Midnight (1939)

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“You’re in a fine mess! You got to get a divorce from a man you’re not even married to!”

It was only a recent revelation that Claudette Colbert at times feels far too sophisticated to be playing beautiful hitchhikers or penniless taxi passengers as she does in It Happened One Night (1934) and this film, Midnight. Though it’s easy enough to explain away.

The screwball comedy has always thrived on incongruities as much as it did on the class divides between the rich and the poor. Where the extravagance is almost laughable in its boorish decadence and the little men still have lives seemingly worth living because they are free from societal pressures. After all, making just enough money to scrape by is nothing short of paradise.

In this way, Claudette Colbert was the perfect person to tiptoe this line because she could be cosmopolitan and was glamorous with all those other snooty folks. But she’s also a comedienne like the normal folks, seeing the humor and working it for the laughs just as much as she’s willing to do things that seem normal. A walking enigma she might be but she also makes Midnight a sublime comic fairy tale as our uproarious modern-day Cinderella.

One of her cohorts and romantic partners is Don Ameche, the Parisian cab driver Tibor Czerny who begrudgingly opens up his livelihood on wheels for her as a random act of kindness. As we mentioned before the smartly dressed Eve Peabody has no penny to her name or a franc for that matter.

But what she does have is audacity and it buys her a ticket into a lavish gathering as one Madame Czerny put on by some rich somebody or other. It doesn’t much matter since it’s all only a pretense anyway. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script unwittingly created the original party crasher plot.

Eve finds herself at a snobby patronage of the arts where the impassioned man at the piano plays either Chopin’s 12th Prelude or his 11th Etude. Again, it doesn’t much matter but it’s hilarious all the same.

What happens subsequently subverts expectations nicely. Instead of getting tossed out of the proceedings she winds up the fourth in a bridge game of rebels warring against tepid entertainment.

There’s the debonair Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer), Marcel (Rex O’Malley) the man who nearly gave Eve a fright by fetching her, and Helene Flammarion (Marry Astor) a married socialite who is more than a little buddy-buddy with the dashing Monsieur Picot.

The charade becomes increasingly awkward the longer it keeps going and going and going. Every Cinderella has her midnight. The real joke comes when the fanciful game finally ends only to be replaced with a new reality as a true to life Baroness. She has no idea how it happened and that’s where our last important party comes in — her fairy godmother so to speak.

Mr. Georges Flammard (John Barrymore) witnessed Eve putting on a nervous floorshow and was intrigued. Now he watches her masquerade continue and he sees how they can help each other out. It has nothing to do with a desire to fool around. On the contrary, in an attempt to undermine his wife’s philandering he wants to bankroll Eve’s little white lie a while longer until she can win Jacques over and pull him away from Mrs. Flammard. It works quite well too.

Meanwhile, the entire cabbie population of France looks for the mysterious girl at Tibor’s behest. It proves to be equivalent to any missing persons agency in town and it comes with made to order traffic jams to boot.

Midnight turns into a magnificent floorshow as all parties collide in an immaculate perfectly timed collision. Eve and Mr. Flammard’s joint ruse looks like it might soon be ousted by Marcel and Mrs. Flammard who are intent on finding the truth about this curious baroness. But the whole fantasy is saved by a dazzling entrance by one well-tailored gentleman, Baron Czerny.

Now a new round of sparring back and forth begins. It’s full of glorious escapades, riotous telephone conversations with fictitious daughters, and Eve and Tibor trying to one-up each other with tall tale after tall tale. One thing Eve has going for her is Mr. Flammard still in her corner working his magic and John Barrymore puts on a fine showing in the film’s latter moments — his devilish eyes still gleaming as bright as ever.

Monty Wooley is introduced into the plotline in the ultimate piece of pitch-perfect casting as an opinionated but easily swayed judge. Thanks be to Classic Hollywood where pompous Americans can preside over a Parisian divorce court. But what matters is the right people get together. So screwball and fairy tales can still coexist. Wilder would prove it once more with Balls of Fire.

John Barrymore has always struck me as the tortured talent of the silver screen. One could contend that he was the most prominent member of the Barrymore dynasty except whereas his siblings Lionel and Ethel aged gracefully he burned out. Midnight came a little too soon for him.

It’s been a longheld fact that Billy Wilder and his writing partner Charles Bracket gifted two quality scripts that were ultimately directed by Mitchell Leisen. The integrity of the work was compromised to the point that Billy Wilder vowed to become a director himself so no one could mess with his material and when the material being messed with was Midnight and Hold Back the Dawn (1941) it begs the question how would the same magnificent films have ended up in Wilder’s hands?

Nevertheless, the actors are a fine gathering of talent while the script does wonders with the typical Wilder-Brackett combination that squeezes innumerable wit out of its wonky plotline. Billy Wilder must always get the last word in and his scripts always do. This one is no exception.

4/5 Stars

Counselor at Law (1933)

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The law offices of Simon and Tedesco are at the core of this film but it’s really George Simon who’s of particular interest to us. Based off a play by Elmer Rice, Counselor at Law is a self-contained office drama of great energetic verve. It’s handled assuredly by a young Hollywood director on the rise named William Wyler — a man who continued to make quality films throughout the 30s and by the 40s and 50s became lauded among Hollywood’s finest filmmakers. Here you can already see him reining in the chaos to hone in on a lucid story that’s witty and at times admittedly tragic.

We’re quickly introduced to an office positively buzzing with activity which sets the scene nicely. There are frequent coming and goings from office to office, mail deliveries, telephone lines crisscrossing this way and that with a reception area full of people.

It soon becomes apparent that there’s a head-spinning regiment of phone calls, appointments, and anything else you can imagine going on in this busy beehive on any given day. It makes a day at work seem like the most rewarding social experiment that you could possibly conduct in that revered tradition of people watching. Because as an audience that’s what we get the privilege to do as Rice’s adapted script constructs the beats of the story as a delightful web of interactions.

John Barrymore gives a frenetic performance as the whirling dervish of a lawyer Mr. Simon. And it feels like a stroke of genius that we never see him enter a court of law but only observe the various people and types he must work with to get his job done. It makes for an engrossing human drama that puts us in touch with a myriad of narratives all at once.

Instead, we get to know so much about his makeup and personal character. He receives multiple visits from his kindly mother who he playfully ribs or from his wife who he lavishes with affection constantly while she remains notably aloof. But that’s simply his way. He’s a mile a minute generally magnanimous soul who does his job well. Many folks in the town are indebted to him and though he’s successful, you get the sense he hasn’t forgotten about the little fellow on his way to the top.

This sentiment lays the groundwork for the film as a piece of commentary. It gets its source from a boy from the old neighborhood who got brought in by the cops for spewing communist sentiments on a street corner. Now his poor mother is asking a favor of Mr. Simon. He obliges only to get ridiculed and belittled by the proud young man.

As such Counselor at Law has a bit of a socio-economic angle as well suggesting the longheld stratosphere that was imposed the day that the first Europeans came off the Mayflower. Any following party has a harder time making it and yet some of the more assiduous ones do. It’s staying there that can be difficult.

But the attacks come from the bottom too. From the fiery youths who look at a self-made man such as Simon as someone who has sold out on his kind; he’s a dirty traitor. There’s no way to win. The American way seems a tough road to traverse and still come out a winner.

One such passing interaction with a past client, in particular, changes his entire day for the worse and a crucial fact that went unbeknownst to him could spell curtains to his career. In a matter of minutes, disbarment seems to be looming over him. He can’t take it.

But the film also has another layer. Love stories are playing out and there are two levels to it. Obviously, there is Simon and his wife who he adores and her “other man.” Then, there’s Rexy (Bebe Daniels), Mr. Simon’s faithful secretary constantly brushing off the frequent advances of a bookish but persistent Mr. Weinberg. But there’s also an unrequited love that’s unspoken and seems the most devastating of them all.

Ultimately, we are privy to the blessing and the curse of the workaholic. By the end of the film, Simon’s true love is still his work even if there’s a hint at something more. Whether or not he can maintain his lifestyle is left to the imagination and perhaps it is better that way. We leave him on the upswing but with questions still to ask. It suggests that the American Dream isn’t always quite what it seems. It can be equal parts joy and tragedy. The question is whether or not it is worth the risk.

4.5/5 Stars

Dinner at Eight (1933)

220px-Dinner_at_Eight_cph.3b52734Dinner at Eight is another all-star slug fest from MGM meant to capitalize and top the success of Grand Hotel from the previous year. This time around, well to do wife, Millicent Jordan is setting up a charming dinner party for a wealthy English couple Lord and Lady Ferncliffe who are traveling to New York. The hostess is frantically trying to figure out dinner guests for the big occasion because everything must be perfect. Observant viewers will notice that the high strung lady of the house is played by Billy Burke (more widely known as the Good Witch Glenda). Her husband Louis (Lionel Barrymore) is a kindly shipping magnate, who was hit hard by the depression, and his health is also failing as a result. Their daughter has problems of her own since she does not really love her fiancee and has fallen for the much older, and washed-up alcoholic actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore).

Next on the list of probable invitees is Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), the formerly prominent actress, who is now still in the twilight years of her career, but she still carries on a lavish lifestyle with furs and all. She is old friends with Louis, and she is always ready and willing to reminisce, fish for compliments, and offer a little sage advice on the side. She’s a character we like.

The most dynamic pair is most certainly Wallace Beery and Jean Harlow. They play the gruff, crooked businessman and his equally feisty wife, Dan and Kitty Packard. They’re hardly together because he’s working and she’s buying up clothes and caught up in an affair. When the two of them finally are together in the same room, they are constantly at each other’s throats. No punches or barbs are spared. And yet on the invitation to the Jordan’s they both pull their act together. He wants to meet the highly prestigious Ferncliffes, and she wants a chance to get dressed up. They’re quite the match.

With a title like Dinner at Eight, you expect the drama to take place around the table with the guests all seated together. However, that would be rather stuffy, I suppose, and instead, the dinner only acts as the culminating event to push the plot along. We actually never see the guests at the table, only the action leading up to it. Millicent is in a tizzy, especially when she hears the Ferncliffes have a change of plans. Her husband’s health is slowly deteriorating at the same rate as his company. The arrogant actor Larry Renault bickers with his agent about his next role. Honestly, this was the most unsatisfying of the threads, and it did ultimately end in tragedy. However, I’d be interested to know how close this parody actually came to John Barrymore’s actual life, because sometimes it’s hard to know how to parse the fiction from the reality when they seem to overlap.

Once all the guests are assembled it’s a rather ragtag group, but it is a fun mix of characters, and Millicent gets her cousin Hattie to attend along with her Garbo-loving husband who is unenthusiastic about the whole affair. It’s a satisfying overall result and an enjoyable enough ensemble that George Cukor directs with relative ease.

4/5 Stars

Grand Hotel (1932)

GrandHotelFilmPosterGrand Hotel is the epitome of a Hollywood superstar ensemble, and it would set the bar for all the films that would try to imitate and surpass it. Thanks to Irving Thalberg and the studio with more stars than there are in the heavens, MGM delivered a film that was a smash hit and after well over 80 years, it still remains an important visual relic.

The cast was beyond a contemporary viewer’s wildest dreams. It was that good. You had Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery among others. Nowadays many of these names do not carry as much clout (I must admit even to me), and the idea of a film starring numerous big names seems almost mundane. Just take a look at Oceans Eleven or The Avengers. But we must understand that at that time it was a stroke of genius because usually only one or two stars were set aside to be in a certain film. It was seen as the most commercially viable philosophy at the time.

Then came Grand Hotel: As Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone)  muses it’s “always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” It’s counter-intuitive but in some ways, that’s what makes this film so much fun. People love stories with fun vignettes that criss-cross and weave in and out. It’s even better when the stories contain the likes of Garbo and the Barrymores. Not to mention Joan Crawford.

It’s a fun world and a lasting tradition that many films have attempted to replicate because honestly, most audiences love these types of realities that they can escape to and in turn, be a part of. In this case, it’s this opulent hotel in the heart of Berlin full of bustling bellboys,  lavish suites, and all the pleasures life could afford.

Furthermore, the guests come from every walk of life imaginable making it all the more enjoyable to watch their intermingling and chance encounters. There is the prima ballerina (Greta Garbo), who has recently gotten cold feet and even canceled a show in her melancholy. It allows for Garbo to utter her famous line, “I want to be alone.”

Then there’s the baron (John Barrymore) who is also in desperate need of money. You might label him a cad because he resorts to theft several times, but if he is a thief he also has a heart of gold befriending and comforting nearly everyone he meets. He especially makes Ms. Grusinskaya very happy and it allows for some amorous scenes between John Barrymore and Garbo.

Next comes Mr. Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) who is the lowest of all the individuals in the hotel, but since his imminent death is ahead, he is finally going to live a little and he finally gains some of the friends and respect that he has always wanted. On the other hand, Wallace Beery plays Preysing the big magnate who is trying to swing an important deal to keep his company afloat.  Mr. Kringelein is one of his nameless underlings who keeps his books. Preysing has little concern for the “little man,” until he is desperately in need of help.

Last, but not least, is a radiant and spry Joan Crawford as the stenographer. She’s far from the star, but she does seem to steal many of the scenes that she pops up in. Also, despite all the ups and downs, she gets the happy ending she deserves.

I must admit that Grand Hotel takes a little time to set the scene and pick up steam, but when it does it’s a lot of fun. You know it’s a special film when the two Barrymore brothers are acting together, playing two so very different individuals. Yet underlining every scene they share together is the indisputable fact that they are related.  You also have Garbo and Crawford in the same film without either sharing a scene with the other! For an updated take on this type of story give some attention to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. Otherwise, this lavish 1930s production is worthwhile, because it really does feel like you’re watching film history.

4/5 Stars

Twentieth Century (1934)

63742-twentieth-century-post1Starring John Barrymore and Carol Lombard with direction by Howard Hawks, this archetypal screwball comedy revolves around a frenetic impresario and the emotional girl he made into a household name on Broadway. 

Oscar Jaffe is the undisputed king of Broadway and after he christens the inexperienced Mildred Plotka, Lily Garland, she becomes his box office Queen. He makes her into a great actress and their numerous collaborations turn out success after success. However, as several years pass Lily is fed up and she ends her connection with Jaffe in a volatile falling out after she finds that he has hired a private investigator to keep tabs on her. Without his starlet Jaffe produces flop after flop and he is endangered of being jailed by his backers. He escapes in disguise and boards the Twentieth Century Limited train. He is accompanied by his two quirky assistants and it just so happens that Lily has boarded that same train. Jaffe sees it as a chance to make amends, but Lily will have nothing of it. They have some more frenzied confrontations on the train as Jaffe tries to convince her to star in his next project. In a last ditch effort he pretends to be deathly ill after a scuffle so that she will sign a contract in her distress. In the end she proves to truly care for him and once again they are back on Broadway, Lily Garland star extraordinaire, and Oscar Jaffe the domineering visionary. 

Along with It Happened One Night, this is one of the early examples of the screwball comedies. This was a perfect practice run at it for Howard Hawks who would direct the more well-known Bringing Up Baby in 1938. The leading performers are absolutely chaotic and over the top in their performances, but it’s the way it should be. Furthermore, like most screwball comedies the odd supporting characters are often a great source of laughs. The extended train sequence here reminded me somewhat of The Palm Beach Story another raucous film.
 
4/5 Stars