Midnight (1939)

Midnight, 1939, Paramount Pictures. Starring Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, John Barrymore. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. B&W, 94 minutes.

This witty screwball comedy about devious means justifying honorable — or at least desirable — ends, is coupled with a common fantasy of many, that of a benevolent benefactor who, with one grand motion, makes dreams come true.

Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) is a showgirl escaping a run of misfortune in Monte Carlo by way of train to Paris. She arrives with twenty-five centimes to her name, and talks cab driver Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche) into driving her from venue to venue in an effort to find work.

Midnight Claudette Colbert Don Ameche
Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche

It’s a failed endeavor, however, and Eve is left with nowhere to go, until Tibor offers his home, which she adamantly refuses. He’s insistent, and first chance she gets she escapes his cab and runs to the nearest open door.

Here she gains entrance to an event for the social elite by passing off a pawn ticket as her invitation. Once inside, she meets Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore) who has an enticing offer:  lure dashing, single and wealthy Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer) away from Georges’ wife, Helene (Mary Astor), and Georges will pay all expenses, including an extravagant wardrobe and luxury accommodations.

john-barrymore-claudette-colbert-in-midnight-1939
John Barrymore, Claudette Colbert

Of course Eve has already started to fall for Tibor, despite her best intentions, and she’s unwittingly complicated this fairy godmother situation by taking the name Baroness Czerny — as in wife of Tibor, who tracks her down after he learns of her deception.

This movie delivers all the wonderful fun a top-notch cast with a script by  Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder promises. Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche perhaps don’t make an obvious pairing, although they did work on three films together (this one being notably the best), but the match works in sophistication, banter and sly humor.

Claudette Colbert, Francis Lederer, Mary Astor, John Barrymore in Midnight
Claudette Colbert, Frances Lederer, Mary Astor, John Barrymore

The true delight — albeit far from assured prior to production — is John Barrymore’s smart and affable performance. Barrymore was deep in decline due to alcoholism by this time, and was generally unreliable, unable to memorize scripts or even show up on the set. His wife, Elaine Barrie, had a co-starring role and is credited with helping keep him in check.

However, as noted by co-star Mary Astor, Barrymore was such a highly skilled actor that despite all his problems, he was “able to act rings around everyone else.” High praise, given the quality of the entire cast.

Astor herself was several months pregnant at the time of filming, although her character was not, and numerous clever means were used to hide her changing figure.

Mary Astor, John Barrymore, Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche.png
Mary Astor, John Barrymore, Don Ameche, Claudette Colbert

(A bit of  background trivia — in 1924, a 40-year-old Barrymore had an affair with his co-star, then 17-year-old Astor, although the relationship faced severe constraints by her parents and eventually failed. By the time this film was made they were reportedly on good terms, each having survived a separate scandal or two in the meantime.)

Today considered one of the top romantic comedies of the era, although surprisingly perhaps one of the lesser known, Midnight is everything it promises to be, and a must-see for classic movie fans.

 

Laura (1944)

Laura, 1944, 20th Century Fox. Starring Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb. Directed by Otto Preminger. B&W, 88 minutes.

A film-noir classic of murder, love and obsession, Laura epitomizes that genre in many ways with its stark cinematography, urgent narration and moody drama.

Detective Mark MacPherson (Dana Andrews) is called to investigate the murder of a beautiful young advertising executive, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). He begins his interviews of her penthouse society crowd with one of her closest friends, the caustic, odd and self-centered Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), whose jealousy over his protegé’s engagement to the ingratiating Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) is evident.

Through a series of flashbacks, Laura’s story is told, and MacPherson finds himself drawn into the circle of the captivating woman’s male admirers. As Lydecker scathingly notes, the detective has begun to dream of a life with his murder victim, getting to know her through her personal correspondence and diary.

A twist in the tale throws the investigation onto a whole new course, with a winding path of discovery.

Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews in Laura
Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews

Laura has a number of odd elements, such as the investigation techniques of Detective MacPherson and the effete personality of Lydecker, who appears to be in love in Laura. The story doesn’t suffer from any of these incongruities, however; the tension and cinematic reality hold firm.

For several of the cast, this was a career-launching film. It was a breakout role for Clifton Webb, who was in his 50s at the time and primarily had worked on stage. For both Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews, who were also fairly new to moviegoers, the film helped establish A-list recognition from their peers and audiences.

Even the director, Otto Preminger, found his film career taking off again with the success of Laura, after having been shunned by Hollywood because of disputes with powerhouse Darryl Zanuck.

Followers of Vincent Price will be surprised by the subservient nature of his character, quite a departure from his career-defining persona in thrillers and horror films. Despite the difference, he’s decisively believable, showing well his broad range of talent, and this role is considered by some as one of his best.

Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney in Laura
Dana Andrews (portrait of Gene Tierney as Laura)

The haunting melody of the music score was also immediately popular with audiences, who began to ask for recordings and sheet music. A year after the film was released, Johnny Mercer added lyrics, and the song Laura became an instant musical standard and one of the most recorded songs of all time.

Laura was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Clifton Webb), and won for Best Black & White Cinematography.

Today this movie is considered by many to be definitive film noir, and the mystery and suspense don’t lessen with time. It is Hollywood at its best.