Our second Barbara Stanwyck Christmas movie, and an improvement on Christmas in Connecticut. Moves along like a typical Hollywood holiday romance, but with some interesting twists from writer Preston Sturges (a few months before his directorial debut), which I’m surprised weren’t softened by rewrites. Even if the original script has actually been tamed down, you’ve still got romantic lead Barbara Stanwyck headed to prison at the end of the picture. It’s the morally upright ending, and I suppose the production code insists that she can’t get away with crime just because she’s in love.

Stanwyck is a thief, who steals because she wasn’t loved enough as a child and Fred MacMurray is the prosecuting attorney who schemes to delay her trial until after the holidays so the jury’s Christmastime sympathy doesn’t interfere with his case. But that leaves the sad, pretty girl in jail for Christmas, so Fred pays her bail for the week, but ends up with the girl in his apartment since the dirty-minded bailsman assumed that was Fred’s intent. And since she’s got no place to go, he takes her along home, getting in trouble with a rural farmer (John Wray) and getting frowned at by Stanwyck’s chilly mother (Georgia Caine, later a Sturges regular) at stops along the way. Inevitably they fall in love, then back at the trial she sees that he’s sneakily trying to get her acquitted so she pleads guilty, insisting that she serve her penance rather than turn them both into crooks.

Leisen is the filmmaker who frustrated Billy Wilder (Midnight) and Preston Sturges (Easy Living) into directing their own scripts. I still don’t have any problem with him. Maybe Sturges wanted a lighter touch or a snappier pace. Surely he could’ve done more with the comic cow-milking scene than Leisen did, but it’s a solid movie. Aha, from Wikipedia:

Director Mitchell Leisen, a rare director to come out of costume design and art direction, is reported to have shortened Sturges’ script considerably, both before and during shooting, something which generally annoyed Sturges. Leisen’s alterations to the script changed the focus of the film from MacMurray’s character to Stanwyck’s. Sturges summarized the film by saying “Love reformed her and corrupted him.”

Film Forum calls it a screwball comedy, but I don’t think you can just slap that term onto anything with Sturges’s name on it. In his 50’s, wholesome-looking MacMurray starred in three live-action Disney films, beloved to Katy but which I never watched. Must see him in The Egg and I with Claudette Colbert and There’s Always Tomorrow with Stanwyck sometime.

At Fred’s house: Sterling Holloway, a Disney voice actor, most notably as Winnie the Pooh. Not sure if that’s his voice singing the solemn “End of a Perfect Day” while Stanwyck plays piano, but it’s the most surprising moment in the movie:

MacMurray with the vaguely recognizable Beulah Bondi at left – mother in Track of the Cat, the wife’s tutor in Baron of Arizona, Stewart’s mom in It’s a Wonderful Life – and Elizabeth Patterson standing up – an aunt-type who also played aunts in Love Me Tonight, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, The Cat and the Canary and Hail the Conquering Hero.

Claudette Colbert (pre-Palm Beach Story) is half broke, flees Monte Carlo for Paris then, stalked by her cab driver Don Ameche (who had the same mustache 50 years later in Coming To America), wins an awful lot of money on the craps table and loses it all a few seconds later.

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Now truly broke, she sneaks into a fancy dinner party and hides in the back room playing cards, catching the eye of John Barrymore, five years after Twentieth Century and just as insane and hilarious in this one, but in a much quieter way, acting mostly with his eyes. As his cheating wife, Mary Astor is as comfortable acting rich and desirable as she is in The Palm Beach Story, but she’s less loopy here.

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In fact, the whole atmosphere is quieter and less loopy than most so-called screwball comedies. Maybe the writers intended for this film to have more energy, more of a visual punch. I’m not sure, but Leisen’s (mis)treatment of Billy Wilder’s script caused an exasperated Wilder to become a director himself with The Major and The Minor – the same thing that happened a couple years earlier with Preston Sturges (Leisen’s Easy Living -> Sturges’s The Great McGinty). Can’t say that I see Wilder’s problem… the movie is pretty wonderful.

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Barrymore is on to Colbert’s ruse, so he hires her to seduce his wife’s boyfriend away from her, in a comic-but-touching attempt to save his marriage. She pretty much succeeds, but Don Ameche holds a city-wide manhunt to find her and somehow they end up together because stalking = romance in early Hollywood cinema.

They’re not major characters – I just liked the hat:
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A la Easy Living, it’s a movie where a regular girl is picked off the street and showered with money and nice clothes by a millionaire. Katy loves when that happens.

David Boxwell is comparing it to Rules of the Game:

In both films, the aristocrats walk away from the convulsive messes they make; but Midnight ultimately valorizes, in a predictable way for a Hollywood film, the ’30s populism embodied in Don Ameche’s character, the taxi driver Tibor Czerny. The film endorses the entrepreneur who arises from the working classes, since Tibor rejects whatever aristocratic heritage he has and is content to hustle just enough business to live happily. Indeed, it’s difficult to remember that he isn’t American, and Ameche, like the other American actors playing Europeans, makes no effort to adopt a foreign accent. And this being screwball comedy, Midnight lauds his eventual mastery over the knowing, independent, rootless American ‘gold-digger,’ whose material acquisitiveness sets the film’s comic plot spinning into high gear. …

The ease with which Midnight resolves the conflicts it sets in motion stands in stark contrast to the traumas of expulsion and death endured by some of the characters in Renoir’s film. In effect, if both films are ultimately about the degree to which a culture has the confidence to survive the inevitable upheaval of war, Midnight is an optimistic fantasy reassuring audiences of the superiority of American culture, however much it’s displaced onto a Europe that really consists of the process photography of a tourist’s Paris and some plaster Art Deco sets on the Paramount lot.

Only written by Preston Sturges, but I have no problem calling this a Sturges movie, full of his witty dialogue and manic energy. Sturges, who I’d just accused of ignoring women in Christmas In July, writes a fantasy chick-flick here. Girl works hard at menial job, then out of nowhere she gets fanciness thrown at her and a hot rich guy falls for her.

God’s own Jean Arthur is the girl, cuter here than in You Can’t Take It With You (in which this movie’s stuffy rich guy Edward Arnold played an even stuffier rich guy). He tosses a mink coat out the window and it lands on her, setting into motion a rags-to-the-appearance-of-riches story a la The Million Pound Note. A young Ray Milland (minus his X-Ray Eyes, some years before The Major and the Minor), earnest son of the Edward Arnold, falls for her and Louie, a chef turned hotel owner (played by Luis Alberni, who would go back to being a chef in The Lady Eve), thinking she’s having an affair with Edward Arnold, gives her a free suite to attract other trendy, wealthy socialites. Pretty sure she ends up with Ray Milland.

Katy liked it, too.