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

Remember the Night (1940)

remember_the_night_posterI find that many of the best Christmas movies aren’t really about Christmas at all — at least not in the conventional sense that we’re so used to. Not trees or presents or lights or even holiday sentiment although those might all be there.

The films that start to tease out the true meaning and impact of the Christmas season start by looking at people and their relationships with one another. Because, truth be told, we so often get distracted by the bright colors and shiny objects that get in our way.

That’s actually part of what Remember the Night is about. Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is a woman who has a penchant for stealing jewelry. She’s not a kleptomaniac or wrong in the head, she’s just a poor, unspectacular woman with nothing to show for in life. She lives in a hotel. And so the minute she’s apprehended and prosecuted in the courtroom you would assume that it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Except this is a romantic film starring the likes of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck working from a script from Preston Sturges and under the guidance of Mitchel Leisen. So obviously that tips us off that love is in the air. Especially during the Christmas season, love is all around us — peace on earth and goodwill towards men.

Except when Lee’s trial is postponed by the astute district attorney on the other side of the table, it looks like she’s in for an abysmal holiday. She has no money, no place to go, and she’ll be spending her time behind bars (with a Christmas dinner of course). But John Sargent goes through a change of heart and his heart is fairly big when you get to know him. He ends up getting Lee out of jail for Christmas dinner as recompense and goes a step further still by inviting to take her back to her family home. They both hail from rural Indiana.

In this leg of the film, on the road, they begin to warm to each other. A certain amount of empathy sets in as they must flee pell-mell from some small town law enforcement after unlawfully milking a cow on private property. However, John also stands by his new companion when she returns to her childhood home — a place she ran away from at an early age — she’s not welcomed back.

And while it doesn’t tell the story of Christmas overtly, it’s at this point that Remeber the Night begins to make sense. Hence the title. At least in my mind. Because what night would you remember? The logical progression of thought would be the first Christmas — the moment where the biblical narrative notes that there was no room for the child in the inn and so he was forced to be housed in a lowly manger on that silent night.

If you look at John’s mother and aunt played so lovingly and nurturing by Beulah Bondi and Elizabeth Patterson, you get the sense that they were probably aware of that event. However, how they act is also a natural outpouring of their hospitable natures. They welcome Lee into their home, they welcome her like family, they go so far out of their way to make her comfortable. Certainly, this is only a backdrop for the broader more sentimental focal point of the film which we were expecting. The accused and the prosecutor begin falling in love, but they still have to return to the courtroom when their holiday is over.

But that’s what wonderful films do. They work above and beyond their plotline being displayed at face value. Sturges was always a spectacular screenwriter even before becoming a director and here he develops a tale that comes off less frenetic than many of his later works, but it’s also imbued with a great amount of feeling. But credit also goes to Leisen for tailoring the script to his leads.

And as it’s set during the holidays, that makes it into a timely movie for the Christmas season (and New Years). Because the bottom line is that it’s about love, but not just in the romantic sense. Love of family. Love of your fellow man (and woman). Love of other people so much so that you are willing to sacrifice and take on the penalty for your actions, deserved or not. If we strip down the impact of Christmas to its core elements that’s essentially what it is about as well. So remember this movie during the holidays and remember that night if you’re so inclined.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

4/5 Stars

Easy Living (1937)

easyliving1Easy Living is a sizzling screwball comedy propelled by a Preston Sturges script and the direction of Mitchel Leisen (a former costume designer). It finds humor in the stratified 1930s society and the so-called easy livings of the affluent. But it also has it’s fair share of rip-roaring slapstick. Really the whole plot revolves around a rogue fur coat.

J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) is the third most prominent banker in New York. His wife has a penchant for fur coats and his son John Jr. (Ray Milland) is fed up with his father’s constant criticism. He’s ready to leave the luxury and make a go of it on his own. Fed up with his wife and not all that pleased with his son, Mr. Ball tosses one of his wife’s sables off their balcony. Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) is the unsuspecting recipient of the coat as she rides by on a passing bus. By chance, she and Mr. Ball strike up a conversation and they hit it off after he resolves to buy her a new hat, in lieu of the one that was ruined. Of course, the clerk gets the wrong idea about their little friendship and it has major repercussions.

Many folks want to get on her good side since they’ve heard through the grapevine that she’s connected to Mr. Ball. This includes the befuddled hotel owner Louis Louis, who offers Mary one of his finest suites and she has no idea what she ever did to deserve it. Of course, Mary crosses paths with John Jr. who is smitten with her right off the bat. But she has no idea who his father is.

A joke from him, relayed by Mary, ends up having overwhelming consequences on the stock market and it ends up spelling major trouble for Mr. Ball. But of course, father and son and Mary all wind up in J.B.’s office together as the comedy of errors finally synchronizes. Son finally proves his acumen to father and gets the job he desperately needs.  Mary has her guy now and Mr. Ball’s marriage is all intact.

easyliving3Edward Arnold is an absolute riot and at his pushy best as the affluent banker. Jean Arthur has always been one of my favorite comediennes. She has such a great voice for delivering quips; there’s a certain lilt to it that is always invariably funny. She’s also the perfect independent working woman like a Barbara Stanwyck or Rosalind Russell. She’s no pushover. I knew Ray Milland for later films like The Lost Weekend or Dial M for Murder, but I saw here firsthand that he has some comedic chops. I also learned what an automat was and at the same time got treated with some top-notch slapstick. Thank you, Preston Sturges.

4/5 Stars

Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

holdback5Hold Back the Dawn was written by the winning combination of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, but the director was actually Mitchell Leisen. That was the last time Wilder would let someone else take hold of his work. It’s actually rather meta, a film within a film. We see our director and a film being made (Complete with Veronica Lake), but that is only a pretense for this story to be told.

Georges Iscoveu (Charles Boyer) wanders into the studio hoping to tell his story to somebody who might help him. The tale goes something like this. Much like many other hopeful emigrants, he heads to Mexico in an attempt to try and get into the states, but he’s told that he’ll have to wait and so Iscoveu holes up at the Esperanza Hotel with all the other masses. Time passes and he is getting nowhere fast, but he does bump into an old partner in crime named Anita (Paulette Goddard). Undoubtedly using her feminine charms, she wrangled herself a husband in order to secure herself citizenship. Then she swiftly got a divorce to close the deal. She’s a real peach and she plants the idea in Georges because he is desperate after all.

The gears are turning and he sets his sights on the pretty young schoolteacher, who is in Mexico with some of her students. Their car is in the shop, and after swiping a sprocket, Georges goes into action.

With soaring rhetoric, he wins Miss Emmy Brown over and he puts a ring on it, a borrowed ring from Anita to be exact. He’s a real cad, but it is a Charles Boyer leading man.

To her credit, Olivia De Havilland plays this ingenue and small-town teacher with bright eyes and idealism. We cannot help but feel for her because this is a woman who is swept off her feet and she exhibits true affection. She’s naive, but as Georges acknowledges, she’s swell. Anita has plans for them to meet up once the marriage is terminated because she thinks that she and Georges can run in the same circles once more. But all the time he has spent with Emmy has not left him unchanged. Car rides and travels through Mexico becomes intimate and sweet. So somewhere there is a turning point in the psyche of Iscoveu. It no longer becomes a con game with Anita, but a true romance with Emmy.

However, the trouble comes when the inspector named Hammock (Walter Abel) comes sniffing around because the marriage of Emmy and Georges seems obviously fishy to him. But Ms. Brown does the noble thing and defends Georges not out of ignorance, but charity. She knows she was living a dream and is about to go back to reality, making the drive back to her home in Azusa, California.

Georgholdback6es has what he had initially set out to get, but the story cannot be over. When he hears of a deadly car accident, he rushes across the border without heed of the law so that he can be with the love of his life. It’s a gushy conclusion that looks like it might end badly. After all, Iscoveu broke some major laws, but Hammock gives him some grace showing he’s a softy at heart. Even Anita gets what she’s always wanted.

The film is a treat because we not only get an A-grade performance from De Havilland, there’s a conniving Paulette Goddard, and even a brief cameo by everybody’s favorite Peekaboo girl Veronica Lake. Curt Bois (the pickpocket from Casablanca) also makes a spirited performance in one of the minor plots.

Hold Back the Dawn certainly begs the question whether Wilder’s own experiences are infused into this story since he often told anecdotes about his emigration into the U.S. which ultimately led him to success in Hollywood. Also, this film suggests that Mitchell Leisen is not so much a great director or a maker of masterpieces, but he is in his element with romances. However, I wonder if part of his success was having the likes of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges writing scripts for some of his most prominent films (including Easy Living, Midnight, and Remember the Night).

4/5 Stars

The Mating Season (1951)

b3d8e-the-mating-seasonThelma Ritter was always a scene-stealer, upstaging the stars, but perhaps it is no more evident than in this comedy starring Gene Tierney, John Lund, and Miriam Hopkins. She runs a hamburger stand in New Jersey, talks plain, and works hard. Her son Val McNulty is a college graduate and a kind, gentlemanly figure who also loves his mom for who she is.

In one of the fastest meet-cutes/courtships I have ever seen on film, Val marries the lovely socialite Maggie, a woman above him in status who falls for him, because he is nothing like the stuffy upper crust she is used to dealing with.
In a classic screwball type development of mistaken identity, Ellen McNulty arrives to live with her son after her stand was closed down. But when calling on the house she is mistaken for a cook, and she willingly plays along with the mistake in order not to embarrass her son. Imagine his surprise when he sees her and yet he does not explain who she is. She tells him to play along with the little deception and Val reluctantly goes along with it.
When Maggie’s own stuffy mother (Miriam Hopkins) comes into town, she disapproves of her daughter marrying below her and nothing will make her like Val. Just think what would happen if she knew who Ellen really was?
One evening the unlikely couple goes to a party held by the Kalinger Family who run Val’s firm. There Maggie is insulted and runs out of the party in a huff. The lady she has a spat with is a prestigious person, and Val forces her to apologize. Needless to say, the marital sparks fly. However, things heat up even more when Maggie finds out by accident who Ellen really is. Now Val has a lot of explaining to do and his wife feels lied to. She is furious that he would think her too proud to welcome in his humble mother. Maggie gets ready to leave for Mexico, a destination for attaining an easier divorce.
Interestingly enough, it is an unlikely outsider in Mr. Kalinger Sr. (Larry Keating) who gets the couple back together through a shameless ploy. However, they are not the only unlikely love story, he has a budding romance of his own.
Mitchell Leisen seems to be a little-known director, but after seeing this film I was quite impressed. This movie works because of the conflict in class and the complications and laughs that come out of it. It is this type of conflict that hearkens back to the scatterbrained screwball comedies of the 1930s. Perhaps it is a little hard to believe that Lund was Ritter’s son, but they had enough chemistry to make it seem plausible. It was also hilarious to see Gene Tierney struggling in the kitchen, and Miriam Hopkins was a decent inclusion playing Maggie’s opinionated and overblown mother. Call me plebian if you want, but I know which mom I would take…
4/5 Stars