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Midnight October 13, 2006

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1930s, Billy Wilder , trackback

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As the DVD medium enters its second decade, consumers have been blessed with more titles than many of us can find the time to watch. Nevertheless, there are still many, many deserving films from Hollywood’s golden age that remain unreleased. Warner Bros. and Fox are mostly doing their part to rectify the situation, but Universal, who controls almost all of Paramount’s catalog prior to 1948, has seemingly devoted most of its attention to re-releasing more contemporary films (often poorly). The digital crumbs that Universal has thrown out in R1, vis-à-vis classic cinema, have often been value-priced, with two or three feature films per disc. It’s difficult to complain about five or six movies retailing for less than $30 (as with the recent Glamour Collections), but these releases seem to be few and far between. This leaves Universal with a hefty library of unreleased gems, none more deserving than the classic 1939 comedy Midnight.

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. The film 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. Enter 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.

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Somehow she ends up at a posh, invitation-only soiree and substitutes her pawn shop ticket for the 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 realizes 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 three lead performances, along with the breezy, smart script, provide much of the film’s success. It’s rare to have three actors and movie stars of this caliber in the same film without it turning into a mess or an “all-star spectacle.” Thankfully, Colbert, Ameche and Barrymore don’t try to outdo each other here and are content to bask in the spotlight at their given times. All three are wonderful, with Barrymore shining particularly bright in his brief comedic scenes. Colbert’s performance, as in many of her other roles, is so winning that you nearly believe someone like Barrymore’s benefactor would actually put her up in a fancy hotel and buy her that expensive wardrobe. Ameche is just as good, in a role that you’d think lots of other actors could pull of, yet once you’ve seen Midnight, anyone else is unimaginable.

The film has several funny, laugh-out-loud sequences that reminded me of screwball comedy, though I wouldn’t place Midnight in that category. While even a stone-face would get tickled by the screwball-esque “Francie” bit, overall, there’s more romance than farce. Midnight actually resembles the smart, sophisticated comedies of Ernst Lubitsch more than perhaps any other film not directed by Lubitsch. It’s not surprising, then, that it was written by the screenwriting team from Lubtisch’s own Ninotchka (also from 1939), Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, who always considered Lubitsch to be his mentor. More so than any other film Wilder wrote, including those he would later direct, Midnight has the elusive ingredients often found in Lubitsch’s films that came to be known as the ”Lubitsch touch.”

The man who actually did direct Midnight was Mitchell Leisen, a former art designer. Leisen is notable for inspiring two of the premiere screenwriters in 1930s and 40s Hollywood, Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, to become directors after their frustrations in working with him. Since Sturges and Wilder are my two favorite filmmakers from that era, Leisen’s work with their scripts has a bittersweet quality for me. I can’t help but be glad that Leisen angered the two men enough to inspire them to direct, yet I wonder how films such as Midnight or Hold Back the Dawn would have turned out with Wilder at the helm (likewise for Sturges with Easy Living and Remember the Night). It’s probably doubtful that Wilder would have been accomplished enough to handle Midnight as well as the final product turned out. On the other hand, a sequence from the script for Hold Back the Dawn involving Charles Boyer talking to a cockroach in a Mexican hotel and which Leisen refused to film, the incident that Wilder claimed was the final straw and lead to him directing his next script himself, would have been quite interesting to see.

Getting back to Universal dragging their feet about releasing so many classic films on DVD in R1, it would be more excusable if there was a valid reason for withholding these releases, but I can’t seem to find one. The VHS copy I recently saw of Midnight looked very good and any restoration for a DVD release need be minimal. The low prices Universal has charged for their classic product thus far almost surely have helped with sales and there’s no reason to think consumers aren’t hungry for some of these unreleased treasures. While Midnight is prime material, there are still plenty of other worthy titles languishing in their library. Billy Wilder fans, in particular, are still waiting for two films he directed (The Major and the Minor and A Foreign Affair) as well as three more he wrote, the two previously mentioned and the Lubitsch directed Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. A “Written by Billy Wilder” Glamour Collection (complete with slipcover and cheesy color glamour shot!), anyone?

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Comments»

1. JohnH - October 13, 2006

Can’t let a nice piece like go without a comment; well done, and - though they have improved over the past couple of years - your comments on Universal are seconded.

Where they have come on leaps and bounds is mainly in the quality of their transfers, despite the occasional clunker.


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