Category Archives: 1939

La régle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) – Best Pictures of 1939 (#1)

Christine entertains friends in the country, including Jean Renoir as Octave

Modern non-French audiences might scratch their heads over the controversy Jean Renoir’s classic  La régle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) caused in pre-war France. What we might see as a harmless satire on the silliness of the upper class actually cut to the bone at a particularly sensitive and insecure time and place. Renoir ripped away the illusion of reverence for the upper class, depicting them as frivolous and vain people who surround themselves with equally frivolous and vain friends and employees. These were the same people who were buckling under the pressures of Nazi Germany and advocating their own version of Franco-fascism to stave off the Aryan threat. Renoir directly challenges the ruling class with this farcical melodrama that follows the loves and lusts at a French country estate among the hosts, guests, and servants. Audiences would have walked away gobsmacked that these profoundly unserious people could have any legitimacy in a situation as serious as government and relations with belligerent Germany.

The story plays like a Molière farce capped with Shakespearean tragedy. At the center is the Marquis de la Cheyniest – Robert to his friends – and his wife Christine. They are hosting a weekend getaway at their country estate with their equally vacuous friends. Both have been involved in extramarital dalliances – Robert with Geneviève and Christine with the famed aviator André Jurieux. For various reasons both Geneviève and André are invited. The Cheyniest’s  complacency and arrogance shade them from reality and their money and power protects them from consequences, so they feel safe inviting marital disaster into their homes. Having their lovers so close heightens the danger and raises the stakes. Are their lives really so boring that they need this manufactured and unnecessary drama? (The answer seems to be yes – Robert, like a king in The Thief of Baghdad dotes over his collection of windup toys rather than his wife.)

Danger lurks for Lisette and Marceau

Like any romantic farce the weekend devolves into a comedy of errors – and the hijinks aren’t confined to the hosts and their extramarital companions. Christine’s maid Lisette flirts with the new servant Marceau under the jealous eye of her husband Schumacher. Eventually Schumacher, fed up with Marceau’s shameless pursuit of his wife, loses his cool and, in the most absurd scene of the movie, chases the man with his gun through the guest filled house, firing almost at random. The guests are shocked, but it seems less at their own personal danger and more at the impropriety of servants quarreling before the guests. Schumacher may as well have thrown custard pies and he would have gotten the same clutch-the-pearls reaction.

Schumacher’s bullets, though not taken all that seriously, indicate that these romantic entanglements are not harmless. The film ends in sobering tragedy with murder, but, closely following the rules of the game, the event is explained away as an accident, rather than as a logical outcome of their reckless behavior. Renoir seems to have wanted this story to shake France awake from the looming Nazi threat and the rulers of France who flirted with the enemy, anxious to retain their position and privilege. But Renoir wouldn’t let them play the same game without exposure because he understood there would be no way to go back and explain away the coming disaster as an accident. No matter how charming Robert and Christine may be (and Renoir was smart enough to make them charming people), their empty-headed arrogance is, according to Renoir, leading the entire country to disaster. It’s amazing how prescient so many of these pre-war French movies were and none more so than the best movie of 1939, La régle du jeu.

 

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The Wizard of Oz – Best Pictures of 1939 (#2)

What a joy it must have been to sit in a theater and watch The Wizard of Oz in 1939. The classic story of young Dorothy Gale transported to the magical land of Oz by a tornado and pursued by an evil witch for her ruby slippers had been filmed before, but this version shamed the rest. Visually there had been nothing like it before, especially the breathtaking transformation from the sepia-toned scenes of Kansas to the eye-popping Technicolor scenes of Oz. The film is still spectacular to look at even after years of sumptuous Technicolor and increasingly elaborate special effects, so an audience in 1939 must have been doubly awed by the visual realization of Munchkinland, the witch’s dark castle, talking trees, an expansive field of poppies, and the Emerald City.

Aside from the stunning visual aesthetic, the movie has enchanted audiences for decades because of many other elements like its music, its memorable characters, and pitch-perfect performances. The most notable of which is Judy Garland in a wide-eyed, good natured performance as Dorothy. It has been reported that producers originally intended Shirley Temple for the role of the eleven-year-old, which made sense, but Temple would have contributed a different tone to the movie. It’s impossible to know if that tone would have been better, worse, or indifferent, but I suspect using an actual child would have rendered some of the darker scenes cringe-worthy, even with an accomplished performer like Shirley Temple. (Much like the tragically misguided 1985 Return to Oz with the appropriately aged Fairuza Balk being traumatized in a mental institution before being pursued by a queen with a detachable head, which must have terrified children.) With sixteen-year-old Garland we can see she is feigning youth and her natural strength can withstand the threats of the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys. Shirley Temple had pluck, but didn’t have the same strength of character that Judy Garland did. Besides, can we really imagine an alternate universe in which Shirley Temple sang “Over the Rainbow”?

Furthermore, Garland stood up well alongside her stellar supporting cast, who created equally iconic characters. Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Jack Haley as the Tin Man, and Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion weren’t defined by their elaborate makeup and costumes. They brought their characters to vivid life that matched the strength of Garland’s characterization and contributing plausibility to director Victor Fleming’s implausible world. Margaret Hamilton is joyfully evil as the Wicked Witch of the West, but, like the others, she uses the heavy makeup to buttress her performance rather than define it, and stands as a perfect villain opposite the eternally sweet Dorothy. And Frank Morgan shines as the blubbering Wizard (in addition to several other parts) handing out lessons to the movie’s characters and the audience. Their strong work, alongside Judy Garland, helps cement this movie as one of the most beloved of all time.

Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West

It’s a beautiful fantasy for both children and adults – so beautiful in fact that we wonder why Dorothy would want to return to Kansas at all. Her life there was drab and everyone ignored her, except maybe Toto, who the nasty Miss Gulch has threatened to take away and have put down. It is in Oz that she finds adventure and real friends who accept her and love her as she is. She realizes there is “no place like home,” but do we really buy it? Maybe not, but we’re happy that Fleming helped to create this world and allowed us to go on this journey with Dorothy and her friends. It is a rich and memorable film stock full of classic, hum-able songs and dynamic characters. It is the most entertaining movie of 1939, almost – missing by a smidge –  the best.

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The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums – Best Pictures of 1939 (#3)

Kenji Mizoguchi came into his own as a director in the late 1930s with Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy, both from 1936. But in 1939 he released his early masterpiece, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, a tragic tale of love and art set in the late nineteenth century. The story follows Kikunosuke, the adopted son of Japan’s most respected and beloved actor. Kiku has followed his father on the stage, dutifully playing the parts his father assigns him. He basks in the applause and drinks in the praise of everyone in the troupe, but the audiences love him for his name and the other actors know he simply can’t act. He’s terrible, but no one is honest enough to tell him he needs work to become a great actor.

That is until he meets Otoku, a wet nurse helping raise his newest young sibling. They are immediately smitten with one another, but when he asks her what she thinks about his acting, she tells him he stinks. Everyone who praises him, she tells him, only do so because of his father. He is hurt, but she argues honesty is the only way to he will ever improve. She encourages him to hone his skills, rather than resting on unearned accolades. Kiku falls in love with the woman and wants to spend his life with her, but his father won’t hear of it, dismisses the girl, and forbids Kiku to see her again. His son resists, vowing to run off with her and become a great actor without his father’s name. So, Kiku and Otoku go off to live a long life of deprivation as he slaves to become a better actor under an assumed name, assuring he will not get any undue breaks.

Mizoguchi follows the young couple over many years, through the ups and downs, soul crushing poverty, opportunities, and disappointments. Their relationship is not storybook. Often the poverty gets to Kiku, who grew up in luxury and, as he moves from one rinky-dink troupe to another, his growing sense of hopeless failure consumes him, lashing out at the woman who loves him. However, the deprivation pushes Kiku to hone his craft until he becomes the actor all the sycophants of his past life once claimed he was. Then the dilemma becomes whether he can return to his father with the woman he forbade Kiku to see.

At its base the tension in the movie is the struggle between personal liberty and social constraints, but there is a curious benefit to this conflict for an artist even though we often associate artists with a freer attitude toward life. Before he met Otoku, when Kiku had all the freedom he wanted he was never forced to question his ability and had no experiences on which to draw. Only when his father threatened to take away the woman he loved was Kiku able to face the life of want and heartache that his roles often required him to express. Never before could he truly empathize with his characters but his life with Otoku thrust him into them, branding the experiences into his subconscious ready for him to draw on on the stage. It is through the hard life he lived with Otoku that he becomes a great actor.

And here we come to the tragedy of the picture. In the end, Otoku cannot be redeemed and live a life of respectability. Like Anna Karenina, she is permanently soiled – cast off by her family, shunned by the community, she is forever the woman who ran off with a man of a higher social class and lived with him outside of marriage. And like Karenina’s Count Vronsky, Kiku merely has to leave her and all is forgiven. His name, position, and respect are all restored. Otoku understands this and, in an act of supreme sacrifice, steps aside so Kiku can have everything he wanted – professionally anyway. In most, if not all of his movies, Mizoguchi explored and lamented the degraded social status of women and in this film he pointedly shines a light on the fundamental inadequacies of a romantic relationship when one member is considered by society as lower, a less valuable member. No matter how much Kiku loves her, Otoku can never be an equal partner. This might help bring him artistic success, but it leaves him empty and Otoku ruined.

Like most of his movies, Mizoguchi deliberately paced this movie slowly without boring us. We feel as though we are watching real people make life-changing decisions, as though Mizoguchi was able to place a camera in a room and capture real dramas. This approach emotionally links us to Kiku and Otoku, making the climax all the more tragic, which could have played fairly sappy. Last Chrysanthemums has been tough to find in the U.S. – I don’t think it has been released on DVD here – though you can find it on You Tube here courtesy of Memoirevisuelle, who has quite a collection of hard to find movies posted. It is well worth seeing.

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The Stars Look Down – Best Pictures of 1939 (#4)

(Note: There is some confusion among various sources about whether this is a 1939 or 1940 release. IMDB claims the movie was released in January 1940 and I suspect that is correct but I didn’t figure that out until recently, after I had already put the list together. So, for the time being, it will stay in 1939. One day, when I confirm this, I will fix it.)

Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood in "The Stars Look Down"

In Carol Reed’s classic The Stars Look Down Michael Redgrave plays Davey Fenwick, an intelligent young man in a northern English mining community who works with his father Robert (Edward Rigby) in the mines while saving for college. Life for the Fenwick family and the entire community is thrown into disarray when Robert claims to have seen a plan for the mine in which they are working which shows a mountain of water dangerously close to the operations. The company denies the existence of the plan and demands the workers continue to dig, but Robert insists he saw it and the workers go on strike.

The strike is only the prelude to the story of Davey and his family, which turns out to be one of the best portraits of working class life ever committed to film. It would have been easy to focus on the strike, but as important as the event is in the lives of the miners, it does not define them. Davey is the center of the picture, but his brother Hughie (Desmond Tester), an aspiring footballer, and their long suffering father help complete and humanize a people that can be easily overlooked or discounted. An especially rich performance by Nancy Price as Davey’s mother Martha allows Reed to explore the emotional complexities and adversity of life in a mining town. She is strong – rigidly so. She voices her complaints quietly, almost as if she were talking to herself, but clearly meant to sting whoever may be sitting nearby, usually her husband. She doesn’t understand why her husband is leading the strike when her father, also a mining man, worked for years without striking and failing to bring home a paycheck. And she doesn’t understand why Davey would turn his back on his family’s profession and go to university. Is he, she wonders aloud while going about her chores, too good for the rest of the family? Martha isn’t heartless, but this passive-aggressive callousness may be the only way she knows to let her son know she will miss him.

Davey does eventually get to university but he is sidetracked by the beautiful though frivolous and vain Jenny Sunley (Margaret Lockwood). He rushes into marriage, fails to complete his studies, and, missing the professional opportunities the degree would have conferred, he takes a teaching job at his hometown’s school. Jenny bristles under the economic hardship of a village teacher’s salary and the social restrictions of the small town. Their marriage falters under the burden of poverty and unfulfilled expectations. This was quite a different pairing for Redgrave and Lockwood from their teaming in Hitchcock’s more lighthearted film The Lady Vanishes.

Davey meets the alluring, but destructive Jenny

Reed demonstrates great affection for the working class characters. Even the owner of the mine is not completely unsympathetic, though his decisions lead to disaster and tragedy. (Maybe Jenny is the only character for which we feel no sympathy.) It is, Reed argues, bad choices, not stock movie bad guys, that are the true villains. Throughout this film we watch characters sacrifice long term security for short term gain, destabilizing families, industries, and societies. Sometimes these ill-advised decisions are understandable, like when hungry strikers dramatically loot the butcher shop. That action, however, cured their immediate hunger, but doomed the strike. We see long term security traded for immediate profit again and again – Davey’s marriage to Jenny before graduating, the mine owner’s decision to mine where he knows there is a danger, etc. Just as the stars always look down, people will always consider their own immediate benefit and ignore the larger picture. It may be a sobering thesis, but it’s a fact that Reed sees as a danger on both the micro and macro levels, and a fact with which we have to come to try to overcome in order to truly heal some of the ruptures society faces. Life, especially in an industrialized capitalistic and democratic society like the one depicted in the film, will never prosper when owners only think of their profit and workers only think of their rent and the next meal (though it is certainly easier to privilege those needs).

Reed seems to think we must be doomed to continued social and economic disaster, and I can’t say I entirely disagree. I think Reed intended the movie to be read on a more personal level, but there are larger implications. Look at the world today. As Japan nears nuclear disaster after a massive earthquake, we discover that California’s nuclear plants have no earthquake emergency plans, potentially setting up a radioactive disaster here in California. Reasonable people would immediately begin work making sure the plants are upgraded to meet new seismic requirements, and plans are instituted to deal with a situation should those retrofits fail in an earthquake. But I can almost guarantee that won’t happen because it would cost boatloads of money, and that would cut into short term profits. (Ignore the billions of dollars worth of lawsuits should southern Orange and northern San Diego counties require evacuation if the San Onofre plant goes kaflooey – but the scary thing is, I am sure they have considered that in their cost analysis, believing it to be more cost effective to risk a nuclear disaster.) This is a dramatic modern example (and there is a laundry list of others I could tick off), but it illustrates the continued relevance of Reed’s film.

I don’t want The Stars Look Down to sound like a heavy socio-political treatise against self-interest. There are certainly strong elements of that theme, but at the end of the day it is a movie about personal relationships in and among the Fenwick family, the workers of the mining union, and the entire community. In these days of increased attacks on the working man and their unions it is a story that deserves to be seen and appreciated.

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Best Movies of 1939 (#5)

James Stewart and Jean Arthur take on D.C.

Today it is almost unthinkable that Frank Capra’s beloved film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington stirred up quite a bit of controversy in 1939. Some said its depiction of corruption in the U.S. Senate was anti-American, anti-democratic, and pro-Communist. These critics did not want to publicly acknowledge the insidious presence of corruption in Congress. In their eyes, to do so would undermine peoples’ faith in our government and our country, as though the presence of actual corruption was not more dangerous. These unimaginative critics only saw a U.S. senator taking orders from a political boss and shamelessly doling out graft, not his break with crime and reaffirmation of our political system in an admittedly unlikely public breakdown. I suspect that those who lambasted Capra, Columbia Pictures, and their film recognized Mr. Smith contained (and still contains) more truth than they were willing to admit, that despite Capra’s efforts to portray corruption as an anomaly among otherwise well-meaning and honorable men, the story exposed too much that most in Washington would have been more than happy to keep quiet. And, worse still, Sen. Paine’s last minute confession doesn’t strengthen our faith in the legislature. The system doesn’t work so much as one guy’s guilty conscience gets the better of him. This was a Hollywood ending Washington knew they would never see while the corruption continued to fester.

Capra tells the story of young and idealistic Jeff Smith (James Stewart) who is appointed by his state’s governor to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Jeff goes to Washington, dazzled by the sites and personalities, and eager to work for the best of his state. What he doesn’t know is that he has been chosen by their state’s political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) because he is naïve and will not muss with their plans to build a dam and extract as much graft out of the federal funds as possible. Taylor’s ally in Washington is longtime, respected senior Senator Joseph Paine, a man Jeff idolizes. When Jeff starts asking questions about the dam with the help of his cynical aide Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Taylor and Paine spring into action, first trying to hide what they are doing, then trying to explain it to Jeff and offering to cut him in. Once they realize they can’t reason with the young man, they set out to destroy him, pinning the entire criminal venture on him. This leads to the most famous filibuster scene in movie history.

Jeff Smith (Stewart) stands up for truth and justice in the dramatic filibuster scene.

James Stewart is phenomenal and a leading candidate for the best performance of the year. Apparently Frank Capra originally intended this to be a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, but when Gary Cooper was not available, Capra switched over to young Jimmy Stewart. And what a great choice. Stewart’s natural vigor and idealism are perfect for the young Senator. He took those attributes and craft a superbly layered and at times dark character whose strength stumbles when his idealized vision of the government and his heroes in it are shattered by the truth of graft and corruption. It’s truly one of the great performances of his career.

The end, of course, is a little too easy, but it doesn’t bother us too much. We know, especially with the Senate of today filled with a quorum of intellectual and moral lightweights, that it is never that easy. Corruption takes care of itself and the lazy press prints whatever is fed to them. There are no dramatic exposés or eleventh hour public confessions; life isn’t that tidy. Fortunately we don’t always go to the movies for real life. Capra understood that audiences would not be satisfied with the anticlimactic reality, so he gave them one of his patented happy ending, which is meant to confirm our faith in our country, the government, and our fellow man. But is that really what we take away? Things are set straight by an unlikely change of heart, not a system that efficiently weeds out the dishonest and greedy. If we have to rely on guilt to preserve the integrity of our institutions then we’re in trouble. Luckily we can pretend, for a couple of hours at least, that all is right with the world.

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Only Angels Have Wings: Best Pictures of 1939 (#6)

Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in "Only Angels Have Wings"

Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings is a classic of adventure and drama. Set in a small Latin American port town, Hawks recounts the daily dramas and dangers of a group of pilots at its fledgling airfield. Led by Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) the men daily risk their lives to keep their schedule so their kindhearted boss Dutchy (Sig Ruman) will get a mail contract he desperately needs. Dutchy is on the verge of losing everything – his hotel, his store, his airfield – and Geoff is determined to get him his mail contract at all costs. Hawks introduces us to Geoff and his men through Jean Arthur. She plays Bonnie Lee, an American nightclub performer making her way home. Her ship docks in their town and she spends the evening enjoying the attentions of two pilots. She will, of course, eventually fall in love with Geoff, though he wants nothing to do with her in the beginning. She conveniently misses her boat and gets wrapped up in the high tension world of their airfield.

The romance between Bonnie and Geoff is not, as it would first appear, the main focus of the story. Perhaps Hawks trimmed her part when, as it has been reported, he struggled to get the performance out of Arthur he wanted, but whatever the reason, she serves as our introduction to this specific world of U.S. aviators in South America. She recedes into the background as the story shifts to the real meat of the plot: the pilots’ battle against the elements and mechanical failure to secure the contract, and the hostile relationship between a new pilot MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess) and Geoff’s trusted right hand man Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell). MacPherson has been blackballed from airfields throughout the Americas because years earlier he parachuted out of a spiraling plane, leaving his copilot to die a fiery death. The copilot was Kid’s brother and Kid has vowed revenge. Normally Geoff would not have hired someone hated by everyone else, but too many men have died and he needs to have pilots – especially a pilot who is desperate enough for a job that he can throw the most dangerous assignments at him. Geoff convinces the Kid to put aside his antipathy for the man who didn’t bother to save the Kid’s brother – at least until the mail contract is secured.

This is one of those rare movie where the leads actually end up supporting the true spine of the narrative: the subplots. Though it comes later in the film, the Kid’s hostility for MacPherson is the most emotionally resonant part of the narrative. Their relationship evolves from active (almost violent) hatred to an icy truce to mutual respect is compelling. Hawks, Mitchell, and Barthelmess develop these characters and their relationship flawlessly, allowing us to identify and empathize with both. Plus Thomas Mitchell gives one of his most nuanced and accomplished supporting performances of his career, something in which he specialized in the 1930s and 1940s.

Grant with Richard Barthelmess and Thomas Mitchell

Only Angels Have Wings is an effective white-knuckle action movie, but Hawks, like he did with all of his great movies, uses the drama to explore deeper themes. Here he asks us to consider the temporality of life in a microcosm in which death is a constant presence in the lives of its men. At one point, after a pilot has died, Geoff and the other pilots go on as though nothing has happened and he sends another pilot on the same fatal route. In a fluster with all the activity around her and unsure how to process the emotion, Bonnie exclaims, “Say, things happen awful fast around here!” Of course they do. They have to move fast both for their own sanity and for the survival of the greater good. They know that any one of them could die on their next run. There’s no use planning or saving for the future and, for those who do go on living, there isn’t much sense into getting too attached to their comrades or mourning after they die. We see similar dynamics among soldiers during wartime.

Howard Hawks was one of the true masters of the Hollywood studio system and Only Angels Have Wings is one of his best. There are lots of characters and subplots swirling around, threatening to disrupt the narrative flow, but Hawks successfully shepherds all the parts into a cohesive and entertaining whole, again exhibiting his mastery of the medium. Watch it as an entertaining adventure, a sultry romance, an example of the Hollywood studio system’s success, as a comment on the omnipresence of death in the midst of life, or any combination of these things. It will work on all levels.

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Midnight – Best Pictures of 1939 (#7)

Claudette Colbert in "Midnight"

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.

Don Ameche tries to disrupt Barrymore and Colbert's scheme

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.

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