Review by Brynn White
Posted on 23 February 2011
Categories Brackett & Wilder
Midnight is the type of film critics refer to as a “light & airy soufflé,” and on hasty first glance it does seem a diverting romantic comedy, a carousel of mistaken identity and art deco-laced parties set in that sweet and savory playground of the idle rich: Paramount Paris. But its rags to riches to rags trajectory represents both a substantial departure from Billy Wilder’s lord and master Ernst Lubitsch, and an affinity with the Pre-Code spirit rather than the screwball comedies proper it is often grouped among. Screenwriters Charles Brackett and Wilder concoct a sly inversion of ‘happily ever after;’ Cinderella’s coach is a taxi cab, and it is whisking her back to reality.
Based off a short story by Edwin Justus Mayer and Franz Schulz, Midnight’s premise is not Brackett and Wilder’s own, but their involvement likely shepherded the picture away from its original title “Careless Rapture,” and the flippant trivialities contained therein. A producer turned their script over for a complete rewrite, but complained the results lacked the duo’s flavor. The second writer tactfully suggested the producer seek such razzmatazz at the source, and after a week of cribbage and mild revisions, a Brackett and Wilder authentic was cleared for production. Wilder was vitriolic in later years towards director Mitchell Leisen, but the ire was rooted in a conflict several years later over Hold Back the Dawn. It is hard to imagine a more impeccably directed and performed rendition of Midnight. Its fascinations and failures lie almost entirely within Wilder and Brackett’s script, while its effervescent transcendence of flaw owes much to its leading lady Claudette Colbert.
Colbert stars as Eve Peabody, first encountered waking up in a shoddy train car with little more than the gold lame evening gown on her back. Her only welcoming committee is an unforgiving storm and a crew of overeager cabbies who presume a good tip from a lady so classily sheathed. She approaches a driver casually detached from the mob, our leading man Don Ameche, and lays it all on the table. She’s completely broke, from “a nasty accident”—the Monte Carlo roulette system that “fell out from under” her. She could have him chauffeur her around and then claim with lashes batted to have left her purse on the grand piano, but instead she keeps it on the level. If he helps her find a job, she pays the fare and a hearty tip. Double or Nothing.
Ameche’s Tibor Czerny is initially immune to these charms, but after one look at her struggling in the rain under the newspaper bought with her last dime, he takes the gamble. It doesn’t initially pay off; Eve fails in her impulsive attempt to find work as a blues singer (“I guess mine is strictly a bath tub voice.”) Émigré Wilder was no stranger to hardship, or the misadventures of surviving on nothing at all. “I dragged my carcass up and down Hollywood Boulevard, and starved around for a year and a half before I sold two original stories,” he reminisced. His first fifty bucks in Hollywood were earned on a dare, when he jumped into a Hollywood producer’s pool fully clothed at an intimate soiree. He lived in a women’s lavatory at a seedy apartment hotel. It is unsurprising he would test a heroine’s mettle in a foreign land with empty pockets.
Brackett and Wilder like Eve for her impulsive, √¢ÔøΩÔøΩtry anything’ attitude (they do not, for example, play her posturing as a blues singer for laughs, her failed auditions take place offscreen), but her flaw proves to be an unwillingness, or lack of courage, to try the hard (i.e., straight) life. We discover Eve’s resume when she accepts Tibor’s invitation to a caf√É©. After growing up in the skids she wants to trade the Bronx local for a limousine. She hightailed it to London with “a can of imported chorines,” and almost nabbed a lord—until his mother offered her a bribe to tiptoe out of the picture. Tibor, outraged, hopes Eve threw her out. “How could I, with my hands so full of money?”
Yes, we’ve got a golddigger on our hands, but Colbert imbibes it with such a velvety, sardonic lack of apology it is impossible to resist her. As James Harvey notes, “Colbert does for golddigging what Lombard does for craziness: she makes it seem like something liberating.” When she claims, “I wouldn’t have taken oysters only I thought they were on the regular dinner—honestly,” it is a transparently lie, and one she delights in; but as played by Colbert, a fib becomes an enchanting admission of guilt. Despite their flagrant ethical divide, Tibor is an enthralled sucker too and offers to shack her up while he drives on the night shift. But Eve fights her instincts to court the blue-collar boys with cute noses. In the past she always got kettle drum lessons in the orchestra pit while the savvier girls went home with the millionaires. She knows if she stays one night she will stay some more and end up darning Tibor’s socks. “You don’t just fall into a tub of butter, you jump for it,” and she escapes into the night to find that butter.
Eve darts into a high-class party using the last item in her purse, the pawn shop receipt, as a stand-in invitation. She is curiously observed by Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore) and a handsome dandy, the latter of whom approaches her. She assumes her charade has been exposed, but he merely thinks she looks Charming and Bored and Honest (his mistake)√¢ÔøΩÔøΩ a solid recruit for his bridge game in a side private room. She joins Jacques Piccot (Francis Lederer) and his lover, Flammarion’s wife Helene (Mary Astor) for a sloppy game of cards, repartee, and rapidly ballooning lies. She identifies herself as a Hungarian baroness, wife of one Tibor Czerny. By the time Flammarion enters, Jacques is obviously smitten and Helene is patently jealous.
And by the time Jacques escorts Eve home to her fake residence at the Ritz, a suite has been conveniently booked for the Baroness Czerny. Eve’s fairy godmother reveals himself in the morning to be Flammarion, willing to supply her with a chauffeur, room and board, legitimacy, and a wardrobe befitting royalty if she agrees to divert Jacques’ affections from his wife. Much like Easy Living, our down-and-out heroine finds herself inadvertently in fortune’s smile but unlike the Preston Sturges yarn, she knows what she’s getting into. Or does she? “We’re going in different directions,” she tells Tibor before she flees. He knowingly retorts “That’s what you think.”
One of the most unconventional aspects of Midnight is its shelving of its male romantic lead Ameche, who is little more than a shadow in the middle reels. While he institutes a pool amongst the cabbies—the pot awarded to the successful locator of his lady love—Eve handedly settles herself amongst the elite, whom she joins for a weekend at the Flammarions’ country home. She has Jacques, the self-professed “telephone worshipper” (Sisyphuseanly awaiting the next occasion for caviar and champagne) wrapped around her dainty finger. Despite Flammarion’s optimism over Jacques’ inevitable proposal, she knows “Every Cinderella has her midnight.” And just as hers has arrived, when Helene finds evidence to expose her, Tibor arrives in a rented tuxedo to pose as her baron husband. Even the selfish, haughty Helene can tell that Eve is in love, but it takes a series of madcap antics to convince the lady to forget the butter, because “it’s harder to be a crook than honest with yourself.”
Midnight transitions from a Lubitschean escapade of elegant adultery to a daffy screwball battle of wits and one-upmanship—imbibed with manic confusion, questions of sanity, and flying frying pans. It spirals into further anarchy when the ensemble visits a French divorce court presided over by character actor Monty Woolley, who chastises Americans for regarding “marriage as a vaudeville—you can leave when you cease to be amused” and Eve makes an argument in support of spousal spankings. In their wacky self-generating narrative, Brackett and Wilder throw in so many wild tonal shifts and unpredictable twists they sometimes stray too far from their essential obligation—to demonstrate the validity of Eve and Tibor’s relationship.
In a bold but limiting move, their romance is almost entirely founded on attraction. Eve immediately bestows an affectionate nickname on Tibor (“Skipper”), Hollywood’s favorite indicator of love at first sight. Incidentally, Leisen struggled with Colbert’s demands that she be shot from the left, to avoid the self-perceived crookedness of her nose. Though perhaps a stretch, it is in perfect keeping with Wilder’s devilish humor to highlight said controversial nose as the centerpiece of Tibor’s attraction to Eve—theirs is certainly a romance founded on asymmetry. The initial attachment of Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich to Midnight is quite provocative in this context, due to Lang’s preoccupations with sex as a driving force, and Dietrich’s ability to bottle the nebulous mysteries and magnetism of human desire. But that only covers the first act of this strange triptych film.
The script succeeds in its indictment of the continental upperclass as a realm of petty jealousy, whims easily indulged with no lasting satisfaction, and parties so dull as to make Nature weep—as one partygoer wisecracks of her hostess’s attempts. Despite their malaise with the routine, they balk at newcomers who don’t belong; they generate new trends in ludicrous hatware (“get me the one that looks like moldy spinach”) every few days just to keep things exciting. (Incidentally, it is Garbo’s embrace of a silly hat that marks her character development in Brackett and Wilder’s subsequent script Ninotchka. Theirs it seems is a love-hate relationship with exotic millinery.) If Jacques and Helene represent the renegades breaking away from the pack—and all they can come up with is a backroom bridge game—how bad must the other people be?
The exception to the rule is Georges Flammarion, and Midnight boasts the finest respite from John Barrymore’s sad fall from grace. His downtrodden state weighs heavily upon his brow and he had his fed his lines via offscreen cue card. But the undeniable wit aroused Barrymore from his apathy; his wife paid a visit to Brackett and Wilder’s offices to request a copy of the script, claiming “I’ve never known John to be so amused by a picture. He’s actually asked if he could read [it].” Eve and Flammarion similarly come alive when scheming together. Their relationship is the most appealing, effortless, and well, fun in the movie. Tricksters with a soft core, they achieve a mutual understanding and natural rapport that eludes Brackett and Wilder’s romantic couple. When her Prince Charming arrives on the scene, Eve chastises him as “Teeeeeee-BORE” and the audience may be similarly inclined to mock the moralistic wet blanket who’s raining on the parade.
While Eve finally embraces the straight man, “the kind you can’t buy off,” Tibor never disproves her fear that “when you’re poor, love falls out the window.” The best screwballs sketch relationships that flaunt convention and take a subversive approach to life and love. Identified as √¢ÔøΩÔøΩcomedies of remarriage’ by theorist Stanely Cavell, these films renegotiate failed relationships through the construction of a vivacious, childlike dynamic; a game of one-upmanship results in a certain future of commitment, respect, and, most importantly, endless amusement. Brackett and Wilder’s first and previous script for Lubitsch and Colbert, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, dabbled (rather mean-spiritedly) in this conceit. But Bluebeard, like the others, was set against a backdrop of financial security and opulence that provides its characters with the freedom for such playful exploration and expression.
Perhaps Eve and Tibor’s tenacity and inventiveness in battling for, and against, each other is proof enough that they won’t give up like her parents in the face of troubles and quarrels. Many early-30s films produced in the thick of the Great Depression, particularly from Warner Bros, showcased endearing unsavory types finding and fighting love in an age where only the chiselers and con men survive. Eve’s backstory could have been a Joan Blondell vehicle five years previous, and she evokes Blondell’s hard-nosed realism when Tibor expresses na√É¬Øve dismay over her failure to secure a night club gig, “After what you went through?” “How far do you think through is for a woman these days?” She displays similar world-weariness when sizing up Flammarion’s offer, “When Little Red Riding Hood spots the long grey whiskers—you’ll still insist it’s your grandma.” In these films the characters are served their comeuppance and go straight together. The stories devolve into moral fables the films themselves barely seem to believe, what pervades instead is the triumph over a tough world with a withering one-liner.
Brackett and Wilder seem betwixt and between these traditions and make their own Double or Nothing gamble, resulting in a slightly scatterbrained film. The screenwriting duo was itself a pairing of opposites, and the urbane, fanciful sophisticate and the cynical, acidulous realist just can’t quite commit to the characters they have united for life. They fluctuate between a European and American approaches, although they reveal their true colors with Eve’s unimpressed opening line, “So this is, as they say, Paris! From here it looks like a rainy night in Kokomo, Indiana.” They are, like Tibor and Eve, party crashers of Paramount Paris, and Midnight’s rejection of its charms for the first act’s chiaroscuro, shadowy terrain is an embedded commentary on movie escapism. Perhaps Wilder and Brackett constructed the most bona fide fairy tale of them all—an assurance to their audiences that the life they return to when the lights come up is the most rewarding one of all.
Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife1938
That Certain Age1938
Five Graves to Cairo1943
What a Life1939
Arise My Love1940
Hold Back the Dawn1941
Ball of Fire1941
The Major and the Minor1942
The Lost Weekend1945
The Emperor Waltz1948
A Foreign Affair1948