations present winning variations of this scenario. In Star of Midnight Powell plays Clay 'Dal' Dalzell, a lawyer by trade but an amateur sleuth on the side: "just because I happen to have more fun solving cases than trying them, my friends all seem to think that I'm a combination of Charlie Chan, Philo Vance, and the Sphinx all rolled into one." (The inside gag here is that Powell had already played Philo Vance in four features earlier in his career). The unmarried Dal is often joined in his adventures by wealthy young socialite Donna Mantin (Ginger Rogers), who has been an enamored hanger-on of the lawyer since she was 10 years old - apparently the daughter of a rich friend or client.
Characters are introduced fast and furious in the storyline (the script is based on a novel by Arthur Somers Roche). Tim Winthrop (Leslie Fenton) comes to New York to ask help of his friend Dal; it seems that a year earlier in Chicago, Winthrop's singer fiance Alice Markham left him suddenly and disappeared. Tim, Dal, and Donna attend the play Midnight because Tim suspects that masked actress "Mary Smith" is actually Alice. Dal is called away to visit gangster Jimmy Kinland (Paul Kelly) to retrieve some incriminating letters as a favor to Donna. In the lobby Dal meets an old flame, Jerry Classon (Vivien Oakland) and her husband Roger (Ralph Morgan). While at Kinland's apartment, Dal hears the news that Mary Smith ran out of the theater when confronted by Tim. Later at Dal's apartment, while butler Horace Swayne (Gene Lockhart) is away, gossip columnist Tommy Tennant (Russell Hopton) plans to tell Dal why Mary Smith ran from the stage. Before he can, an unseen gunman shoots Tommy dead and wounds Dal; the gun is tossed by Dal's body in an effort to frame him. Inspector Doremus (J. Farrell MacDonald) does indeed have Dal followed while he, Donna, and Swayne investigate the connection between Tommy's murder and the missing Mary Smith.
Dal Dalzell must be an excellent lawyer - his Park Avenue apartment is luxuriously appointed with beautiful Art Deco furnishings and details, and his servant is constantly entering the room with a tray full of drinks. A fair number of scenes take place in Dal's spacious bathroom, which is stocked with a stand-up shower, a full barber's chair, and a toilet that plays "Pop Goes the Weasel" when in use! (Even though the commode is off-screen and only implied, it is surprising this detail got past the Hays Office).
The age disparity between Dal and Donna is cleverly played up in Star of Midnight (Rogers was 19 years younger than Powell in real life). Donna's actions paint her as little more than a troublesome kid sister, but the verbal by-play that occurs is much less innocent. When Del suggests that Donna should get a spanking, she presents her behind, saying, "Well, this'll be new." (She receives a kick to the rump instead). In another scene she is bringing Dal and a guest some drinks to the bathroom, but makes an amusing U-turn when she hears the musical commode in use; the clear implication is that she is otherwise used to barging in on Dal, no matter the location. The playing between Powell and Rogers is deft; Powell is able to utter disparaging remarks like "the woman is a shameless hussy and a fact-distorter" while indicating that he doesn't believe a word of it and holds her in great affection.
Ginger Rogers appeared in Star of Midnight directly between the filming of Roberta (1935) and Top Hat (1935) with Fred Astaire. In her 1992 autobiography Ginger: My Story, Rogers wrote, "I was thankful to be going into a sophisticated comedy instead of rehearsing long hours and hearing the same song five thousand times." Working with the same personnel at RKO meant that costume designer Bernard Newman "...had my measurements and could have all my gowns ready before lunch if necessary. He designed some lovely dresses; I especially loved my opening outfit, a white mink blouse with a black velvet skirt. It was so Fifth Avenue."
Nearly every review of Star of Midnight mentions the film's similarity to The Thin Man, but does not necessarily hold that against the film. The writer for Variety, for example, raves that "it hits a similar merry comedy-drama stride and attains practically the same effectiveness as screen entertainment. ...Smart dialog containing a good share of genuine laughs keeps Powell and Rogers occupied most of the time when they are not mystery-solving or drinking."
The critic for Liberty magazine called the film "brightly written and frequently bawdy" and said that Powell ("consuming enough Martinis to float Oliver Hardy and Charles Laughton") and Rogers ("rapidly becoming one of the screen's most pleasant personalities") "...have so much drunken fun that the audience can hardly miss capturing a share of it." The writer for Time magazine acknowledges that "the spectacle of Clay Dalzell's suave bar manners are much more stimulating than the mystery which he solves... Cinemaddicts who enjoyed The Thin Man, recognized master print for all cocktail and wisecrack crime cinemas, should find Star of Midnight an entertaining and not too sedulous copy."
Andre Sennwald, writing in the New York Times, called Star of Midnight "a sleek, witty and engaging entertainment, it contemplates its corpses with the charming air of just passing the time pleasantly until the bar opens. Probably William Powell, as the debonair lawyer-sleuth of the late Arthur Somers Roche's story, is responsible for making Star of Midnight seem like a sequel to The Thin Man, when its producers had no such reckless intention. His Clay Dalzell is drawn to the Nick Charles measurements and he conducts his pursuit of cocktails and assassins with that blend of bored nonchalance and native shrewdness which we found so captivating last year."
In his New School program notes, William K. Everson admired the "exceptionally clever pun title" but listed what he felt were problems with the film, writing that "as a mystery it's just too urbane. The sophistication is delightful, but the identity of the killer is never once in doubt. Yet the motivation for the crime is so complex that it never does get wholly sorted out..." Everson also felt that Max Steiner was not "awake and earning his money... a lively and punctuational score would have worked wonders for the film."
Director Stephen Roberts, screenwriter Anthony Veiller, and star Powell returned the following year for The Ex-Mrs. Bradford. It was to be Roberts' final film; he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1936. Powell, meanwhile, signed that new contract with MGM and the studio soon paired him with Myrna Loy for the first of several official Thin Man sequels, After the Thin Man (1936).
Producer: Pandro S. Berman (uncredited)
Director: Stephen Roberts
Screenplay: Howard J. Green, Edward Kaufman, Anthony Veiller; Arthur Somers Roche (novel)
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Max Steiner (uncredited)
Film Editing: Arthur Roberts
Cast: William Powell (Clay 'Dal' Dalzell), Ginger Rogers (Donna Mantin), Paul Kelly (Jimmy 'Jim' Kinland), Gene Lockhart (Horatio Swayne), Ralph Morgan (Roger Classon), Leslie Fenton (Tim Winthrop), J. Farrell MacDonald (Police Insp. Doremus), Russell Hopton (Tommy Tennant), Vivien Oakland (Jerry Classon)
By John M. Miller