Midnight represents the finest example of screwball comedy 1939 had to offer. And with an all-star cast one can only dream of, this playful romantic romp highlights the comedic talents of one of the silver screen’s greatest dramatic actors: John Barrymore.
Midnight is one of those films that despite it’s breeding may not be well known to even the most ardent classic film devotee, and it’s very likely unknown to the casual old movie fan. It’s no reflection on the film itself; it’s simply a case of too many other great films having come out in the same year. It was 1939 after all, and a light screwball comedy, no matter how well executed, just wasn’t going to stand out from the crowd of abundant classics. But in the grand scheme of things Midnight does hold its own with any other example of its genre, and is well worthy of the recognition it has garnered from scholars and viewers over the years.
To begin with one of cinema’s greatest comedic auteurs, Billy Wilder (Sabrina, The Apartment) was responsible for the script. In collaboration with his earlier partner Charles Brackett, Wilder provided director Mitchell Leisen (To Each His Own, Death Takes a Holiday) with Midnight the same year Wilder wrote the enchanting Ninotchka for Ernst Lubitsch. For most writers that would have been a heck of a career let alone a damn good year. If you were to watch Leisen’s Midnight back to back with Lubitsch’s Ninotchka you would easily recognize the author’s light hearted touch and unique ability to turn a phrase like it’s never been turned by any other screenwriter before or since.
Of course it helps that one of the genre’s greatest leading ladies, Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night) was the one turning many of those phrases. As amazingly beautiful as she was, Colbert’s true talent was in the way she delivered a line. To this day there’s still no one else who’s ever been able to deliver a scathing remark in such a delightful and thoroughly charming manner. Aided by her signature persona of a well-mannered, headstrong woman with a wry wit, Colbert used a finely sharpened tongue to land each line of dialogue exactly on target. Carole Lombard (My Man Godfrey, To Be or Not To Be) may have held the crown when it came to ditzy dames in the field of screwball comedies, but Colbert was unequalled when it came to possessing an air of superior sophistication while holding a place in her heart for the average man.
In this case the average man was anything but with the dashing Don Ameche (In Old Chicago, Alexander’s Ragtime Band) catching Colbert’s eye as the poor, but sincere love interest. Ameche sustained a career as a leading man in dramas and comedies alike throughout the 1930s and 40s mostly due to his like-ability and winning smile set with two of the most alluring dimples ever to grace an actor’s face. Although Ameche’s true acting talents would not reveal themselves for many decades later when he received an Academy Award for his role in Cocoon at the age of 77, he still made an impressive impact in many a popular film cast opposite the likes of Alice Faye, Loretta Young, and Betty Grable. In Midnight Ameche’s animal magnetism is in particularly good form as he positively glows with attraction for Colbert’s charms. His feelings grow stronger as she runs farther away from him and true love in an attempt to find a man with the stability of outrageous wealth.
This is where Barrymore enters. The John Barrymore, as in Drew’s grandfather. He was also known as “the great profile” and one of the most renowned classically trained thespians of the ages. However, in this film Barrymore acts as a sort of fairy godfather to Colbert in a role that is unlike any he had ever performed before. As difficult as it may be to imagine Barrymore is actually and positively funny in this film. In fact he maneuvers with such puckish frivolity it’s easy to forget that he is plotting to win back the love of his estranged wife. There are moments when the seriousness of the situation is discussed, and only someone with such deft acting abilities as Barrymore can sway from one mood to the next with such great agility, let alone believability. Allegedly Barrymore, who was advanced in age and ill at the time, required cue cards with large writing in order to speak his lines, but who cares. It certainly doesn’t show. I’m sure many an actor wishes they could perform as well as Barrymore could read.
From beginning to end Midnight serves as an exceptional demonstration of how a stylized film from days gone by can still hold its own and remain thoroughly entertaining. For any fan of the screwball comedy, Midnight will be a happy discovery, and for those unfamiliar with the once popular form the film will serve to be a fine introduction to a genre that has been under-appreciated by generations for far too long.