Midnight Review

Few movies have the charm and light sophistication of Midnight. Well, few that weren't directed by Ernst Lubitsch. In 1939, the writing team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder wrote a pair of romantic comedies, one for Lubitsch at MGM and one that was directed by Mitchell Leisen at Paramount. The former was Ninotchka, billed as "Garbo Laughs" and now firmly established in the canon of classic American comedy films. Yet, it's the other film, Midnight, with direction never bettered or equaled by Leisen, that I'd say is the considerably superior one. Where Leisen had earlier stumbled around in trying to translate Preston Sturges' verbal slapstick with Easy Living, he's given a much more suitable script here. Brackett and Wilder's words don't require the theatricality of Sturges' and, for an hour and a half, Leisen comes out looking (almost) like Lubitsch.

Midnight is not usually placed in the same category of great early comedies with the best of Lubitsch, Sturges, Capra, Hawks, et al., but perhaps it should be. There's nary a better, more balanced and entertaining example of the classic studio system comedy, particularly of what was being churned out at Paramount, than this film. It begins with American Eve Peabody (the always charming Claudette Colbert) getting off a train after arriving in soggy Paris. “So this, as they say, is Paris, huh?” “Yes, madame.” “Well, from here it looks an awful lot like a rainy night in Kokomo, Indiana.” We soon find out she has no money, nowhere to stay, and she had to pawn off her luggage in Monte Carlo. At the train station, she meets Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche), a Hungarian cab driver looking for his next fare.

After the two settle on a wager to pay off the taxi fee, they spend the evening driving around Paris searching for Eve a singing job. He offers up room and board for the night, but she declines and ends up at a posh, invitation-only soirée, having substituted her pawn shop ticket for an invitation. There, she meets two men and a married couple, the Flammarions (played by John Barrymore and Mary Astor). The husband realizes right away that Eve is out of place, but realises he can put her to good use - as bait for his wife’s playboy lover. From there, Eve transforms herself into Baroness Czerny while the real Mr. Czerny has cab drivers all over Paris searching frantically for her. When Czerny actually finds his fake wife, things really get out of control and you realize Midnight rivals the best comedies of its era.

The whys and hows begin with the screenplay, which is a marvel, and the best of Wilder's work at the lot prior to him becoming a director. Its structure is nearly flawless and sets up nice, neat divisions between the three acts that transition seamlessly into one another. The cast is equally important, not just the three leads, but also well-placed parts for Mary Astor, Francis Lederer, and a preening Rex O'Malley. Then there's Leisen, who deserves a portion of the credit himself. He seems to let the finer points of the script play out untouched and handles the actors well here, too. Consummate ham Barrymore steals his scenes, but isn't allowed to cross over into obnoxiousness. The strength of Colbert and, especially, Ameche, in a role that you’d think lots of other actors could pull off, yet once you’ve seen Midnight, anyone else is unimaginable, keep Barrymore balanced out. The three lead performances, along with the breezy, smart script, are key to much of the film’s success. It’s rare to have a trio of movie stars in the same film without it turning into a messy all-star spectacle.

Indeed, almost every little detail in the picture seems tuned and tweaked to perfection. Leisen's usual struggles with humour are missing and his joy of set building gets put to good use, as well. It's not that Leisen's overall competence as a director should be questioned - just that, despite working in the genre for much of his career, his comic sensibility appears dulled, perhaps by disinterest. Watching many of his films today in relation to the better, more polished comedies of the era, Leisen's direction lacks any sense of understanding the rhythms of comedy and he seems to approach scenes with little finesse or flair of anything other than establishing romantic pseudo-melodrama as the scenes advance. His most notable movies were delivered wrapped in a bow by either Wilder and Brackett or Sturges, and yet only Midnight is a total success. By looking closely at the picture, I think the reason why it's so good, especially in comparison to the other Leisen films where he was working from a screenplay by these noted writers, comes clearly into focus.

First, again, it starts with Brackett and Wilder's script. There's simply no good opportunity for Leisen to insert the romantic interlude filler his comedies often get bogged down in. The relationship between Eve and Tibor flourishes at its own pace and there's hardly any room for isolated and prolonged scenes with the two of them ruminating about love's labour's lost. Melodrama is impossible here and wisely not attempted. The three leads are also held in check. Leisen had a reputation of allowing his actors great freedom, even in deviating from the script, but none of that comes into play on screen. Barrymore, who read from cue cards and can be seen in one exchange with Colbert late in the film looking over her shoulder to see his lines, is sort of the unlikely saving grace of the film. The other two leads were professional, charming presences, despite Colbert's insistence in favouring her left for close-ups, but Barrymore was a notorious drunk. The reactions Leisen cuts to of Barrymore are priceless, none more so than those in the hilarious "Francie" sequence. Yet, by Leisen bowing to the legendary actor in allowing him to use cues, Barrymore's tendency to make an ass of himself is largely removed. He sticks to his lines and doesn't step over Colbert or Ameche, allowing the natural flow of the script to remain unblemished.

This is a serendipitous situation, to be sure. Seeing Barrymore go a dozen floors over the top in earlier comedies like Twentieth Century and Dinner at Eight makes his comparatively restrained scene-stealing in Midnight all the more fun. Likewise, when you discover Leisen's perfectly balanced tone, between comedy and romance, and always with a frothy light touch, it qualifies as a small revelation in comparison to how flat his other comedies often seem. The texture from those films is retained in this one, but there's the addition of substance, timing, and cohesiveness, qualities rarely seen in a Leisen-directed picture. Glamour abounds, sparkling at every turn, without overwhelming the all-important pace of the story. Most tellingly, the film shows that, given the right material and perfect blend of actors, Leisen was more than capable of fashioning a movie from beginning to end with supreme confidence and dedication. His biggest detriment may have actually been a lack of good judgment in terms of what parts of the screenplay to film and which scenes could be harmlessly excised at the request of his leading actors. Anyone who views Midnight can easily see that the pages and dialogue written by Brackett and Wilder which were actually part of the finished film, regardless of how much may or may not have been cut out, are close to being the exact portions that should have been there. Either in allowing the words to remain or knowing what shouldn't, Leisen for once got it right.

There are several accounts of Wilder being unhappy with Leisen's handling here, but I'm unaware as to exactly where the issues would have been. The more documented dust-ups were over Hold Back the Dawn, released two years later, so it would seem possible that the cumulative distaste Wilder had with Leisen was partially transferred to Midnight after the fact. Near the end of his life, Wilder even commented to Cameron Crowe in his book Conversations with Wilder that Leisen had done a fine job with Midnight, and that it was the best picture that came from the screenplays he'd co-written for the director. As usual, Wilder was right. The Cinderella-like story is fully realised by Leisen's thankless, unobtrusive direction. His attention to detail in set design is, for once, ancillary while still remaining elemental. From the opening shots of a rainy Paris by way of the Paramount backlot and through the sparkling party scene and country estate third act, the film's sets look terrific. The presence of cinematographer Charles Lang surely didn't hurt, and he was one of several members of Leisen's crew who'd eventually work with Wilder once the writer became a director, lensing the 1948 film A Foreign Affair, as well as Ace in the Hole and Some Like It Hot. Nothing Wilder himself would later direct, however, got the classical mood of romantic comedy quite as perfectly as Midnight does.

The Disc

Alongside three other classic Paramount comedies new to R1 DVD (She Done Him Wrong, Easy Living, and The Major and the Minor), Universal has released Midnight in their Cinema Classics line. The disc is dual-layered and the film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The progressive transfer is what I'd term acceptable, meaning there are no distracting flaws, but it's unlikely to elicit overly strong praise. Light flickering is evident at times. Detail is fairly good. In comparison to the VHS release of the film, the presentation looks virtually identical aside from the obvious format improvements. The print used is in fine condition and damage is minimal, but some scenes particularly show grain. Little speckles of dirt, while never problematic, are sometimes visible, as well. These are all standard imperfections with films of this age that haven't undergone significant restoration so I see nothing worth complaining about when the price is low ($15 retail) and the content is this good.

Audio is a similar story. The English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track has no major issues. A very low hiss can be heard faintly if you really listen for it, but it's barely there. The track sounds quite good overall and dialogue comes through with strong clarity. Both picture and sound on Midnight are minor improvements from what's found on the Easy Living DVD. French and English for the hearing impaired subtitles are optional and white in colour.

For some unknown reason, none of these Universal Cinema Classics comedies have chapter navigation screens on the disc menus.

The only extra material on the disc is a short introduction (2:07) by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne that's typical of his contributions for the channel and a theatrical trailer (2:03). A four-page TCM insert showcasing classic Universal DVD's is inside the case.

In short, it's not a stretch to claim this as one of the best films of the 1930's. It's Mitchell Leisen's finest work and I consider it to be the most enjoyable of the Brackett and Wilder scripts directed by someone other than Billy Wilder.

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