Midnight (1939): Mitchel Leisen’s Screwball Comedy Starring Cluadette Colbert and John Barrymore

The charming screwball comedy “Midnight” is the first collaboration between director Mitchell Leisen and screenwriters Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.

The trio also teamed for the making of the 1941 Oscar-nominated “Hold Back the Dawn,” starring Charles Boyer and Olivia De Havilland, before Wilder became a director on his own.

The film merges Brackett and Wilder’s penchant for repartee and masquerade with Leisen’s flair

for high style and sophistication. A gay director, Leisen began his career as costume designer.

Claudette Colbert, at the height of her popularity, plays the American girl, Eve Peabody, a former-showgirl, who’s forced to impersonate Hungarian royalty in order to infiltrate the Parisian jet set.

The comedy begins during a midnight rainstorm as Eve arrives penniless at Paris’ Gare de L’Est, owning only the gold lamé gown on her back. She immediately attracts the attention of Hungarian cab driver Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche), but walks out on their budding romance.

Eve is determined to no longer make the mistake of dating for love as she’s desperate for money. Indeed, she finds shelter from the downpour by crashing a socialite’s late-night soirée using a pawn ticket and a pseudonym, the Baroness Czerny (the cabdriver’s surname).

While there, Eve meets the aristocrat Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore, at the end of his career), who entices her with a place in society if she agrees to remain disguised as the Baroness and seduce his wife’s playboy lover.

Complications abound when Tibor Czerny is still searching for Eve. When he locates her whereabouts and discovers the fact that she is using his name, Tibor decides to also travel to the Flammarion estate. His goal is to win back Eve, and to pose as her husband, the Baron.
What ensues is a quintessentially witty and amusing screwball comedy, full of deception, love, quadruple entendre, and outright farce.

For many, “Midnight,” truly a chic fairytale, represents the climax of Leisen’s career. The cast is superb, with the exception of Don Ameche, who is too stiff and earnest for his part.

Credits

Running time: 94 Minutes.
Directed By: Mitchell Leisen
Written By: Charles Brackett
Released: March 15, 1939.
DVD: April 22, 2008

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