Watching 1939: Midnight (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult.

midnight 19391939 film:
Midnight (1939)

Release date:
March 17, 1939

Cast:
Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, John Barrymore, Francis Lederer, Mary Astor, Elaine Barrie, Hedda Hopper, Rex O’Malley, Monty Woolley, William Hopper (uncredited), Eddie Conrad (uncredited)

Studio:
Paramount Pictures

Director:
Mitchell Leisen

Plot:
Eve Peabody (Colbert) is a penniless chorus girl, stranded in Paris with only the evening gown she’s wearing. Eve is helped by taxi driver Tibor Czerny (Ameche), but she leaves him and sneaks into a ritzy party. She meets Georges Flammarion (Barrymore) who suspects she’s an imposter, and hires Eve to break up the romance between his wife (Astor) and her lover (Lederer).

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– Director Mitchell Leisen’s only film of 1939.
– Claudette Colbert was in three films released in 1939.
– Don Ameche was in five films released in 1939.
– John Barrymore was in two films released in 1939.
– Francis Lederer was in two films released in 1939.
– Mary Astor’s only film of 1939.
– Hedda Hopper was in five films released in 1939.
– Elaine Barrie’s only feature film. Barrie was married to John Barrymore at the time the film was made.
– Rex O’Malley’s only film of 1939.
– William Hopper was in 16 films released in 1939.
– Monty Woolley was in four feature-films released in 1939.

midnight2

Other trivia:
• Screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder
• The film’s premiere was held in Chicago.
• Working title was “Carless Rapture”
• Remade as Masquerade in Mexico (1945) starring Dorothy Lamour, which was also directed by Mitchell Leisen.
• In 2007, a remake of “Midnight” was announced with Reese Witherspoon in the lead role. The film has never gone into production.
• Performed on the Lux Radio Theater on May 20, 1940, starring Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche.
• A few problems on the set involved, Brackett and Wilder being unhappy that Mitchell Leisen changed some of their screenplay, Mary Astor was pregnant, and John Barrymore required cue cards for his lines, according to film historian Robert Osborne.

midnight3

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
“Every Cinderella has her midnight.”

Actress Claudette Colbert is wonderful in every film she appeared in. And “Midnight” (1939) is no exception. In this screwball comedy of 1939, Colbert plays Eve, former-gold digging chorus girl who is down on her luck. After losing everything at a casino in Monte Carlo, she arrives in Paris with only the gold lamé evening gown on her back.

In Paris, Eve meets taxi driver Tibor Czerny (Ameche) who helps Eve find a job and falls for her like a ton of bricks. Eve knows she could fall for Tibor too, and for that reason, she runs out on him because she is only interested in love when it comes with money.

Eve stumbles into a party filled with rich attendees, and is swept up into a world of deception. George Flammarion (Barrymore) won’t out her as an imposter at the party, if she helps breakup his wife (Astor) and her lover (Lederer). All is going fine for Eve, but Tibor is also trying to find her.

Not only is “Midnight” hilarious and great fun, it’s extremely charming. The film is also visually stunning thanks to cinematography by Charles Lang, costume design by Irene and jewels by Eugene Joseff, and set design by A.E. Freudeman. If it wasn’t for all the trouble the cast was in, you’d like to dive in and live in the sets.

The whole cast is outstanding. Don Ameche is frantic but romantic. Francis Lederer exudes charm and Mary Astor plays the perfect haughty wife.

But it’s John Barrymore who steals the show and is truly excellent. Though Barrymore may have needed cue cards to remember his lines, you would never know it. He’s hilarious. Without even saying any lines, Barrymore only has to raise an eyebrow or give a sidelong glance to steal a scene.

“Even with cue cards and only a faint idea of what the picture was all about, he had enough years of experience behind him to be able to act rings around anyone else,” Astor once said, who had worked with Barrymore since 1924.

Though not prominent characters, Hedda Hopper and Monty Woolley also play memorable roles in the film. That first scene of Hopper lounging at her boring party is breathtaking.

While Brackett and Wilder were furious with director Mitchell Leisen for altering the script, it’s hard to imagine how this film could be perfected upon. Every line and camera movement are perfection, and it’s truly a joy to watch.

Take it from me — if you haven’t seen this one, remedy that soon.

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