Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche are John Barrymore's parents in... Midnight (1939)
Let's all say a big, collective "Happy birthday!" to the one and only Billy Wilder. To celebrate the director's birthday on June 22nd, I'm taking part in this wonderful blogathon. You simply must read the other posts. You wouldn't want to upset Mr. Wilder, would you?
I made a terrible error, you guys. In my list of my favorite Wilder films, I egregiously left out Midnight. How could I, you say? My weak defense is that I wrote the list months before I published it, before I ever watched the masterpiece that is Midnight. I mean, my goodness, it has Claudette Colbert, Mary Astor, Francis Lederer, and John Barrymore in my favorite performance of his. And did I mention Don freaking Ameche? I've said it once, I'll say it again: I love Ameche. LOVE. No Ameche haters are allowed here. Now that I've probably alienated some of you, let's get this Wilder lovefest started.
On a rainy night in Paris, Eve Peabody (Colbert) is woken up in a train car. Through her conversation with the conductor, we learn she's just come from Monte Carlo, where she lost all her money and had to pawn her suitcase in order to afford a ticket to Paris to look for a job. Outside the station, all the cabbies are trying to pick up customers, including Tibor Czerny (my gorgeous Mr. Ameche). While he chomps on an apple, Eve tries to make him a deal: she has no money, but if he drives her to nightclubs as she searches for a singing job and she lands one, she'll double his pay. No dice. But when Tibor sees her walking in the rain with only a measly newspaper as protection, he takes pity and takes her up on her offer. He wasn't getting any other customers, anyway.
Cue the montage! From the creme de la creme to the lowest of the lows, nobody gives Eve a job. She takes it in stride and tells Tibor to take her back to the station; she'll sleep there overnight and figure out what to do in the morning. The cabbie has taken quite a shine to the sassy ex-chorine, so he treats her to dinner and dancing at a cheap cafe. While Tibor is very happy with making little money because that's all he needs, Eve wants much more. She aspired to marrying a lord like her chorus-girl friends, but before she could snag one, his mother bought her off. Tibor is shocked: "You threw her out, I hope?" "How could I with my hands full of money?"
Despite Tibor's offer of a bed for the night (don't worry, he'll be out working all night), Eve doesn't want it. She knows she could really fall for Tibor, but that just doesn't fit with her plans. When they stop for gas, she ducks out and makes a run for it. Tibor spends the night searching for her, and when that fails, he starts a little competition between the cabbies: every participant puts some money in a pool and whoever finds Eve first gets the whole amount. Eve, meanwhile, had slipped into a high society party, which wasn't hard to do considering her gold evening gown and her pawn ticket acting as her invitation. In spite of her attire, it's clear she doesn't belong there -- she sits on a tiny dog, disrupts the lady singing an opera piece, and trips over people, all to the amusement of Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore).
He had been sleeping, but the commotions Eve caused intrigued him. He makes the best faces while he studies her. The party's hostess, Stephanie (Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper), announces to the guests that there's an intruder amongst them, a Ms. Eve Peabody (the pawn ticket wasn't such a foolproof plan). Georges eyes Eve as he's connected the dots, but she plays innocent. Thinking that she's been found out when a man comes up to her and lures her from the other guests, she's relieved to see that he just needed a fourth member for a bridge game. The other players include Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer), a leech who loves wooing married women, and Helene Flammarion (Mary Astor), Georges's wife and one of those women that Jacques is wining and dining. The man who recruited Eve is Helene's best friend, Marcel (Rex O'Malley).
Eve can hardly relax. She lies and says her name is Mme. Czerny; each game point is worth 5 francs, which she definitely doesn't have; Jacques flirts like mad with her, causing Helene to instantly dislike her. And then Georges walks in. He "assumes" that Eve is Baron Czerny's wife, and when she goes along with it, he starts asking her questions about Hungary. She stumbled her way through it all, but she panics when she owes 4,2000 francs by game's end. Georges hands her her purse, which she finds stuffed with money Georges slipped in.
As they all leave, Jacques insists on taking Eve to her hotel, the Ritz. She tries to get him to leave, but he won't until he sees her right to her room. So with dread, she tells her name to the desk clerk. Ah yes, her reservation is right here! Then Jacques puts her key in the door. She's actually able to go in! She tells Jacques goodnight and immediately believes that there's been some mistake. But her huge hotel suite is empty, so what's a girl to do but go to bed and worry about it tomorrow?
Immediately, she goes to work, stealing Jacques from Helene at a hat shop under the pretense that she needs help shopping. They spend the day together and Jacques is definitely smitten. They're spotted by one of Tibor's fellow cabbies, who decides to get into a little fender bender with them in order to confirm it's Eve. Jacques is annoyed that a low cabbie would dare to hit the car of Baroness Czerny and blame the accident on her, which gives the cabbie all the information he needs. He rushes to Tibor and tells him that Ms. Peabody is now a baroness who is living at the Ritz. A little enraged and a little confused, Tibor weasels out of the hotel's doorman that Eve has gone to the Flammarion estate for a few days.
Looking handsome in a tuxedo, Tibor passes himself off as the baron to Eve's baroness, assuaging Helene's suspicions and keeping Georges's plan intact. Eve, however, is not so relieved. What the hell is Tibor doing? It's simple: he just wants Eve. He almost convinces her to go back to Paris with him, but she admits that she's finally getting a passage to the upper class and a wealthy soon-to-be fiance (because let's face it, Jacques is putty in her delicate little hands). Tibor is furious that she doesn't think love is enough, and she's furious that he doesn't understand where she's coming from. They end the night in separate rooms.
She tells the group that their daughter is practically all well and they don't have to go after all. Everyone but Tibor returns to the breakfast table, and Eve sees that he's putting on his cabbie uniform, undoubtedly so he can reveal everything. When a butler tells the table that the phones have been down all morning, Eve does some very quick thinking and admits that she lied about the phone call. And Francie.
She then explains that the Czerny family has a history of mental illness, and every once in awhile Tibor will think he's a fisherman or a taxi driver and he'll insist that they're not married. It's best just to agree with everything he says, or else he gets violent. The cast is marvelous as they work together here.
When he wakes up, Eve says she's ready to leave with him. She doesn't want Jacques or the fancy clothes or the parties. But Tibor isn't satisfied. The damage has been done. Eve gets so mad, she threatens to "divorce" him so she can be free to marry Jacques. Tibor tells her to go right ahead, landing them in court some days later. The judge (Monty Woolley) orders them to spend 15 minutes in a room alone together before he'll grant their divorce, a divorce that Tibor states he won't contest to Eve's dismay.
It becomes apparent, though, that he really does want Eve when he starts shaving in the courtroom, using the judge's water to mix shaving cream and shoving a brush in an official's face. Upset that no one told him Tibor was insane, the judge refuses to issue the divorce since it's illegal for a couple to divorce if one of them is mentally ill. Jacques tells Eve that they'll fight the verdict, but she turns him down and gently lets him go. Helene and Georges leave the courthouse arm in arm, while a bemused Marcel looks on. And despite only having 40 francs to live on every day, Tibor and Eve make their way to the marriage license bureau.
Cameron Crowe's Conversations with Wilder is invaluable and filled to the brim with insights and information from the great Mr. Wilder.When Crowe asked Wilder what was the best film Mitchell Leisen directed based on one of his scripts, Wilder named Midnight, which also turned out to be Claudette Colbert's favorite film. He then tells a little anecdote about his first (and only) meeting with Don Ameche, which years later the actor didn't remember and couldn't believe that he starred in Midnight. The film's producer, Arthur Hornblow Jr. introduced Ameche and Barrymore as Wilder and Charles Brackett stood there. When Hornblow asked Barrymore if he knew Ameche, Barrymore wickedly replied "Of course he knows me, we're sleeping with each other!"
Wilder admitted that the picture and Ameche were great, slyly adding that it was because "Barrymore was too drunk to write his own scenes" (200). The director liked Leisen's work too, but he remarked that Leisen hated having the writers' input during shooting -- he went so far as to have a policeman bar Wilder from the set! Leisen took to revising lines and dropping ideas without asking the writers, something that incensed Wilder and increased his motivation to become a director himself so he could control his own scripts.
And how about this film's script? It was the second one to ever be written by Wilder and Charles Brackett, a teaming that would produce Sunset Boulevard, Ninotchka, The Lost Weekend, and others. From what I gather from Crowe's book and other sources, despite Leisen's penchant for changing screenplays, Midnight is probably the most faithful he ever stayed to a Wilder/Brackett script. It definitely has the feel of a Wilder-directed picture. I just love the dialogue. It's so elegant and sweet in places, but also witty and funny. One of my favorite exchanges is when Tibor and Eve are alone in her room at the Flammarion chateau and they ruminate on what might have been had she not run away from him in Paris:
T: "I know we're right for each other. I know it deep down in my bones, don't you?"
E: "That's why I didn't accept that room of yours."
T: "There were no strings on that. I was driving all night."
E:"I know that... I would've awakened in the morning and ironed that shirt of yours, and then I would've waited around to thank you."
T: "And I would've asked you to marry me."
E: "I probably would have. Don't you see? We would have had a few grand weeks and a lot of laughs... And then all of a sudden, the walls of that one room would've started crowding in on us."
T: "Yeah, I know that story. When you're poor, love flies out the window."
E: "Well, I saw it happen with my mother and father. So many worries and quarrels, and they just gave up. They didn't even hate each other."
T: "I suppose love is safer in a place like this!"
Then there's Tibor's attempt to convince everyone that Eve isn't who she says she is. He's angry that they don't believe him, hurt that Eve has rejected him, and saddened because he loves her but she would rather keep up her charade. Ameche does such a good job:
T: "She's not a baroness... She's an American golddigger I picked up in Paris less than a week ago... There was something about her nose, and the way the raindrops trickled down from that newspaper."
T: "Yes, she was wearing one instead of a hat! She twisted me around her finger in two minutes; I was crazy about her. She made me think that she felt the same way about me, until she remembered she had other fish to fry -- fish like you! Gold fish!"
I've praised John Barrymore's performance before in this post, but I just think he is so damn marvelous. I always love his work, except maybe Twentieth Century. I've written about it before, so if you want to learn about that tragedy, click here. I think Midnight is a much better and funnier showcase. I crack up every time Georges impersonates Tibor's "mother" and "Francie" on the telephone. It's so bizarre and goofy, especially when you consider that only Eve and Tibor can hear what he's saying, so the voices really aren't necessary:
Georges as Mother: "It was just a case of alcohol poisoning. The baby must have had one highball too many. She was out all night. We picked her up in the gutter."
Eve in front of everyone: "Oh, how cute of her! Oh, she loves it so."
Barrymore was in very bad shape during production. Despite his drinking and ill health, it sounds like he still remained fairly sharp, with Mary Astor commenting that he was still able to "act rings around everyone else." Midnight would be one of his last films. Throughout filming, he either refused to learn his lines or he couldn't retain them, so cue cards were used. I never noticed this until it was pointed out to me; it's really only apparent in the scene where he and Eve are nursing an unconscious Tibor, but unless you're looking for it, I don't think you would notice. There's a snapshot of it above.
The script is also aware that it's a retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale. I mean, its title is Midnight, referring to Eve's line that "Every Cinderella has her midnight." Georges is clearly supposed to be the fairy godfather. I think Tibor as the prince is Wilder's way of messing with the expectation--instead of a wealthy, handsome man in a crisp tuxedo, Eve gets a rough, leather jacket-wearing, working class man who only wears a tux if it's rented. Early in the film, when Tibor tells Eve he's buying her dinner as he opens the taxi door for her, she wryly says "Oh, this is a pumpkin coach and you're the fairy godmother?" Wilder seemed to have a thing for fairy tales. Sabrina is another definite Cinderella story (which I talk about here), and Ball of Fire is a take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Midnight also shares a similar plot to the Preston Sturges-penned and Leisen-directed Easy Living (1937) and Ginger Rogers's Fifth Avenue Girl (1939), although all three films are pretty different when you consider them individually.
|Helene admits to Jacques that she's become jealous of Eve. Check out those furry sleeves!|
|Crossing her fingers that all goes well.|
|Helene and Marcel are chomping at the bit to hear Eve dish about Tibor's illness.|
|Great reactions from everyone as they try to appease Tibor so he won't get violent.|
|"Where are you two going?" "To get married!" "Oh... What?!"|
Happy birthday, Mr. Wilder!