At midnight, Judge Christopher Kulik likes to masquerade as a French playboy.
"So this is Paris? Look's more like a rainy night in Kokomo, Indiana!"—Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert)
One of the primary cinematic genres of the 1930s was the screwball comedy. They were light, playful, and always guaranteed laughs with a touch of romance. While Midnight may not be as well known as My Man Godfrey or Bringing Up Baby, it still delivers the same kind of insane nonsense, mixed together with sophistication, wit, and charm. Midnight finally makes its debut on DVD courtesy of Universal.
Facts of the Case
Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night) has moved from America to Europe with gold-digging aspirations. However, the film opens with her arriving in Paris without a cent to her name. Enter Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche, Cocoon), a cab driver who survives on only forty francs a day. Czerny takes a liking to her as they are driving around Paris looking for a nightclub where she can find a job. Realizing her financial predicament, he offers her a meal and temporary lodging at his home. Peabody does like him, but she runs off to fry bigger fish.
Before you can say "jackpot," she finds herself impersonating a wealthy Hungarian baroness (!) and grows under the tutelage of an aristocrat named Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore, Grand Hotel). He asks Eve to help him in his goal to get back his wife Helene (Mary Astor, The Maltese Falcon), who is now having an affair with another man. As Eve enters this bourgeois world, she is swept off her feet by a dashing gent named Jacques (Francis Lederer, The Diary of a Chambermaid). However, when Czerny returns and pretends to be Eve's husband, the situation begins to spiral out of control.
In short, Midnight is an utter delight. Most of the credit goes to screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who layer the story with enough twists and one-liners to make you forget how silly it gets. The characters may be larger than life, but they have human sides to them as well. Satire is injected as well, as it shows the differences between the working class and the upper crust, while at the same time poking fun at the latter.
Wilder and Brackett didn't exactly make this film as a Cinderella update, though it is a homage to that classic story. At one point, Eve refers to Tibor's cab as the pumpkin carriage and himself as her "fairy godfather." It may be rather easy to guess who will end up being Eve's prince, but the road to that revelation is irresistible. By now, the meaning of the title should make sense.
Despite the fairytale elements, director Mitchell Leisen (Easy Living) effortlessly makes it all seem fresh and modern—for 1939, that is. Leisen made some changes to the script which reportedly made Wilder furious, though they didn't seem to negate the final product.
Every one of the performers gives sensational, spirited performances, though Barrymore (in one of his final films) steals every scene he's in. Watching him scramble around to ensure his plan isn't compromised is great fun; at one point, he's forced to pretend he is the Baroness' child on the phone!
Colbert and Ameche have fine chemistry, and Mary Astor (who was very pregnant during shooting, though you cannot tell) is wonderful as a bitchy socialite. If that isn't enough for you, future gossip columnist Hedda Hopper turns up in a funny supporting role.
While Midnight was originally released by Paramount Pictures, Universal had picked up the rights somewhere along the way. The studio presents the film as part of their "Cinema Classics Collection," and the presentation is as good as you would expect. Grain and specks are kept to a minimum, and the full-frame print sparkles in black-and-white.
The audio is even better, with almost no hisses or pops detected in the music or soundtrack. The Dolby Digital 2.0 track makes the dialogue clear and easy to hear. Subtitles are provided in English and French…big surprise, I know.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I know this is an American-made film, though it might irk some that little French is spoken, despite the fact the film is set entirely in and around Paris. I wouldn't be surprised if most of Midnight wasn't filmed on location, though I'm sure they could have added a bit more French flavor and dialogue to the piece.
As with many other films released as part of Universal's Cinema Classics Collection, the special features are sadly slim. We get a shoddy theatrical trailer, which plays up the Cinderella inspirations to the nth degree. There is also an introduction by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne. I love Osborne's warm delivery and knowledge of film, and here he manages to talk a bit about the film's troubled production. That being said, I would have loved for him to do a whole commentary on the film rather than an intro that is less than 60 seconds.
Universal and Turner Classic Movies now seem to be working hand-in-hand when it comes to classic films being released to DVD. In the words of Osborne, "you are certainly in for a real treat."
The film and all those involved are found not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction by Robert Osborne
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