Claudette Colbert may not be my favorite actor from this period – she always seems to be trying ever so hard to be adorable in her performances, but the effort often comes off as cloyingly distasteful. There are a few movies I enjoy her in, but my enjoyment comes not from her, but from a sparklingly sharp script and top notch supporting performances. One of the Colbert movies that falls in this category is number seven on my countdown of the best films of 1939, Midnight, a modern day retelling of Cinderella with John Barrymore as the fairy godmother and the prince as a taxi driver.
Colbert plays Eve Peabody, an American in Paris with only the gown on her back after losing everything at a casino in Monte Carlo. She doesn’t have a sou to her name, but arranges with Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche), a handsome Hungarian taxi driver, to drive her around Paris to help her find a job singing in a nightclub with the understanding that if she gets a job he gets double, if she doesn’t, he gets nothing. Having never professionally sung before Eve doesn’t get a thing, but Tibor has fallen hard for the pretty America after a long night of chauffeuring her around the City of Love and insists she come stay with him instead of sleeping in the rainy streets. She declines, knowing where that would lead and, honestly, not interested in a man who has to work everyday. She wants someone with some substance – financially, that is.
To shake the persistent cab driver off her tail and to get out of the rain, she ducks into a swanky party where she pretends to be the Baroness Czerny – the first name that popped into her head – and is quickly roped into a bridge tournament. There Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore) notices the woman and, not incidentally, notices how his wife (Mary Astor) notices how her newest flirt Jacques (Francis Lederer) notices her. Georges doesn’t believe Eve’s story for a minute, but he decides to use her charm to reclaim his wife from her infatuation. He proposes that Eve continue pretending to be the Baroness Czerny in order to woo away Jacques from his wife. He helps her concoct an entirely new identity and history: he puts her up the in Ritz hotel, orders clothes, a car, and a driver, and ensures she will be wherever Jacques will be, who is clearly smitten with the woman. She is, in effect, a princess at a ball nervously waiting for midnight to expose the charade.
Meanwhile, across Paris, Tibor has organized a massive search for Eve among his fellow cab drivers and when he discovers what is going on, he sets out to throw a wrench in their plans – by showing up as Baron Czerny. In some of the funniest scenes of the movie Eve and Georges have to think quickly to preserve her cover and keep their plan intact no matter what Tibor tells them.
Eve isn’t content stealing Jacques’s affections away from Georges’s wife; she wants to marry the charming, handsome, and, rich man, hitting a bigger payday from Georges’s scheme. Of course we know Eve can’t really end up with Jacques. He isn’t the marrying kind and, though she isn’t keen on living the life of the working class, Tibor is cure for her get-rich-quick aspirations. She may even deny it to herself but, of course, she loves the uncouth taxi driver.
The movie is a series of flimsy impersonations constantly under threat of exposure. Every time it looks as though the jig is up, Eve comes up with a clever cover and we’re thrilled at another disaster averted, until the raucous climax in a French divorce court with Monty Woolley as a judge who does not suffer divorce gladly.
While the script is sharp, one of the joys of the movie is the supporting performances. John Barrymore may be noticeably unsteady in one of his last, alcohol-fused performances, but he is still utterly charming as Georges. In an especially funny scene, he pretends to be Baroness Czerny’s daughter on the other end of a phone call, merrily chatting with “her” “mother” using a screeching falsetto and doling out exuberant kisses, all to the chagrin of Tibor. Mary Astor, Francis Lederer, Rex O’Malley (as the wisecracking hanger-on of the group), and Hedda Hopper all deliver sharp performances as well, rounding out the once impenetrable high society of which Eve is now a member.
Midnight is a movie that plays to our fantasies of instant riches and romance and is a joy of a comedy, one of the best of the 1930s and, though it is not as well known as some other comedies of this era, probably of all time. It is sharp, witty, and, above all, very funny.