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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Movies you should watch: MIDNIGHT

1939 was a high-water mark in movie history. Some of the greatest films of all time came out in that year, including THE WIZARD OF OZ, GONE WITH THE WIND, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and STAGECOACH.

Hidden among these giants is a little gem called MIDNIGHT. Don't feel bad if you haven't heard of it, nobody has, not even me when I saw it the first time. (And when you look for it, as I hope you will, there are about ten other movies called MIDNIGHT you could confuse it with.) It has a script by the team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, whose witty, sophisticated screenplay for NINOTCHKA was another highlight of 1939.

MIDNIGHT stars the beautiful Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche. And if, when you hear "Don Ameche" you think of that wizened little gnome you saw in COCOON, think again. This is Ameche in 1939: Youthful, studly and with a full head of jet-black hair.

The story begins one rainy night at the Paris train station. Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) arrives from Monte Carlo in a shimmering evening gown. She has no luggage, and her beaded purse has a pawn ticket (she pawned her clothes in Monte Carlo to get money for the train ticket) and one coin. She meets taxi driver Ameche outside the station, and tells him if he'll help her find a job, she’ll pay double the meter and a big tip.

He's not buying it, and sends her on her way. But when she heads out into the rain, he relents and waves her into the cab.

"Now you don't get the tip," she says as she enters the cab.

She hopes to find a gig (as "Eve Peabody, the famous American blues singer... confidentially, she didn't get to be a blues singer until she stepped in your cab.") but her hopes plummet as the meter goes up, and the taxi driver calls it off at 80 francs and takes her out to "a cheap dinner."

They go to a taxi drivers' hangout and talk. His name is Tibor Czerny ("I'm Hungarian. Where I come from, they think 'Eve Peabody' is a funny name.") and he is a proud, no-nonsense member of the working class: "I'm a rich man. I need 40 francs a day, and I make 40 francs. No real estate, no bank account, no possessions, three handkerchiefs, two shirts, one tie -- no worries."

Eve grew up in the Bronx, she tells Czerny, and became a dancer. She went to London "in a can of imported chorines" and "landed a lord, almost, but the family came between us. His mother came to my hotel to offer me a bribe."

"You threw her out, I hope," Czerny says.

"How could I with my hands full of money?"

She invested the money at the gambling tables at Monte Carlo, bringing her to her current glamorous-but-impoverished state.

He offers her a place to stay ("Here's the key. There's a shirt drying in the bathroom, you can sleep in that. Be out by seven in the morning, put the key under the mat.") but she refuses and skips out of the cab as he gasses up.

On a sidewalk, she jumps into a group of fashionably-dressed people entering a party, one of those ultra-chic society soirees that require a ticket for admittance. Fortunately the butler accepts her pawn ticket.

The party is filled with pretentious classical music and people are seated as at a concert. Eve takes a seat by John Barrymore, who lecherously sizes her up as the hostess, bearing her pawn ticket, asks "Is there anybody in this room named Eve Peabody?"

Eve looks around.

"Does anybody here know Eve Peabody?"

No reaction from anybody.

Fuming, the hostess mutters "Somebody got in here with this pawn ticket" as Barrymore puts two and two together.

While Barrymore leers at Eve, a man approaches her and says "Madame, a word with you."

Caught, Eve goes with the man, expecting to get thrown out. She finds herself in a small study, invited to be a fourth at bridge with Helene Flammarion (Mary Astor) and Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer) -- who had been kissing and jumped apart when they entered the room -- and Marcel (Rex O'Malley), the man who brought her to the study. Marcel introduces himself as "a telephone worshipper. Whenever a day comes without an invitation I pray to my telephone as though it were a little black god. I beg of it to speak to me, to ask me out somewhere. Anywhere where there's caviar and champagne."

Eve can't say she's "Eve Peabody" so she says her name is "Czerny" and they start addressing her as "Madame Czerny."

They set the bridge game stakes at 5 francs a point. When Eve gasps, Helene offers to raise the stakes, agreeing "5 francs is a bit tepid."

"It makes no difference to me," Eve says.

Eve and Jacques, partnered at the bridge table, flirt as Helene steams. Barrymore -- who is Helene's husband Georges Flammarion -- joins the bridge party, escaping the music. He identifies the name "Czerny" as Hungarian and when Eve says it's by marriage he says "You must be the wife of Baron Czerny. The last time I saw him in St. Moritz, he talked about an American girl. Where is he now?"

"Back in Budapest," she says, improvising. "He's not very well. You know... The old trouble."

Georges excuses himself and the bridge game continues.

As the bridge game ends, Eve and Jacques are down 4200 francs each, and that's almost exactly 4200 francs more than Eve has.

"Where's my bag? I may not have that much with me," she says.

Georges brings her evening bag, and when she opens it she finds a wad of money.

All 1000-franc bills. Each one worth about $40 US at the time.

That's just the beginning. It gets even better after that.

The well-constructed screenplay is filled with witty repartee ("That hat is a dream on you. It does something for your face... It gives you a chin.") and ticks along like a Swiss watch, piling complication upon complication as Czerny organizes Paris taxi drivers to find the penniless American girl -- while Eve is relaxing at the Flammarion estate in Versailles at a weekend house party, invited by Georges to distract Jacques away from the affair Jacques is having with Georges' wife and help Georges win Helene back.

Colbert is luminous, Ameche plays the stoic workingman who rises to the occasion with wit and dignity, Astor is winsome as the spurned and jealous lover, Lederer is appropriately obtuse as the handsome-but-dullwitted gigolo and Barrymore, bless him, looks to be drunk most of the time (and in at least one scene is obviously reading his lines off cue cards) but he still has enough personality and sheer technique to dominate every scene he's in.

MIDNIGHT is a forgotten gem. A wry, sophisticated comedy, well-acted from a clever script with some of the best actors around. They just don't make 'em like that any more.

MIDNIGHT -- a movie you should watch.

Copyright ©2010 Tod Hunter

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