Every Cinderella has her midnight.
First order of business: my apologies for the absence of sustainable cinematic content over the past few months. Real life, holiday life, and some other lives in between have intruded on my blogging duties. But hopefully that’s long past now, and we can get back to “business as usual.”
And on that note, there’s no business like show business, so let us commence discussion of Mitchell Leisen’s 1939 production of Midnight. Interestingly enough, this is a film that lays claim to a screenwriting credit from Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, the very same pair that brought us such gems as A Foreign Affair and Sunset Blvd. While Midnight does not even approach the brilliance of those titles, perhaps in part because it is an adaptation as opposed to an original story, there is still much to enjoy and dissect here.
Though it was produced a mere two years after Easy Living, there is such a drastic shift in tone between the two pictures that I thought it would be interesting to analyze Midnight in the light of Leisen’s earlier work. Especially because both films share a genre (screwball comedy), as well as a theoretical bent towards exploring the relationship between socio-economics and personal identity.
Midnight is billed as a modern retelling of Cinderella, with Claudette Colbert in the fairytale role of Eve Peabody, a down on her luck showgirl and American expatriate. The search for financial security has led Eve from the chorus lines of Manhattan, to the streets of London, to a disastrous turn at a Monte Carlo roulette wheel. With only 25 centimes left to her name, she pawns all her earthly possessions and hops a train to Paris, where she hopes to reverse this alarming financial trend.
Her arrival into the city is where the picture opens, and already, there is a gauzy quality to the photography that contrasts with the sharpness of Easy Living. As Eve awakens from slumber, she is unceremoniously shuffled out of a train car and into a nighttime Parisian rain storm. She has nothing but the evening gown on her back, and a near empty beaded purse in her hand.
Sleeping Beauty awakes // Out you go! // Into the storm
Watching Colbert, aloof and insouciant, navigate the puddles and the throngs of cabbies lying in wait for their next fare, it seems as if she possesses enough moxie to forewarn even the rain from staining her perfectly coiffed head. It is an anachronistic image, just as this Paris is not a representation of reality, but only of a parallel city built upon a Los Angeles soundstage. It is the Paris of someone’s dream. Yet the fictionalized quality of these elements is the very thing that drives the narrative of the story.
The Paris of someone’s dream
Eve’s port in the storm comes in the form of Tibur Czerny (Don Ameche), a Hungarian immigrant who drives a taxi and takes pity on the stranded waif. Czerny agrees to shuttle Eve around to various nightclubs, gratis, where she has the idea of passing herself off as a hitherto unheard of American singing sensation.
Where Easy Living dealt in the matter of mistaken identity, Midnight, treads into the territory of assumed identity, of the idea that we can imagine ourselves as better than we are, or even as we ought to be. That sort of fantasy, rightly or wrongly, seems very particular to the close of a decade burdened by so much hardship. As we previously saw in The Women, also produced in 1939, archetypal representations of identity seem to be born out of a psychological need for order in a world wrought with much uncertainty.
This is counter to Jean Arthur’s Mary Smith, who was thrown into the fray and forced to fight her way out, on her own terms. Throughout her struggles, she remained the same, unconscious, blunt “every girl,” from start to finish. This evolution from the “every girl” to the “girl everyone wants to be,” can be read as an inability to accept that we, as individuals, are capable of surviving on our own steam. For although the financial crisis of the depression was beginning to abate, political tensions across Europe were threatening to boil over, and the shift in setting from Mary Smith’s Manhattan to Eve Peabody’s Paris is not likely an arbitrary one. Escaping reality into a structured world of our own making, forms the basis of Midnight’s thematic initiative.
Although Eve’s plan does not pan out, the night has afforded both her and Czerny the opportunity to fall in love. Following a beautiful establishing shot of the cab, all jeweled with rain, the two realize what has come over them and Czerny offers her his room. Eve declines the invitation, explaining that she has the unfortunate propensity to become sidetracked by love in her quest for financial security. Her rebuff of Tibur is founded upon her fear that their mutual impoverished states would eventually tarnish the brightness of their affection. The idea that he could be her fairy-godfather is an unthinkable one to Eve, so when Tibur’s back is turned at a filling station, she races out into the night, leaving him stranded.
Her flight is framed by a high angled shot of the open cab window, as the camera mimics Tibur’s gaze. This visual technique is used often throughout the film, giving many scenes a storyboard-like feel that only further heightens the fairytale feel of the picture.
Rainswept cab // Empty gaze // She’s a runaway!
With midnight fast approaching, Eve quite by chance hustles herself into a private musicale, hosted by society lady Stephanie (Hedda Hopper in a cameo appearance). Using her pawn stub in lieu of an entrance ticket, she settles herself amongst the guests and tries to be as inconspicuous as possible. However, when she removes her shoes in order to rest her feet, she attracts the attention of Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore), a man whose inattention to the entertainment at hand accounts fully for the critical nature of his eye.
Although Eve manages to pass undetected as an imposter to the rest of the guests, Flammarion’s interest in the interloper is immediately piqued. When Eve is unknowingly coaxed into playing a game of bridge with his wife, Helene (Mary Astor), and two of Mme. Flammarion’s hangers-on, dashing Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer) and gossipy Marcel Renaud (Rex O’Malley), she takes on the identity of a Baroness in order to retain the cloak of disguise. The first name that comes to her mind? Czerny.
As the foursome play on, and Georges lurks in the background with his watchful eye, the camera cuts to a skewed shot of the bridge players, thereby precipitating an inequality of class, of affection, and most importantly, of knowledge. One of these things is not like the other, and both the audience, and Georges are in cahoots with Eve on that score.
Georges is eager to help the newly christened Baroness Czerny in her forgery, even going so far as to slip thousands of francs into her purse to stem the losses she sustains during the card game. When an obviously smitten Picot offers to chauffeur her to her fictitious quarters at the Ritz, Georges telephones the hotel in advance and arranges a room for her. As Eve and Picot enter the hotel, pausing to pose for a wonderfully symmetrical shot before the revolving door, she is unaware of the lengths Flammarion has gone on her account. Upon discovering that there really is a room reserved for the Baroness Czerny, Eve is so taken aback by her luck, that she does not connect the event with her mysterious benefactor.
90 ° frame // Skewed frame // Symmetry
If ever there was to be a fairy godfather, it seems that Georges, not Tibur, is the natural choice for the role. Much like the character of J.B. Ball in Easy Living, Flammarion changes the heroine’s life with an act of capricious kindness. Or so it seems. When Eve awakens the following day from her reverie, she wonders if the spell has broken. In a rather cheeky scene, the camera shows us a mirrored shot of Eve in bed, before panning left to her actual form. When she emerges from under the covers, she is clearly naked, as the only item of clothing she possesses is the dress worn the previous evening. A knock on the door comes, followed by bellboys bearing the Baroness’s luggage. Georges has sent Eve an entirely new wardrobe.
After scrambling to cloth herself (the contortions performed by Colbert are meant to leave our imaginations in a state of agitation), Georges pops onto the scene, and reveals himself to be the source of all these happy coincidences. Eve immediately demands to know why he has gone out of his way to help her. As she had earlier noted to Tibur when he allowed her free passage in his taxi, nobody gives away something for nothing.
Mirror shot // Pan left to the bed // The Baroness has no clothes!
As it turns out, this is true of Georges as well. He explains that his wife is having an affair with Picot. For reasons unknown, this has not deadened his affection for her in the slightest, and his only concern is to keep her from leaving their marriage. To that end, he charges Eve with the task of taking Picot away from Helene. In exchange for her services, he is prepared to give her access to his own personal bank account, where she may draw up to 50,000 francs for her personal expenses. As a bonus, Flammarion suggests that she may very well end up with Picot herself. After all, he notes, Jacques makes a “superior income, from an inferior champagne.”
Eve gets to work straight away, losing no time in publicly flirting with Picot in front of Helene. Angered by her flame’s wandering attentions, she enlists the help of busybody Marcel to dig into the Baroness’s background before all involved set off to a weekend at the Flammarion country estate at Versailles.
Paris in rear projection// Beautiful bisected shot of Helene’s mirrored and real self // High angle shot of Flammarion ballroom (stand in for Georges’s gaze)
Meanwhile, bereft at Eve’s desertion, Tibur has launched a full scale search and rescue with the aid of his cabbie friends. By organizing a lottery, five francs to gain entrance, he has mobilized the entire corps in a frenetic canvassing of the city. By chance, one of the men spots Eve in a limousine with Picot and learns of her newly obtained nobility, which when relayed to Czerny, both shocks and delights him. He races to the Ritz to confront her, only to find that he is too late. In a classic screwball scene, Tibur needles the Baroness’s whereabouts from the hotel manager by commencing a ceaseless symphony of car horns, until the beleaguered man imparts the information. It is reminiscent of the automat mob scene in Easy Living, only with less dire undertones and more amusing consequences, as befits most fairytales.
Honk! // Honk! // She’s at the estate de Flammarion, Versailles!
Back at the Flammarion estate, pathos and intrigue collide, as the complex marital relations of Georges and Helene play out against the lighter comedy of Eve’s duplicitous turn as a noblewoman. When Picot questions Helene about her jealousy, she remits, “Fun, isn’t it?” in sad, wan way, whilst pouring tea and inquiring of her august beau, “milk or lemon?”. Her face illustrates torment, while her tone belies the seriousness of the emotion.
Someone’s not having any fun.
Yet, the shadow of Eve’s true identity continues to upset the careful balance of what Georges has put into play. On the night of a magnificent ball hosted by the Flammarions, Marcel finally arrives, with Eve’s hocked Monte Carlo luggage in tow. As the guests dance the conga, Helene claims a private victory upstairs, while she and Marcel pour over the scanty contents. They come across an old press clipping that depicts the grainy likeness of Eve in a chorus line showcase. With the pressure mounting, and Georges clued into Helene’s discovery, Eve gamely admits that, “every Cinderella has her midnight.”
But just as her clock is about to strike twelve, who should show up to the ball, but Tibur, dressed in a rented tuxedo and bearing the title of none other than Baron Czerny. His arrival is perfectly timed, diffusing the mounting tension and injecting the proceedings with a fresh excitement. New stakes are raised, and the narrative begins to gain much needed steam. If there’s any fault to Midnight’s script, it is that the first quarter of the film is diametrically paced to the remaining 3/4ths. Tibur and Eve’s initial lovelorn interlude feels like something out of a Frank Borzage film, languid and aching. Although there are some related strains found elsewhere in the film, most notably the broken love between the Flammarions, what follows is much more in line with the traditional screwball formula.
As “Baron” Czerny is introduced, all at once, the battle lines shift. Picot’s jealousy is on the rise, just as Helene’s begins to wane. Georges’s momentary relief is replaced with a madcap scramble to keep the charade afloat. Eve is beside herself at the imperiled danger that falling in love holds for her future, and Tibur is confidant in his ability to change her mind. The crux of the finale revolves around the fated couple’s eventual reunion.
With Eve and Tibur continually trying to one-up one and other, the obvious eventual difficulty of their never having been married arises when Picot makes his intent to marry the Baroness quite clear. They will need to obtain a fictitious divorce for their fake marriage. Bribing a lawyer, Georges brings the proceedings to fruition, and the showdown in the courtroom is a satisfying display of droll bon mots (“We don’t regard marriage as a vaudeville that you leave when you cease to be amused! This isn’t the United States of America!”) and zany maneuverings.
After Eve poignantly states that not once during the tenure of their relationship has her “husband” ever said he loved her, the judge is inclined to grant the divorce. Initially, Tibur appears amenable to her suit, until the gavel is about to be drawn, at which he erupts in an impressive display of mental instability by taking a razor and beginning to shave himself in the middle of the proceedings. Incensed by the temerity of a woman willing to walk out on her obviously unwell husband, the judge unequivocally shouts at her to go home and “get it out of [her] head that [she] will ever be rid of this man!”
Quelle horreur! // Antics // He’s not violent, we swear!
Leisen directs the climax of the film with no obvious camera tricks, preferring to play it straight. Perhaps that is because there is so much going on narratively, or perhaps it is because underneath the chaos, the emotion of these characters’ reactions is real. The pretext of wanting more than you need has been done away with, and although their assumed identities have not been shorn, both Tibur and Eve have come to realize who they are in spite of this.
As for Picot, Eve sets him free with the revelation that after all, he is not the marrying kind, a mantle he seems to find solace in as he leaves the court house with a smile. The fake histrionics of the Czerny’s aborted divorce have somehow brought Helene to her senses, as she grips her husband’s arm and realizes she is exactly where she has wanted to be all along. While the characters file out of the courthouse, one by one, Leisen reverts to the stylistic rendering of his dream Paris. Tibur, softly lit in the shadows, watches Picot, Marcel, Georges, and Helene depart. Following their procession is Eve, whom he gently links arms with, as they turn about in search of a marriage license.
Shadows & Light
As befits a film produced during the waning years of the Depression, Midnight, embodies a fantasy, as well as a weariness, that in hindsight seems a natural evolution from earlier treatments of financial desperation. The Cinderella metaphor applied here is more in line with the type of narrative one sees in musicals of the day, a la Gold Diggers of 1933, wherein spectacle and finesse are finely brushed over the crackling visage of a populace ravaged by poverty. Traditional 1930s screwball films, such as Easy Living or You Can’t Take it With You, all end happily, however there is a driving intensity behind their protagonists’ need for survival. Losing your livelihood or your home can be played for laughs, but at the same time, they fuel every plot turn and character motivation.
On the other hand, Midnight treats Eve’s financial situation as an irksome burden, rather than an actual pressing problem. She herself seems confident from the first frame that the situation is merely a temporary setback, something to be reversed in due time. What truly compels Midnight forward is its focus on romance and love, not Eve’s inopportune financial status. The humor of earlier screwball films is rooted in a madcap hysteria, almost an insanity, brought on by desperation. Here, there remain vestiges of that prototype, but by and large the laughs come from dry, witty one-liners and the situational comedy that the “mixed marrieds” find themselves navigating.
Breakfast scuffle // Georges is happy to see the Baron // Eve is not
This is not a criticism of the film, merely an observation, and one that is to be expected from a country having suffered a decade long financial crisis. One can only follow the old footpaths for so long before buckling under exhaustion. What makes Midnight interesting is that it is a clear missing link between the screwball comedies of the 30s, and the more polished comedies that are soon to grace the silver screens of the 40s.
Were I to criticism this film, I would do so on the grounds that it is neither here, nor there. While that indeed makes it an interesting specimen to study, it does not make for a totally satisfactory viewing experience. The unevenness of the script is at times disorienting, and moreover, disheartening. The slow, dirge-like opening is full of atmosphere, but out of place with the faster paced scenes at the Flammarion’s estate. Similarly, while the court room scenes sparkle with excitement and vivid movement, the ending is so abrupt, one is left feeling as if they were just dropped off a cliff. In some ways, it appears that the film has an identity crisis of its own, and perhaps that can be interpreted as a quandary over whether to move the production in a more European fashion, as befits the setting, or an American one.
Overall, Midnight is still a captivating study and enjoyable on many levels. This is in large part due to John Barrymore, seen here in his twilight years. He plays polished Georges with an undercurrent of lovable befuddlement, ironically something that can also be said about brother Lionel’s performance in You Can’t Take it With You.
Flammarion was one of the last roles Barrymore played before passing away in 1942. Many are aware that some years before, he had a passionate love affair with a teenaged Mary Astor . On her screen reunion with him, she had this to say:
Seeing Jack again, working with him, was saddening. He was so changed. He was sick and old (only in his fifties). . . vague and quiet and sat on the set barely talking to anyone. For most of his scenes he required prompt cards, carried off-camera by the prop man. This in itself at that time was considered a subject for sniggering: “The old boy’s lost his marbles.” Of course, later, TV developed cue cards and Teleprompters to a fine art. But 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 everyone else.
I played his wife in the picture and we had a few scenes together. It was all very strange. He hardly spoke to me off the set- politely, impersonally. Once we were sitting off-camera in the usual canvas chairs waiting to be called. Saying nothing. I reached over and touched his hand, gently, because I was remembering another time, so very long ago. He snatched his hand away as though it had been burned and he glared at me and said, “Don’t.” Tears came weakly to his eyes and he fisted them away and laughed and said, “My wife- ah- Miss Barrie- is very jealous.”
As for Astor’s portrayal, she has many of the best and most cutting lines in the film, yet still retains an aura of vulnerability. Eerily, her Helene is something of a prelude echo to The Great Lie’s Sandra Kovack, the role that won her an Academy Award. Astor was heavily pregnant during much of the filming for Midnight, and she claims in A Life on Film that this made the production difficult for her. Her performance, however, does not outwardly suffer from this setback.
Don Ameche is in fine form here, despite being given the most thankless and uninteresting role of all. His Tibur is constantly forced to play the straight man to Eve and Georges’ shenanigans, and although he eventually has his day during the insanity scenes, they are far too short to make up for what he has to drag himself through for the majority of the picture. Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be any chemistry between him and Colbert, and in light of what her character puts his through, chemistry is a necessary element for the viability of the romance.
I suppose now we’ve come to the part where I must make a full confession and tell you, dear readers, that I loathe Claudette Colbert with the fire a thousand suns. I’ve left this confession for the finale, because I truly did not want my personal feelings for her to affect my critique of the film. And now, let the hate mail commence!
My imaginary feud with Claudette is a point of amusement for many, and I think that, in and of itself, has fanned the flames of my dislike these many years. At the heart of the matter, though, is my belief that she is not a viable screwball heroine. It Happened One Night, Midnight, The Palm Beach Story. . .all of these, in my estimation, require a someone who exudes equal parts pluck, humanity, and mental insanity. What I get instead from Colbert is that she is above the grittier aspects and humiliations that these characters are forced to endure. There’s a reluctance in her performances, as if she is afraid to truly let go.
Astor claims in her book that Colbert insisted on several rewrites for Midnight, in order that the role be tailored to her image. Knowing what we do of Brackett & Wilder’s talents, this was clearly a mistake, for under the veneer of a passably good production lurks the possibility that it may have been truly great if left untampered with. Furthermore, Colbert may have surprised even herself by pursuing that which she believed was beyond her usual range.
All of this is leading to the blandest of summations: I feel that Claudette Colbert was routinely miscast many times over. Of course, this leads me to believe that there are probably roles to which she was perfectly suited, ones that I’ve never allowed myself to see, due to my blinding hatred. If anyone would like to make viewing suggests, I am more than willing to revisit my opinions of the lady, however if I were you, I wouldn’t hold out hope for a complete recantation!