Tuesday, April 22, 2008

MIDNIGHT (Paramount 1939) Universal Home Video

Based on a story idea by Edwin Justus Mayer and Franz Schulz, director Mitchell Leisen’s Midnight (1939) is a superior example of the romantic screwball comedy in all its turbulent, quick shot, ‘shoot from the hip’ hilarity. The screenplay eventually ironed out by writers Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder teems with an elevated sense of utter frivolity, greatly enhanced by an all-star cast that includes Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, Mary Astor and John Barrymore.

Midway through Midnight, Leisen discovered that Astor was pregnant, necessitating clever camouflage of her ‘condition’ in several key sequences yet to be shot. Reportedly, tensions on the set between Leisen and his writers reached a fevered pitch after the director began tampering with Brackett and Wilder’s light construction and dialogue. Leisen banned both Brackett and Wilder from the set, causing Wilder to retreat in a huff to Paramount’s front offices and demand that he be allowed to direct future assignments he wrote so that no one would have the right to bastardize his work.

The story begins predictably enough with unsuccessful gold digger Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) departing a late night train in Paris after a fling at Monte Carlo’s casino has left her virtually penniless. Parisian cabby, Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche) takes pity on Eve’s predicament. In fact, after driving her all over town for free in a fruitless search for employment, Tibor is all set to offer Eve sleeping accommodations at his meager flat while he continues to drive his taxi throughout the night.

Instead, Eve steals away into the night, with Tibor – who has fallen in love with her - in hot pursuit. Accidentally crashing a hoity-toity musical recital given by stuffy socialite, Stephanie (gossip columnist Hedda Hopper), Eve comes in contact with wealthy aristocrat, George Flammarion (John Barrymore). George’s wife, Helena (Mary Astor) is having a very public affair with notorious playboy, Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer). To save his marriage and Eve’s face, George concocts a deliciously devilish plan. He will afford Eve all the expenses for her to impersonate a Baroness – clothes, jewelry, chauffeur, fashionable address at the Ritz – if she will agree to seduce Jacques, thereby ruining his wife’s love affair.

After all, Eve could do worse. Jacques is from a wealthy family and marriage to him would certainly make her financially secure. Eve agrees to Georges plan and the foursome (George, Helena, Jacques and Eve) make ready for a weekend getaway at George’s chateau in the country.

Learning of Eve’s whereabouts, Tibor crashes the retreat in the hopes of winning Eve back. Instead, he is caught in a web of Eve’s lies that present him to this entourage as her ineffectual and mentally unstable husband, Baron Czerny, whom Jacques must conquer in order to maintain Eve’s affections. Eventually, the whole darn mess unravels inside the courtroom of a curmudgeonly magistrate (Monty Woolley) who refuses to grant the fictional couple a necessary ‘divorce’ so that Eve can marry Jacques.

In the final analysis, none of the backstage nattering impacted either performance or production. Midnight emerges as 99 ½ % pure magic; a delightfully obtuse comedy of errors that continues to charm with it sex appeal and great good humor. It deserves a top slot on everyone’s shelf of cherished movie memories.

Universal Home Video’s DVD is quite nicely realized. The B&W image exhibits a reasonably refined grayscale with smooth contrast levels. Occasionally, film grain and a hint of video noise distract, but these instances are rare and kept to a minimum. For the rest, whites are relatively clean. Blacks are generally solid and deep. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. The image and sound will surely not disappoint though they are less refined than one might expect.

Universal continues to skimp on its classics. Extras are limited to a very brief intro by noted TCM host, Robert Osborne and the film’s original theatrical trailer. This critic continues to find Universal’s uniform lack of including a menu for Chapter Stops on their classic releases irksome. Otherwise, this title and this disc come highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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