Saturday, October 24, 2009

Every Cinderella has Her "Midnight"

Midnight, directed by Mitchell Leisen, with a script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, and released by Paramount Pictures, is one of the great movies of 1939. It stars Claudette Colbert as a down-on-her-luck American showgirl in Paris and Don Ameche as a Hungarian cabdriver. Colbert offers to pay Ameche double his fare if he agrees to drive her around looking for work as a blues singer. After making the rounds of dozens of Paris nightspots, Colbert gives up and decides to go back to the train station to spend the night.

A smitten Ameche buys her dinner and offers her his apartment to rest in while he drives his cab all night. Although tempted, Colbert doesn't take Ameche up on his offer. Dressed in a glamorous evening gown (the only clothes she has, of course), Colbert escapes into the night. While walking by a Parisian mansion, Colbert is mistaken for a party guest and gains entrance to a society event using a pawn ticket as her invitation. The scam works and Colbert successfully mixes with the upper classes. To keep her scam going, Colbert impersonates a Hungarian countess, aided and abetted by the aristocratic John Barrymore.

Barrymore's wife, Mary Astor, thinks she's in love with playboy and champagne heir Francis Lederer. To help win his wife back, Barrymore enlist the help of the "countess." The plan is for Colbert to get Lederer to fall in love with her, keeping him out of Astor's arms.

The action really heats up at Barrymore and Astor's country mansion. Will Colbert's cover as a countess be exposed by a jealous Ameche? Will Barrymore be able to reconcile with Astor? The answers to all these questions explodes during one of the strangest breakfast meals in film history. The pace picks up  and the stories and aliases that Colbert and Barrymore cook up become wilder and more complicated...and more and more hilarious.

At this stage in his career, Barrymore refused to memorize scripts, so he read his lines from cue cards. It's impossible to tell that he's reading his lines and he steals every scene he's in. Colbert is in top form, her comic timing impeccable. Ameche, no slouch in the comedy department, holds his own as the lovesick cabbie. Astor and Lederer are also perfect in their respective roles.

Midnight is one of Leisen's best directorial efforts. The complicated mistaken identities, double entendres are classic Wilder. A screwball comedy with elegance and charm, Midnight deserves its place as one of the great films of 1939.
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