William Powell and Ginger Rogers sleuth around in... Star of Midnight (1935)


When The Thin Man was released in 1934, its immense success inspired several cinematic imitations. Many films tried to duplicate the iconic series's winning combination of wit and glamour, yet they rarely reached the same heights as Nick and Nora Charles. Still, I enjoy a great deal of them, especially the ones that co-starred Mr. Charles himself, William Powell, such as Star of Midnight (1935) with Ginger Rogers.

Star of Midnight's title refers to Alice Markham, a woman the audience never sees but who sets the plot in motion when she disappears, worrying her boyfriend Tim (Leslie Fenton). After searching for Alice for a year to no avail, Tim turns to his impossibly suave friend Clay "Dal" Dalzell (Powell), a lawyer and amateur detective. Dal gets more than he bargained for, though, when it is discovered that the new star of a stage musical called Midnight is actually Alice in disguise and she goes into hiding again. Things get more complicated after a reporter is killed for what he knows about the mysterious woman's past.

Standing by Dal's side throughout all of this is wealthy socialite Donna Martin (Rogers), who has been in love with Dal ever since she was ten years old. The dynamic between these two is easily the best thing about Star of Midnight. Although he is hesitant about the younger Donna and tries to keep a distance between them, Dal is no match for her persistence and as the film goes on, he starts to let his defenses down. He even asks Donna to help him in his detective work and calls her his partner when interviewing a suspect. In the end, she provides vital information and insight that helps Dal unravel the mystery, proving she is more than just the cute blonde who follows Dal around like a puppy.

While the Hays Code went into effect the year before Star of Midnight's release, there is still plenty of risqué behavior to be found. For example, we watch Dal shower as he is interrogated by the police (obviously, you can't see anything, but still). In another scene, Donna tricks Dal into retrieving love letters that her married friend wrote to another man. We learn from one character that one of the film's suspects, Jerry (Vivien Oakland), is Dal's former lover and she has had a string of husbands and affairs since their fling. When Dal wonders aloud how Jerry discovered he has been looking for Alice, Donna inquires if he talks in his sleep -- and then cheekily adds that if he does, she could learn to wear ear muffs.


Rogers was one of the most hardworking actresses in Hollywood, particularly in the 1930s when she was collaborating with Fred Astaire while also starring in various comedies and dramas. Star of Midnight came in between two of her most well-known films with Astaire, Roberta and Top Hat, giving Rogers barely any time to catch her breath. However, the actress didn't seem to mind too much, writing in her 1992 autobiography, "I was thankful to be going into a sophisticated comedy instead of rehearsing long hours and hearing the same song five thousand times." She was also mad about her leading man: "I had always admired Bill Powell and was quite thrilled to be making a movie with him. He was genuine and kind to me."

You'd be forgiven for thinking Powell and Rogers are an odd couple. That's what I thought, too, when I first heard of this film and it made me a little apprehensive to check it out. However, there is a fun, frisky chemistry between the two of them. The way their characters tease each other is delicious, thanks to Powell's mischievous sense of humor and Rogers's divinely sassy attitude. Their clever banter and barbed remarks would feel empty, though, if there wasn't an undercurrent of tenderness and affection beneath it. There are many little things Powell and Rogers do to convey Dal and Donna's love for one another, but my favorite moment comes when Jerry forces her way into Dal's apartment and hints that she wouldn't mind starting things up again. Dal is saved (and surprised) when Donna appears wearing a robe and pretending to be his wife. She immediately starts screeching at Dal, causing Jerry to leave in a huff. Although he doesn't understand where the hell Donna came from, he is thrilled that she was there to help him and gives her an adoring embrace.






By 1935, playing urbane detectives was becoming Powell's bread and butter. Despite the sameness of many of these sleuth characters, the actor never phoned in his performances and instead imbued each with his trademark mixture of silliness, intelligence, and sophistication. It is sheer heaven to watch William Powell solve crimes while cracking jokes and downing martinis, and it's even better when he has a leading lady as brilliant as Ginger Rogers, who brings such vivacity and charm to Donna.

Rogers was crazy about fashion, making her a huge clotheshorse. I think this is especially noticeable in her '30s films, and Star of Midnight is no exception. Bernard Newman was one of her favorite designers and they worked beautifully together, with Newman often listening to Rogers's ideas for her own costumes. Luckily, the tight turnaround between Roberta and Midnight wasn't a problem for Newman, Rogers writing that he "had my measurements and could have all my gowns ready before lunch if necessary. He designed some lovely dresses; I especially loved my opening outfit, a white mink blouse with a black velvet skirt. It was so Fifth Avenue."










This film doesn't skimp on the Art Deco sets, but there is one true centerpiece: Dal's apartment, which is almost like another character. There are not one, not two, but four different seating areas, along with a grand piano, a raised level that leads out to a terrace, and all the booze you could ever want.






Compared to the rest of the place, Dal's bedroom is almost sparse:


Dal's ridiculous bathroom, complete with workout equipment, a barber's chair, marble walls, a big shower, and a toilet that plays "Pop the Weasel" when in use (yes, really):




The kitchen:


Rogers had worked with director Stephen Roberts earlier in 1935 on Romance in Manhattan, a sweet romantic drama that I wrote about here. Rogers liked Roberts, recalling that "[b]etween shots, we engaged in long conversations. He and his wife had just come back from a fishing vacation on the Rogue River in Oregon. My talks with him made me yearn to go to Oregon to see for myself." After Star of Midnight, Roberts, screenwriter Anthony Veiller, and Powell reunited the next year for The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, an excellent mystery-comedy co-starring a radiant Jean Arthur. Midnight and Bradford are two of the best Thin Man copycats out there, and I mean that quite lovingly. Sadly, Bradford would turn out to be
Roberts's last film when he died suddenly of a heart    
attack in 1936.                                      

Star of Midnight is a pleasure from start to finish. The script is entertaining; the mystery is intriguing; the art direction is superb; Roberts's direction is very good; and the cast is stellar. I mean, Gene Lockhart plays Powell's butler! And Paul Kelly has a great role as a gangster who forges an interesting bond with Dal. (I love me some Paul Kelly, guys.) While The Thin Man and its sequels are certainly the cream of the crop, Star of Midnight is a worthy imitation that manages to stand on its own two feet.
























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This is my first contribution to the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Blogathon, an event co-hosted by myself and Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please check out the other lovely entries here!

Comments

  1. I really enjoy this film and think it deserves to be better known. I think Ginger is at her most beautiful in it and those costumes!! I wrote a review of Star of Midnight earlier this year, but I like yours better.

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    1. Yes, Ginger is stunning here. And thank you! I just read your review and loved it, so that's a very nice compliment. :)

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  2. Star of Midnight is definitely long past due for a rewatch. At this point all I remember is the apartment! Your article was great fun to read and truly informative. Thanks.

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    1. Thank you! That apartment will definitely stick in your mind, it's so sleek and over-the-top. Hope you enjoy your rewatch!

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  3. This movie is just great!!!!! Plain and simple Bill Powell solving any mystery in a Nick Charles style gets a "lets watch it" from me!! The sets and atmosphere of the decorations also make this one gorgeous to look at!

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    1. Agreed! I think I could even watch Bill Powell reading the phone book and I'd be entertained. Such a talented man.

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  4. I had never heard of this film but it sounds quite fun and appealing! I really enjoyed your brilliant and well-written review. You use the right words to convince us and from what I understand, it's a good movie for many reasons and not just the story!

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    Replies
    1. You're too kind! Star of Midnight isn't very well-known, which is a shame because it's such a charming, funny film. And who knew Powell and Rogers were such a good team?

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