Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Superior Income From An Inferior Champagne

I’d rather not get caught up in the whole debate about Mitchell Leisen and he caused the likes of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges to want to direct because of whatever he did to their scripts. In all honesty, part of me wants to say, “You’re really going to dispute any opinion that Wilder or Sturges ever had?” But then somebody might bring up BUDDY BUDDY or THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND or some other lesser movie with lots of b-words in the title that one of them made at some point. And it would alter the fact that 1939’s MIDNIGHT, directed by Mitchell Leisen and with a script that Billy Wilder was one of several writers on, remains a true delight.

It’s not just a good film. It has to be one of the true unsung romantic comedies, from not only the golden age of Hollywood, but from all of 1939, widely considered to be the pinnacle of that era. The credits list a story by Franz Schulz and Edwin Justus Mayer but the screenplay is very obviously to work of credited Wilder and Charles Brackett, who would work together on numerous films up until SUNSET BOULEVARD. The sparkling wit of their dialogue contains way too many lines to spoil here as and they also concocted an expertly plotted scenario that goes way beyond the simple Cinderella-setup of the title. The film reveals a world which may have only ever existed in the movies but that doesn’t make it any less enticing. That MIDNIGHT isn’t better known is unfortunate and should be near the top of the list of films to show people who might want to see something from this era but are only familiar with the ones which have been long since deemed classics.

Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) arrives in Paris by train one rainy night, with nothing but an evening gown that she is wearing. “So this is Paris,” she muses. “Well, from here it looks an awful lot like a rainy night in Kokomo, Indiana.” She comes in from Monte Carlo where she has pawned all her luggage after, she says, “the roulette system I was playing collapsed under me.” Getting a ride from cab driver Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche) she makes a deal with him to drive her around to the city’s nightclubs where she hopes to get a job singing and then she’ll pay him. When the plan fails, he buys her dinner and offers to let her stay at his place that night while he works. Aware of the instant attraction between them, she turns him down anyway because she doesn’t want someone who is “just” a cab driver. Thought he won’t take no for an answer, she is still able to make a getaway and manages to crash a nearby party being attended by Paris society. Once inside, she finds several people becoming interested in her for various reasons including the handsome Jacques (Francis Lederer), the curious Georges Flammarion (an amazing John Barrymore) and his suspicious wife Helene (Mary Astor). When Georges realizes that Eve can help him with a marital problem, her deception is able to continue past the end of the party, but meanwhile Tibor is marshalling all of his resources to track her down again.

A complicated screwball plot and I haven’t begun to get into a number of aspects of it. MIDNIGHT has laughs, enjoyable characters-even the ones who aren’t never becomes all that unlikable—but overall a sense of elegance which works for the piece. I don’t know if this was Paris in 1939—well, obviously it wasn’t, but it’s nice to imagine that it was like this. Leisen brought an earnestness and sensitivity to some of these films–another was the quite moving REMEMBER THE NIGHT, written by Sturges—that not only may have been something that Wilder and Sturges didn’t do, but wasn’t really achieved on this level by most directors (All this does remind me that MIDNIGHT has a few slight similarities to Struges' own THE PALM BEACH STORY, which also features Colbert and Astor). Yes, maybe at times Leisen seems very interested in that opulence—check out how he dotes on the Conga line at the estate party. But there are several camera movements during this section which are very much done for storytelling reasons that manage to add to the plot and the elegance he’s obviously going for at the same time—compare this to the Paramount films from around this time which have truly uninteresting camerawork. If that’s not somebody who knows what he’s doing, what is? In Cameron Crowe’s absolutely essential CONVERSATIONS WITH WILDER, the man himself seems to begrudgingly allow himself to say good things about both MIDNIGHT and Leisen, so maybe this was one of those cases where people didn’t click (Sturges, I suppose, separately didn’t click with him either). Since it’s the film which remains now, that’s probably all that matters.

One of the great things about returning to MIDNIGHT after a number of years away, is realizing just how wonderful Claudette Colbert is. Funny, attractive, vivacious and perceptive enough to be suspicious of everyone who crosses her eyeline, Eve Peabody is a fantastic character and she hits every beat just right. Don Ameche is fantastic—anyone who only knows him from TRADING PLACES and COCOON needs to see this film right now! The nature of his performance is that John Barrymore almost walks away with the film but really, the film is so equally divided in moments from its actors that it doesn’t really happen. Nevertheless, there’s a delight in what he does which is very special. A legendary drinker at this time, his character is roused from boredom at a dull party into curiosity about this odd woman suddenly sitting next to him. It almost plays as if the actor himself is coming to life upon realizing just how good the script he agreed to appear in was. Mary Astor is also very good as the humorless Helene, interested in not much more than hats, yet still consistent and believably even in this farcical context. As a matter of fact, everyone from Hedda Hopper, who also appears, down to the bit players is spot-on in this luxurious Hollywood version of France. Ernst Lubitsch, a friend and huge influence on Wilder, famously said, “I’ve been to Paris, France and I’ve been to Paris, Paramount. I prefer Paris, Paramount.” A shame that we didn’t get to see what Lubitsch might have done with this, but nevertheless MIDNIGHT is one of my favorite examples of what that sentence states. In an ideal world I’d find a girl who has never heard of this movie and she would fall for everything in it as well. I’m still looking.


D Cairns said...

Sturges doesn't say anything about Leisen in Sturges on Sturges. He was famously pernickety about the directors who handled his scripts, and seemingly didn't much like his friend William Wyler's handling of The Good Fairy either. But he took a print of Remember the Night away from Paramount with him, so he must have had some affection for the end result.
Agree re the excellence of Midnight. Other Leisen/Wilder collaborations of note: Hold Back the Dawn is a masterpiece, Arise My Love starts beautifully but falls apart somewhat.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I haven't read Sturges on Sturges in years, but the biography Christmas in July has Sturges referring to Leisen as an "interior decorator" around the time of EASY LIVING and being infuriated when the director was assigned to REMEMBER THE NIGHT, even if things turned out ok in that case. I'm sure I've read more about Leisen/Sturges elsewhere but would have to do some digging. REMEMBER is terrific but MIDNIGHT is the one I feel like I could watch over and over. Unfortunately I've never seen HOLD BACK THE DAWN so I'll have to do something about that. Thanks for writing.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

A family favorite. Just announcing "The Baron Tibor Czerrrrrrny" can get us giggling.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

And a great moment that is in the movie. I love the expression on Don Ameche's face when he enters.