Randwick Ritz, Sydney:

7:00 PM, Wednesday May 01

2:15PM, Thursday
May 02

10:30AM, Monday May 06

Lido Cinemas, Melbourne:

7:00PM, Thursday
May 09

11:45AM, Friday
May 10

Rating: U/C15+
Duration: 94 minutes
Country: USA
Language: English
Cast: Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, John Barrymore, Mary Astor
Director: Mitchell Leisen



“One of the liveliest, gayest, wittiest and naughtiest comedies of a long hard season. Its direction, by Mitchell Leisen, is strikingly reminiscent of that of the old Lubitsch…it’s really too daffy to be synopsized. You’ll have to take our word for it that its fun…Pictures like Midnight should strike more often.” – Frank S. Nugent, New York Times, 6 April 1939

Cinema Reborn presents the World Premiere of this 4K restoration of one of the greatest screwball comedies of the 1930s. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s laceratingly funny script takes aim at European aristocrats, fashion trends and the ostentatious rich while exploring the frictions between wealth and love. Claudette Colbert plays an unemployed, gold-digging American showgirl stranded in a Parisian rainstorm, when she meets an amorous Hungarian taxi-driver (Don Ameche). Gate-crashing a party held by a socialite (Hedda Hopper), she meets a wealthy industrialist (John Barrymore) who hires her to pose as an American wife married to a Hungarian Baron. This ruse, the industrialist hopes, will help break up an affair between his wife (Mary Astor) and a wealthy playboy (Francis Lederer). Conning each other as best they can, these characters all end up in the industrialist’s Versailles chateau, where the swindles and the fun ramp up to another level.

Introduced by C.J. Johnson at Ritz Cinemas and Keva York at Lido Cinemas.

One of the masterworks of 1930s romantic comedy.” Virgin Film Guide

Among the best, sharpest, fleetest comedies of its era and worthy of far more audiences and bigger classic status than it has ever enjoyed.” – Tim Brayton

Malicious screenplay from Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, gorgeous sets and camerawork, and a matchless cast. All in all, probably Mitchell Leisen’s best film.” – Derek Adams, Time Out

This programme is presented with the generous support of David and Leith Bruce-Steer.

By John Baxter
Mitchell Leisen was one of those journeyman directors, like W.S. Van Dyke at MGM and Michael Curtiz at Warner Brothers, whose work exhibited what has been called “the genius of the system.” In their expert hands, the most mannered performance achieved at least occasional dignity and a bedraggled sow’s ear of a screenplay yielded a purse that could at least pass as silk. Trained as an architect, Leisen failed as an actor but became costume designer to Cecil B. DeMille. At Paramount in the early ‘thirties, he was its resident expert in light comedy, his films models of elegance at a studio that set the standard in sophistication of content and style.

Under the title Careless Rapture, Midnight was originally slated to star Marlene Dietrich as Eve, with Fritz Lang directing. However, after hostile exhibitors in late 1938 labeled Dietrich ‘poison at the box-office’, the film went first to Barbara Stanwyck, with Ray Milland as Tibor, then to Claudette Colbert, for whom it was given a new title to remind audiences of her success in It Happened One Night. Milland, not for the first time, declined to play a part where he wasn’t the centre of attention, so Don Ameche came from Twentieth Century-Fox, alternating work on Midnight and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell

In Arthur Hornblow Jr., the film was fortunate to have a producer accustomed to the flexible morality of Europe. (He had translated the sensational lesbian drama La prisonnière, and mounted a Broadway production so scandalous that the cast were briefly jailed for obscenity). Wilder was less pleased with Leisen, whom he dismissed as ‘a window dresser,’ protesting in particular the casting of gay actor Rex O’Malley as the waspish Marcel. ‘Rex was a wonderful comedian,’ said Leisen defensively. ‘I made him play his part in Midnight as straight as he could; it's about the straightest part he ever did.’ Leisen and Wilder clashed again on Hold Back the Dawn in 1941, after which Billy vowed never to write another screenplay unless he could also direct it – an ambition realised a year later with The Major and the Minor.
Midnight stars Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche but the film’s stand-out performance is by neither. And while its director is the always competent and occasionally inspired Mitchell Leisen, his work is not what makes the film of such unique interest. For that, one must look to the appearance in a supporting role of cinema and theatre legend John Barrymore, and to the screenplay, one of the first in his Hollywood career to exhibit the wit and intelligence of Billy Wilder.

Late in his career, Wilder was asked if there was a film he regretted not having made. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘It’s set at the time of the Crusades. The knights secure their wives in chastity belts and leave for the Holy Land. The rest of the story revolves around the town locksmith, played by Cary Grant.’

Those who know Wilder’s work could fill in the blanks. Cary, of course, would be an amiable boob, around whom the lady of the manor (Shirley MacLaine) runs rings, while a devious court jester (who else but Walter Matthau?) plots for profit. As in Ace in the Hole, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity and The Apartment, every action would illustrate Wilder’s conviction that duplicity, treachery and betrayal are part of life’s portion. If Wilder’s work in general and Midnight in particular have a message, it is that we are our own worst enemies, and the instrument with which we inflict the greatest damage on ourselves and others is love.

Within a few weeks of Midnight’s release, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and Spain fell to Franco, but neither war nor rumours of war were allowed to penetrate the hermetic world of mittel European wit and cynicism characteristic of Paramount. Co-written with Charles Brackett, from a story by Edwin Justus Meyer and Franz Schulz, the script probably began as a Ferenç Molnar anecdote overheard in the mens’ room of Budapest’s New York Café. (It really seems to be true that a sign in the writers’ office at Paramount warned ‘Here you must work. It is not enough just to be Hungarian.’)

In depression-era Paris, penniless American showgirl Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) is rescued by wealthy Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore), who offers to maintain her in luxury if she agrees to distract suave Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer) from the affair he’s conducting with Madame Flammarion (Mary Astor). Picot, wheedles Flammarion, ‘makes a very superior income from a very inferior champagne,’ and is ripe for plucking. But Eve’s gold-digger ambitions are derailed by true love in the person of Hungarian cab driver Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche). No prizes for guessing which one she prefers.

The conflict is resolved at one of those luxury weekend house parties in which Paramount specialised between the wars. In the intricacy of Wilder and Brackett’s comic invention, backed by Leisen’s suave direction, the sequence is a tour de force. As guests conga through the marble halls, led by gossip columnist and occasional actress Hedda Hopper, Helene Flammarion, with co-conspirator Marcel Renard, played with malicious glee by Rex O’Malley, prepares to unmask Eve, only to be trumped by Tibor’s arrival masquerading as a baron, an imposture Eve forestalls by explaining that insanity runs in the Czerny family. ‘I should have been warned when his grandfather, as an engagement gift, sent us one roller skate covered in Thousand Island dressing.’ Flammarion backs her up with a tale of once mistaking a Czerny aunt for an Indian because she powdered her face with paprika.

Lederer and Ameche are early manifestations of the Wilder Dope, a character embodied over the next half-century by, among others, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Ray Walston, Tom Ewell and Jack Lemmon. Wilder films also often included a scheming observer (his alterego?) concerned only to add to the confusion and profit from it. In Midnight,this precursor of Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire and Double Indemnity, and of Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie and The Front Page, is played, in the last coherent role of a distinguished career, by John Barrymore.

Barrymore’s next appearance on Broadway was in a play called My Dear Children. From a description of that performance – ‘clowning, mugging, grunts, snorts, rumbles, yawns, bleats, leers, smirks, ogles, roars, squirts, eye rolling, eyebrow-twitching, strutting, mincing, pouncing, staggering, hip-skipping and jumps, profanity, obscenity and general horseplay’ – it’s likely that his Midnight character came out of the same box (or, rather, bottle). Leisen cast Barrymore’s wife, Elaine Barrie, as fashionable milliner Simone, hoping her presence on the set would curtail his alcohol intake, but so ravaged was his memory that dialogue had to be written on boards and held up for him to read. Even in terminal decline, however, Barrymore retained the power to enchant. ‘He made me unashamed of the natural,’ said Barrie, fifteen years his junior. ‘He made me glory in my sensuality. My head still whirls from the memories.’ It’s a glory of which Midnight offers a late but lasting glimpse.

World premiere of the 4K restoration. For this restoration, Universal Pictures primarily used a 35mm nitrate comp fine grain. The picture element was dry gate scanned in 4K on an ARRI film scanner for a 4K workflow. Universal applied digital processes to improve flicker and stability, address diagonal streaking issues, and clean up film damage, dirt, scratches, and stains. Audio was restored from the 35mm comp fine grain. Digital audio restoration tools were applied to reduce optical anomalies, noise floor, hum, rumble, and sibilance where possible. Restoration services conducted by NBCUniversal StudioPost.

Director: Mitchell Leisen; Production Company: Paramount; Producer: Arthur Hornblow Jr; Script: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, based on a story by Edwin Justus Mayer, Franz Schulz; Photography: Charles Lang Jr; Editor: Doane Harrison; Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Robert Usher; Sound: John Cope, Charles Hisserich; Music: Leo Shuken (uncr); Costumes: Irene.

Cast: Claudette Colbert (Eve Peabody), Don Ameche (Tibor Czerny), John Barrymore (Georges Flammarion), Francis Lederer (Jacques Picot), Mary Astor (Helene Flammarion), Elaine Barrie (Simone), Hedda Hopper (Stephanie), Rex O’Malley (Marcel).

USA | 1939 | 93 mins | 4K DCP | B&W| English | UC15+

Cinema Reborn acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land on which we live, learn and work. We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.