Midnight April 12, 2018
1 Hr., 34 Mins.
or the entirety of Mitchell Leisen’s sparkling screwball comedy Midnight (1939), the heroine, Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert), is having a great time. For all intents and purposes, though, she shouldn’t be. When we first meet her, she is a penniless, luggage-less, friendless showgirl in Paris, caught in a rainstorm with nothing but a gold, silky evening gown to her name. Then, after luxuriating in something of a meet-cute with a pearl-toothed, Hungarian cab driver who speaks like a Washingtonian (Don Ameche), she is swept up in a great lie: After stumbling into a black-tied, classical music concert, she is mistaken for a baroness, caught up in a rich guy’s scheme (John Barrymore) to out his
wife (Mary Astor) as a cheater, and somehow gets ensnared in a love triangle with some other rich guy and, er, the cab driver.
But no matter the pitfall, Eve seems unbothered, delighted even. A smile, either smug or contented, is forever plastered on her face, a coy one-liner always sitting giddily in the back of her throat. She says cute things like, “This day is so wonderful, I could eat it with a spoon.” She is a master concocter of the archetypal comedic misunderstanding plot device, a scrappy girl with a penchant for gold digging and troublemaking. And she always looks good doing it, her cherubic face emphasizing not-there-but-nonetheless-suggested innocence and her clothes characterizing her as a faux product of an upper-class existence. In other words, she is a fitting, likable protagonist for a comedy as screwy as this one, which is a cinematic house of lies topped off with a false-eyelashed wink and a teasing kiss.
It is one of the most essential films of the screwball comedy era, which was, famously, a period in the 1930s and early ‘40s in which fast-paced, bitingly funny, sexless sex comedies were culturally dominant. Most of its finest excursions were helmed by comedy filmmakers like Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, and, most prominently, Ernst Lubitsch. They usually starred such actors as Carole Lombard, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, and Claudette Colbert, who still don’t get nearly as much credit as they deserve as comedic performers.
Almost all the features to come out of this particular era have become classics: 1932’s Trouble in Paradise, 1936’s My Man Godfrey, and 1938’s Bringing Up Baby are just a few genre-defining pictures that have gone on to be characterized as all-time greats.
Yet Midnight, which was co-written by Wilder (also responsible for co-penning 1939’s Ninotchka and 1941’s Ball of Fire), has gone underappreciated. I suspect that’s either because it’s slightly slower and slightly more dramatic than its screwball counterparts, or because there’s a lot less jaunty, battle-of-the-sexes style antagonism and a lot more plain and simple comedic hubbub. Or maybe it’s in part due to the other Wilder-aided comedy features being so pristine, the spotlight’s just not big enough.
But no matter if its status as a hidden gem’s become commonly accepted, Midnight is a gem all the same, glowy and pretty but sharp where it counts. Colbert, visibly having a ball, effortlessly moves in and out of comedic, romantic, and dramatic spaces; Ameche, though puzzlingly cast, is a souffle of a leading man – refined and light. Supporting actors Astor and Barrymore are comparably adroit: Few are quite as good as they are at playing zany without getting too carried away.
By Midnight’s end, all the mania’s solved and these actors get to have their final say in a memorable fashion. Call it a popcorn-complemented treat from beginning to end: because what else is this movie if not a well-dressed, well-scripted, well-acted good time? Eve Peabody’s perennial contentment infects us too. B+