The title Midnight alludes to Cinderella, and the movie does have a pleasant magical quality about it, although it doesn’t really stick to the Cinderella story in a traditional way. (The early title for the movie was the more dramatic Careless Rapture.)
At one point, a character makes the Cinderella connection when she says, rather ominously: “Every Cinderella has her midnight.” There is also a beautiful ball gown, a fancy party, and some business with shoes, though the fairy godmother is a lovesick, obscenely wealthy, and splendidly wily man.
John Barrymore steals the movie as the wealthy and wily fairy godfather. That’s why this is my entry in The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by the great site In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. The blogathon honors the legendary Barrymore dynasty, and you can check out all the posts here. Besides Barrymore, Midnight stars Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, and Mary Astor.
The film opens with Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) fast asleep on a just-arrived Monte Carlo-Nice-Paris train. Meet our Cinderella. Fun fact: Barbara Stanwyck was Paramount’s original choice for the role of Eve, but scheduling conflicts prompted the switch to Colbert.
Eve is awakened by the train attendant and kindly asked to leave. You can watch the opening scene here.
She is wearing a gold lamé dress festooned with braid, and a matching coat with an attached hood/pillow and a sweeping V back. She has no luggage besides a sparkling evening bag. It turns out she is an American actress/chorus girl/singer who was gambling in Monte Carlo, lost everything, and hopped on a train to Paris. Which explains the evening gown.
This dress reminds me of another short-sleeved, straight-skirted lamé gown worn by Colbert in The Palm Beach Story (1942), a film that reunited her with co-star Mary Astor.
Back to Midnight. It’s raining, and Eve doesn’t have an umbrella. Or any money. As she walks around the train station rather worriedly, a friendly and handsome cab driver (nice combination) notices her and asks her if she needs a taxi.
She explains that she has no money and no job, but she needs a taxi to take her job-hunting. She offers him a simple wager–if he drives her around from nightclub to nightclub so she can audition, and if she happens to get a job, she’ll pay him double the meter. The driver, Tibor Czerny, (Don Ameche) agrees. He likes her. You can watch the scene here.
They drive around for hours searching for a job. Eve auditions at various clubs but there are no job offers. The meter inexorably climbs…
She calls off the bet, saying it’s not fair for her to take the meter any higher. But Tibor is not ready to let her go, penniless, into the night. So he buys her some dinner and they dance. He gets jealous when all his taxi-driver buddies want to dance with her, too. He really likes her.
Eve says she grew up with nothing and is determined to marry rich, preferably titled-rich. She says that love can’t last when there’s no money, so she’s aiming for the cash, never mind love. He responds with “money isn’t everything” and tries to argue her out of her mercenary attitude. But she won’t budge.
Brackett and Wilder pack this movie with wonderful repartee and one-liners–so get ready!
After this delightful discussion, Tibor and Eve return to the taxi. She asks to be driven to the train station where she’ll spend the night in the waiting room. He has other ideas. He tells Eve he will take her to his apartment and she will sleep there tonight…he will be driving around until the morning so it is perfectly innocent!
But she refuses: “We’re no good for each other, Skipper. We’re going in different directions.” “That’s what you think,” he retorts. But she knows that they’ll fall in love if they remain together…she has a whole history of falling for members of the band at parties full of millionaires, you see.
It’s almost identical to poor Sugar’s (Marilyn Monroe‘s) dilemma in Some Like it Hot (1959), except Eve has a thing for drummers instead of Sugar’s saxophone players. But this time Eve is determined to get it right!
One man notices Eve, though, and he figures out that she isn’t the wealthy society debutante she is pretending to be. The man is John Barrymore (Drew’s grandpapa). I didn’t understand the whole “scene-stealer” notion until I saw him in this movie.
His performance is even more astounding because since the early 1930s, Barrymore had been suffering from severe and unpredictable memory loss brought on by years and years of alcohol abuse. He could be line-perfect in one scene, and then be completely unable to remember anything, sometimes even the name of his character, just a few minutes later.
For instance: Barrymore was renowned for his iconic performance as Hamlet onstage, and in 1933, RKO started planning a film version. But when Barrymore showed up to do a screen test, he could not remember any of Hamlet’s soliloquy, which he had performed over one hundred times on stage. The film project was scrapped.
By the 1930s, Barrymore was using cue cards to remember his lines. He hated it, but producers wouldn’t cast him unless he agreed to use them; otherwise it was too much of a risk.
Barrymore’s lines were written on blackboards, and sometimes you can tell that his eye line is slightly off from where it should be. Instead of looking at the other characters he is glued to the blackboards reading his lines; for example, you can tell he’s reading in that second image on the right. Yet he’s still amazing.
Mary Astor, who plays Barrymore’s wife, recalled that, “even with cue cards and only a faint idea of what the picture was all about, he had enough years of experience behind him to be able to act rings around anyone else.” He’s fun to watch, and he and Colbert play very well together as they scheme and deceive–all for love, and also for money.
Anyway, Barrymore plays Georges Flammarion, a wily, wealthy aristocrat bored with the party and the people. He is intrigued by Eve and amused by her sneaky shoe removal to give her aching feet a rest:
It’s almost like Cinderella, except in this version she removes her own shoe because her feet hurt…
Eve thinks she’s in the clear until her pawn ticket is discovered amongst the invitations by that portly gentleman.
The evening’s hostess, Stephanie (Hedda Hopper, actress-turned-famed gossip columnist who named her Beverly Hills mansion “The House that Fear Built”) is aghast! She attempts to discover “Eve Peabody,” the daring intruder. Georges knows what’s up.
At that moment, Eve is pulled away by Marcel (Rex O’Malley). She assumes he is taking her away to quietly throw her out. Instead, he wants her to make up the fourth for a game of bridge! The other two players? Georges’ wife Helene (Mary Astor) and Helene’s lover Jacques (Francis Lederer.) Marcel pauses considerately before opening the door on the two lovebirds, allowing Helene enough time to wipe the “lip rouge” off of Jacques.
Eve introduces herself as Madame Cerny (taking the cab driver’s last name almost unconsciously…), and begins playing cards with the group.
She’s used to Jacques’s adoring gaze directed at her, and even a forearm full of diamonds doesn’t console her. Seriously? How can she even lift her arm with so many bracelets weighing it down?
Anyway, Georges eventually joins the card players. He watches the group and realizes that Jacques is suddenly ignoring Helene and flirting with Eve. (Georges knows that Helene is having an affair with Jacques–it’s all very cosmopolitan and sophisticated.)
Georges comes up with a plan–he will use Eve to draw Jacques away from Helene, and hopefully this will drive Helene back to Georges, who is hopelessly in love with her.
Fun fact: Barrymore and Astor reportedly had an affair way back in 1924 when they worked on the film Beau Brummel.
Georges then sneakily asks Eve several questions about Budapest and Hungarian nobility to make sure she is Eve Peabody and not really Madame Cerny. None of the others catch on to his game. Finally, Georges leads Eve into a trap where she has to proclaim that she’s a Hungarian Baroness! Chorus girl to baroness in one evening–not bad!
When it’s time to settle the accounts at the end of the card game, Eve is stunned to learn she owes 4,200 francs! She babbles about how she may not have that much on her, and she hopes they’ll accept her IOU. Then she opens her sparkly clutch:
Someone put a whole bunch of money in there…
Jacques insists on accompanying Eve to her hotel, so Eve has to pretend she’s staying at the Ritz. Imagine her surprise when she arrives and there is a giant suite in the name of Baroness Cerny! She is so sure she is intruding on the real occupants of the suite that she nearly has a heart attack when she sees herself in a mirror!
But he quickly sets her straight. Turns out, Georges just wants Eve to lure Jacques away from Helene, and he will happily provide Eve with everything she might need to continue her masquerade as the Baroness Cerny. Plus, if their plan succeeds, Eve has a fair chance of landing rich, aristocratic Jacques.
So in return for impersonating a baroness and flirting outrageously with a handsome, wealthy man, Eve gets clothes, money, and possibly a rich husband. It’s not a bad deal, especially when Georges is her fairy godfather, and when the target (Jacques) seems rather infatuated already. Flowers and a card arrive for Eve just as Georges is leaving:
Eve sets out on her mission. First stop is Simone’s, the chicest milliner in all of Paris, who also happens to be the woman whom Eve trailed into the party the night before. Simone sets the style in hats, and she’s very changeable:
Eve, I mean, the Baroness Cerny, arrives to find a hat for the weekend. I love that a weekend trip necessitates a new hat. You can read my History Through Hollywood: Fashion for more on that. And check out that mannequin and the incredible wall painting:
Eve is really there to find Jacques, and she does. He’s helping Helene pick out a new chapeau. Eve persuades Jacques to leave Helene and show Eve around Paris. Simone watches the encounter with that giant, terrifying centipede brooch pinned to her jacket. Yuck.
Fun fact: Mary Astor was pregnant during production of this movie, so they had to come up with various ways of hiding her tummy. She is often sitting down, filmed from the chest up, or wearing costumes with giant sleeves or some other distraction to draw the eye away from her middle.
While Eve hides in high society, Tibor drives around Paris looking for her. He even organizes the other cab drivers in a massive search, and bombards the Ritz Hotel with honking horns. He really, really likes her.Meanwhile, Eve and Jacques drive to the enormous Flammarion estate together.
Of course there is a ball that evening, and things are going just swimmingly for Eve and Georges. Eve and Jacques walk in the garden together, laugh together, and dance together, driving Helene wild. Eve suspects that Jacques is about to propose, and Georges and Eve are delighted with their success.
I adore Eve’s black tulle-and-velvet frock. It’s Irene’s brilliant take on a Cinderella ball gown: glamorous, sexy, and terribly chic, not at all sweet and princess-y. She makes the full skirt (layers of tulle!) and fuller puff sleeves new and alluring, and the strategically placed bodice adornment is almost scandalous! Eve certainly stands out amongst the more typically garbed guests, and not just because of her black bow/fascinator.
As Eve wraps Jacques around her little finger, Marcel arrives with two battered suitcases (Eve’s luggage, which she had to hock in Monte Carlo in order to buy her train ticket to Paris.) You see, Helene is very suspicious of the Baroness, so she sent Marcel to retrieve the luggage in the hopes of proving that “Baroness Cerny” is Eve Peabody, the intruder from Stephanie’s party. Helene leaves the conga line (!) and hurries to open the suitcases.
Georges follows the conspirators as they open Eve’s bags and find a clipping about American show girls. One of them does look like the Baroness…(third from the left, first row)
Just as Helene is about to expose Eve’s deception, a footman announces “Baron Cerny!” Guess who:
Eve is as stunned as Helene. Georges greets the Baron like an old friend, which Helene takes as proof that Eve really is the Baroness. She becomes a charming hostess, elated that Eve’s handsome “husband” has arrived. Maybe now she’ll get Jacques back to herself!
Georges takes pains to point out the burglar alarm by the bed; he doesn’t want to leave Eve alone with Tibor. But separating the “married couple” would give the game away, and George and Eve aren’t ready to end their ruse. He tells Eve that one pull on the alarm will rouse the house, and leaves with a stern look at Tibor.
Once alone, Eve begs Tibor to return to Paris, explaining that she’s finally on her way to what she’s always wanted! He argues that she should marry him instead because they’re in love and all will be well. She’s still hooked on the idea of a rich husband, though, and she’s so darn close!
Tibor sleeps in the sitting room. No need for the burglar alarm.
The next morning, Tibor tries a different (screwball) tack to get his “wife” away from these people and back to Paris. He joins Eve, Georges, Jacques, Marcel and Helene at breakfast and invents a young daughter named Francie. He pretends to have received an urgent telegram from Budapest with the dire news that Francie has the measles:
Eve has to go along with his story, so with Georges’ help (he’s awfully fast on the uptake, and it’s a pleasure to watch Eve and Georges work together) she places a call to “Budapest,” which is actually just Georges on the other house phone.
Now it’s Eve’s turn to get creative. She trumps Tibor’s fake daughter/measles with an entire conversation with her “mother-in-law” and the happy news that Francie’s spots were just a harmless rash! Then Georges gets in on the game:
Tibor is furious, especially when Eve urges him to talk to “Francie”/Georges speaking in baby-talk.
Tibor decides to end the charade once and for all. He changes into his taxi-driver clothes, and comes back to the breakfast table to announce that he and Eve are impostors!
But Eve saw him putting on his taxi cap through the window, so she gets in ahead of him. Before he gets back to the terrace, Eve confesses to the astounded group that there is a strain of insanity in the Cerny family. It’s perhaps my favorite moment in the entire movie:
Then she tells her rapt audience that Tibor can be utterly normal for long periods, then have an intense “spell,” which usually includes his insane belief that he’s not a Baron at all, but instead a normal working man!
So when Tibor arrives on the terrace and announces to everyone that he drives a taxi, they say “How nice” and “Would you like some more breakfast?” It’s brilliant. One almost feels sorry for Tibor when his honest protestations are completely ignored.
I’ve already spoiled most of this for you, but I’ll leave just a few things unsaid. I’m sure you can guess what happens, but it’s lovely the way the movie gets there.
Comic misunderstandings, some screwball, and excellent performances all around make this quite an enjoyable film. Georges’ machinations behind the scenes, Eve’s quick thinking and outrageous fibs, and Tibor’s inspired attempts to win Eve are lots of fun to watch.
The movie never feels stagnant or dull, which is quite an accomplishment for a Cinderella story. The behind-the-scenes stuff about Barrymore’s cue cards and Astor’s pregnancy give you extra elements to watch for, plus it’s fun to try to catch glimpses of the right side of Claudette Colbert’s face…
Apparently, she only liked the left side of her face (she thought her nose was crooked or something) and demanded that director Mitchell Leisen film her from that side. Which he does in almost every shot. Take a look at the images in this post–it’s astounding! Her refusal to be filmed from one side caused problems with blocking: notice how she is almost always on the right side of the frame, filmed straight on, or the other characters are on her left, but Leisen made it work through clever choreography and set design.
Fun fact: Leisen directed a remake of this film only six years later called Masquerade in Mexico, starring Dorothy Lamour.
Another fun fact: The studio liked the script that Wilder and Brackett gave them, but wanted a few changes. They sent the script back to the original authors, asking for a re-write. Wilder and Brackett sent the exact same screenplay back to the studio without any changes…the studio loved the “re-writes” and sent the film into production!
When Leisen changed a few words in Midnight‘s script during filming, Wilder was furious and decided that he would never let someone else direct one of his screenplays. Fortunately that stubbornness paid off for Wilder–he would go one to write and direct classics like Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Sabrina (1954), Some Like it Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), etc.
Frank Nugent, film critic at The New York Times, wrote an extremely complimentary review of Midnight in April of 1939. He called the film:
one of the liveliest, gayest, wittiest and naughtiest comedies of a long hard season. Its direction, by Mitchell Leisen, is strikingly reminiscent of that of the old Lubitsch. Its cast, led by Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, John Barrymore and Francis Lederer, is in the best of spirits. Its script, by too many authors to mention, is a model of deft phrasing and glib narrative joinery; and its production, while handsome, never has been permitted to bulk larger than its players.
He spent some time on the Cinderella plotline, but noted that
…the clock doesn’t strike when the film’s midnight comes; out, instead, pops a cuckoo with a clarion call to humor. Things go hilariously to smash, but not Cinderella. Even the fairy godmother—in this case, John Barrymore—blinks amazedly at his protégé’s carryings-on. When Miss Colbert plays Cinderella she doesn’t depend on a magic wand; a slapstick and a bludgeon are handier, and funnier.
Nugent finished his review with this:
Usually these things fall apart of their own complications; this one has the marvelous air of being bolstered by them…there is the business of Cabby Czerny’s heroic attempts to expose the fraud and being considered a lunatic; there is the bit in which Mr. Barrymore impersonates a 3-year-old; there is the complication attending the discovery that the non-wed Czernys will have to be divorced.
We could mention other zany bits, but it wouldn’t help. It is really too daffy to be synopsized. You’ll have to take our word for it that it’s fun. Most of the credit, of course, belongs to Miss Colbert. She has superb command of the comic style, can turn a line or toss a vase with equal precision. Mr. Barrymore, the Gehrig of eye-brow batting, rolls his phrases with his usual richly humorous effect, and Mr. Ameche and Mr. Lederer were quite as helpful. All of them have made it a happy occasion. Pictures like “Midnight” should strike more often.
Nugent captured the magic of Midnight in his ringing endorsement of the film. So if you’re looking for a charming comedy set amongst European splendor with fake Hungarian aristocrats and their imaginary children, this is the film for you! Here’s the trailer, enjoy!
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