Wednesday 7 June 2017

From the Archive - David Hare retrieves his notes on Mitchell Leisen's masterpiece from 1939 MIDNIGHT

Back to Midnight. My dear and kind Berlin friend has dug up some posts I made about Leisen and Midnight, literally years ago. Here they are, for what they're worth. DH.

Whoah! I am trying to imagine a remake of Midnight (despite the generic nature of its plot) and I just can't. If any movie defines Paramount in the 30s it's this one - lightness, strength, delicacy and boldness, strong women, weak men, then strong men/weak women, you name it!!! (Not to mention the music and lighting and bit players like Rex O'Malley.)

Midnight certainly is the apex of some sort of writer/director genre of "post Screwball". It's impeccable - formally, casting, consistency of tone in this case - and I keep on nominating it as my favourite picture of 1939 (and it's up against a lot of others!) You could - if you really want to - see it as Leisen's La Regle du Jeu but it inhabits an entirely different world view in the sense that it runs with his pervasive 30s theme of the hoi polloi in search of the life of luxe.

The same theme of working girl coming into easy living  dominates the narratives of - natch - Easy Living (1937), Hands Across the Table (1935) and Midnight, but in each picture this "theme" takes on different colours - in Hands his flawless ability to shift tone comes to the fore and, rather than comeuppance, the reality bites of the broke Fred MacMurray character, or in the case of Midnight the broke "New Europe" but genuine Count played by Ameche turn the narratives back on their tracks.

Getting back to Hands, this and the magnificent Swing High, Swing Low (1937) reach up to great highs and depths - again MacMurray and Lombard - particularly the tensions between aspiration and desire get full play here, and I think he is at least as interesting as, say Preston Sturges, in taking on the class aspects of 30s America, but he ennobles the movies with a mise en scene so graceful and fluid the movies - whoever wrote them - become his own.

Midnight is one of only two movies that makes the hair on my arms and neck rise and render me completely light headed with the opening credit music. The other one is Trouble in Paradise. (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932.)

God knows if Leisen had any say in the choice and arrangement of the music, although it's possible given he was at the top of his Paramount form. But I think it kills me every time because you wonder if the heady six-eight string theme, after rising one tone is going to keep modulating upwards in registration, and it DOES. Again and again and again. UP and up and up. Musical ecstasy as a prelude to the picture that follows. I've always nominated it fave picture of 1939, nudging out things like Zangiku Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi), La Regle (Jean Renoir) and Stagecoach (John Ford). I would die happy with Midnight playing in the background.

In Midnight which is (so superbly) written to allow the masquerades to grow, having pulled in Colbert, then Barrymore and then Ameche spends far more time examining the way the characters grow from their involvements within the impersonation narrative. There are half a dozen scenes in Midnight that always - every time - make me laugh out loud - Colbert first stumbling into Hedda's soiree and her mistaken perceptions of, first, Barrymore and then Rex O Malley are very finely judged and detailed, with the tone literally changing in a split second from menace to safety. Through the course of the movie Leisen manages Barrymore's performance from extreme ham (I adore his Baby Talk scene on the telephone with Ameche) to moments of genuine tenderness with both Colbert and Mary Astor. "Do you really mind" he says in the miraculous final scene as the characters leave the faux divorce, one by one facing the camera, like Commedia dell'Arte, as Ameche hides to the left. "Surprisingly little" says Mary Astor - a fantastic moment of grace. And many other moments like this.

I feel Leisen really takes screwball right up and out of the genre. Indeed I wonder if these lines were written by Wilder and Brackett. They sure don't play like Wilder and Brackett.


  1. There actually is a re-make of MIDNIGHT - the leaden 1945 MASQUERADE IN MEXICO directed by Leisen in his decline, with Dorothy Lamour and Arturo de Cordova making heavy weather of the lines that sparkle in the orignal; the wet newspaper "Do I wear it or drink it?"

    Preston Sturges got all the attention that should have been spread over that decade plus of Paramount dialogue comedy - The LADY HAS PLANS, TAKE A LETTER DARLING, TRUE CONFESSIONS, NO MAN OF HER OWN, MURDER HE SAYS.

  2. Mitchell Leisen is under-valued and underrated as one of the greatest masters of romantic comedy-his pacing in the genre is peerless, especially between Easy Living (1937) and Kitty (1944).David Hare's comments are right on the mark.
    Noel Bjorndahl.


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