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Not all fairy tales involve innocent princesses. This one, Midnight (1939), begins with a gold digger named Eve (Claudette Colbert) down on her luck in Paris. Her system of beating the roulette wheel has, instead, beaten her and she finds herself in the back of a taxicab without enough money for the fare. Fortunately, her driver (Don Ameche) falls in love with her on sight but, before they reach a more romantic location, she jumps out and crashes a swelligant soiree. There she meets her fairy godmother; well, more of a godfather, as he's the rich M. Flammarion (John Barrymore) whose wife (Mary Astor) has a roving eye for a young gigolo. Now, with ample cash and a new wardrobe provided by Flammarion, all Eve has to do is pretend to be a baroness and entice the gigolo away from the wife. Of course, just as the masquerade is in full swing, who re-enters the picture but the taxi driver!
This concoction, light and airy as a classic French souffle, was the second screenplay by the great screenwriting team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. Later, when Wilder became a director, the two would write such classic, but serious, films as Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). At the beginning of their career together, however, all they wanted to do was write comedies in the style of Ernst Lubitsch, elegant, suave and subtly ribald.
Lubitsch directed their first screenplay, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), but for the next one they got Mitchell Leisen, one of Paramount's most celebrated directors, having helmed hits like Death Takes a Holiday (1934) and Easy Living (1937). That did not matter to Billy Wilder who was so incensed about Leisen having the temerity to change a word of his dialogue that he later insisted on directing all his screenplays himself. Until the end of his life, an easy way to get Wilder mad was to mention Leisen. "He didn't know sh-t about construction. And he didn't care. All he did was he f-cked up the script and our scripts were damn near perfection!"
In his defense, Leisen had a lot on his mind. He enjoyed working with star Claudette Colbert, saying she "had elegant taste," but he had to give in to her demand that she not be photographed from the right. "She had a crazy idea that her nose was crooked on that side. I never could see the difference, but she was adamant about it." This required elaborate blocking of cameras and actors. Then there was John Barrymore, already severely damaged by his heavy alcohol consumption and unwilling to learn his lines. Cue cards were kept just off screen. Mary Astor recalled that, "even with cue cards and only a faint idea of what the picture was all about, he had enough years of experience behind him to be able to act rings around anyone else." This is not just professional politeness; Barrymore steals every scene he is in, providing the movie's biggest laughs. Astor provided her own difficulty, being a few months pregnant at the time of the shoot, forcing a re-write to keep her off screen or partially hidden.
For all the trouble and antagonism behind the scenes, Midnight shows nothing but effortless charm on screen. Wilder may have hated his director but, apparently, Leisen knew exactly how to present this type of material. Of all the great screwball comedies of the 1930's, Midnight is considered one of the very best; a classically structured farce played by professionals with a great director buffing it all to a polished sheen.
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Screenplay: Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, from a story by Edwin Justus Mayer and Franz Schulz
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Editor: Doane Harrison
Music: Frederick Hollander
Cast: Claudette Colbert (Eve Peabody), Don Ameche (Tibor Czerny), John Barrymore (Georges Flammarion), Francis Lederer (Jacques Picot), Mary Astor (Helene Flammarion).
BW-94 min. Closed captioning.
by Brian Cady