Midnight (1939, Mitchell Leisen)

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.


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.


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.


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:

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.