Sunday, September 13, 2009

Midnight (1939): Happy Birthday Claudette Colbert


Classic and classy Claudette Colbert would have been 106 today. In her long and impressive career as a Hollywood actress, she gave one quality performance after another, covering multiple genres. She could handle heavy drama or dark suspense just as adroitly as she could high comedy. Midnight is one such comedy that Colbert handled to perfection. Yet another gem from 1939, the Paramount production is handled to perfection by all involved, including its other stars Don Ameche, John Barrymore and Mary Astor.

Colbert plays gold digging American chorine Eve Peabody, who finds herself down and out without a nickel to her name in Paris, wearing only a gold lame evening gown. She meets Parisian cabbie Tibor Czerney (pronounced Chair' ney; Don Ameche) and a mutual attraction is felt almost immediately. Afraid of where her feelings for Czerney might lead and out to follow the scent of money, Eve ditches the good looking taxi driver and crashes a swanky party loaded with well-to-dos. Posing as a Hungarian baroness (called Czerney), Eve meets wealthy Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore), his socialite wife Helene (Mary Astor) and Helene's lover Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer). When Jacques shows interest in Eve/Baroness Czerney, Georges seizes the opportunity to engage the down on her luck impostor to help him lure the gigolo away from his wife.

Much to Helene's chagrin, her husband invites the "Baroness" to a weekend party at their country estate. Meanwhile, Tibor has set up a dragnet with his fellow cabbies to search the streets of Paris for his lady fair. When one of them spots Eve in the limousine provided for her via Georges Flammarion, lovelorn Tibor discovers that she is at the Flammarion's plush chateau and follows in pursuit, with hilarious results.

Thanks to director Mitchell Leisen, who began his Hollywood career as an art director and costume designer, Midnight has a lush, luxurious feel with gorgeous sets and exquisitely tailored suits and gowns. The aura of old world aristocracy with its extravagant elegance is abundant which makes Colbert's charming freeloader's appearance there all the more delightful. Thanks to master screenwriting team Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, the dialogue tossed about in and around that world sparkles and shines with biting wit. One scene has romantic rivals Colbert and Astor in a Parisian hat salon when Claudette quips to Mary: "That hat does something for you...It gives you a chin". It's not just the dialogue itself that works alone, but also the fantastic delivery by the film's stars. Colbert doesn't just spout out the "chin" line as a gag one-liner, but tosses it subtly as in normal conversation to make its sting even more potent.

Originally meant for Barbara Stanwyck, who would have done equally well using her own Stanwyck style in such a part, the role of Eve Peabody was a cinch for Claudette Colbert. One of four roles she played in 1939, her natural fun and sophistication are used to her great advantage in this film. Don Ameche, on a rare loan out from 20th Century-Fox, always seems to enjoy himself in romantic comedy and he and Colbert make a fine duo. As two of the five sides of the glorious comedic menagerie are John Barrymore and Mary Astor. Midnight was filmed late in Barrymore's tumultuous career and it shows on his face but his performance is amazingly funny. Most of his later roles were self-parodying drunks and madcap manics. He looks as if he may be tipsy as Flammarion but it gives the role all the more flair. Astor, who was pregnant during the shooting, isn't as bitchy as Helene as she has proved in other roles that she can be. She is merely catty when the situation calls for it. She is the perfect Hollywood example of the idle European rich at the time. Rounding out the cast are Czech born Francis Lederer, gossip columnist and part-time actress Hedda Hopper and in an early role, brusque and bearded Monty Wooley.

Not as well known as other Colbert comedies (everyone immediately thinks of It Happened One Night, The Palm Beach Story or The Egg and I), Midnight is an excellent film, not to be missed. It is brisk and breezy with a solid plot and tons of great humor. If the opportunity arises, catch it.

8 comments:

  1. Rupert, what a pleasure it was to read your excellent post on one of my very favorite comedies from the era when Hollywood made its best movies of this kind. I love Colbert. She's one of my big 5 actresses from the studio era--the others are Davis, Hepburn, Dunne, and Arthur. And for me it's a toss-up between this film and "The Palm Beach Story" as my favorite comic performance by Colbert. You noted that Barbara Stanwyck was originally supposed to play this role. (I wonder if she didn't because she got the lead in "Golden Boy.") Did you know that Colbert was originally set to play the lead in "The Lady Eve"? What a switcheroo that would have been, but I'm glad things worked out the way they did. My favorite scene in the movie is right after Colbert crashes the party and is busily wolfing down a plate of food while sitting next to Barrymore, who has obviously caught on to her. They play this scene without dialogue, using only their faces, and what an accomplished pair of facial performers they are! And you're sure right that this is "another gem from 1939"--to me it's one of the best movies of that remarkable year, yet usually gets overlooked. I'm so happy you brought it to your readers' attention

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  2. Excellent review of a movie that I've become very interested in seeing after my recently all-things Preston Sturges fling. Through the Sturges obsession, I began to get into Leisen, but still have not found the time to watch it. That will be fixed in the next few weeks once things calm down for me a bit and I have the time. Very glad to read this!

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  3. Saw this in my formulative years (ahem) and it made me a fan of both Colbert and Ameche. And although I've got a soft spot for The Egg And I (I live about 10 miles from the book's setting), this is still my favorite.

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  4. Rupert- This is a wonderful movie and your essay does the film justice. Colbert is terrific however, I was unaware that Stanwyck was originally set for the role. Much of the wit has to be credited to Wilder and Brackett, though as you note Leisen’s background gives the sets its splendor. Billy Wilder had a real dislike of Leisen and is quoted in a few biographies as stating he is one of the reasons he wanted to direct his own scripts.

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  5. God. I love her in It Happened One Night. Such a great film.

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  6. Happy Birthday, Claudette!!! <3

    TCM is paying tribute to you all day and night w/ a marathon of your best movies!

    My favourite is "The Guest Wife".

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  7. Charles Del GenoveseAugust 6, 2013 at 7:12 PM

    anything Claudette is in great I love her

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