Midnight is a rather smart film. Screenwriters Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder are able to do a whole bunch of plot twists–always through comedic means–because of how they’ve got the film structured. The film opens with Claudette Colbert arriving in Paris, penniless. Taxi driver Don Ameche takes pity on her and falls for her. There’s the beginning of a great melodrama.
Only Ameche loses Colbert and his subplot is about finding her. He doesn’t have any other plots, just that subplot. He’s not in the movie a lot after the first third, though he does come back in time for the finish, which is good because it’s why his name is second-billed above the title.
John Barrymore, Mary Astor, Francis Lederer and Rex O’Malley all get billed under the title, which stands out. They seem like bigger names than under the title billing suggests. And Barrymore’s a big part of the film. He’s the one at the center of Midnight’s actual plot–Colbert helping Barrymore keep Lederer away from Astor. See, Barrymore’s Astor’s husband and Lederer is her indiscreet companion. Lots of amazing comedy stuff from Barrymore. He’s got great material, but his performance is phenomenal–with director Leisen doing a lot of it non-verbally. Sight gags with John Barrymore, it doesn’t get much better. He’d run away with the movie if it weren’t for everyone else racing him.
Astor, for example, is fabulous. Her part–mischievous adulterer–ought to get old fast, but never does. Brackett and Wilder give each scene’s leads wonderful dialogue, but Leisen makes sure the actors without lines are doing just as much acting listening to whatever disaster is occurring or being avoided in front of them. Midnight’s never madcap, it’s never rushed, it’s always thorough. The jokes, visual or aural, always get enough time. In the second half, the film even introduces one-line caps to each sequence. It’s great–and it’s deliberately done once the film has changed gears a bit. Midnight is always unpredictable (at least in how Brackett and Wilder are getting where they’re going).
Lederer’s solid. O’Malley’s fantastic as Astor’s sidekick. It’s with him she gets the most to do; the script’s very much constructed to emphasize the comedy, Leisen’s direction–of Ameche and Colbert, of Colbert and Lederer–is often overly melodramatic. There are some gorgeous shots of the fellows romancing Colbert–great photography from Charles Lang–and they could just as much be for drama or tragedy, but instead they’re for comedy.
The “leads” are both excellent. Quotation marks because Claudette Colbert’s so much more the lead than Ameche but then again, maybe not. It’s almost like Brackett and Wilder took three separate stories–Colbert’s, Ameche’s, Barrymore’s–and squished them all together, only keeping the best parts.
Once the film gets to the third act, however, it seems like the magic might run out. The film’s pacing slows down to a real time crawl and it’s very hard to anticipate what’s going to happen. Then it turns out Brackett and Wilder had something ready for just the occasion. Fine cameo from Monty Woolley in the third act as well.
Midnight is a wonderful picture. It’s exquisitely written, smartly acted, smartly directed. The comedic range of Barrymore and Ameche is something to behold.
Directed by Mitchell Leisen; screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, based on a story by Edwin Justus Mayer and Franz Schulz; director of photography, Charles Lang; edited by Doane Harrison; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Claudette Colbert (Eve Peabody), Don Ameche (Tibor Czerny), John Barrymore (Georges Flammarion), Mary Astor (Helene Flammarion), Francis Lederer (Jacques Picot), Rex O’Malley (Marcel), Hedda Hopper (Stephanie) and Monty Woolley (The Judge).
THIS POST IS PART OF THE SECOND ANNUAL BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.