Midnight (1939)

Genres - Comedy, Romance  |   Sub-Genres - Screwball Comedy  |   Run Time - 94 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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The original title of this Cinderella-inspired screwball comedy was Careless Rapture, a heading that signified the devil-may-care euphoria long distinctive of its genre. However, when Paramount released the picture in 1939, its filmmakers had changed its name to Midnight -- the historic hour that Cinderella's party ended -- and skillfully marked the conclusion of screwball's carefree heyday. At the turn of the decade, and on the eve of World War II, even comedies were moving farther away from Depression-era escapism (which gave birth to screwball) and closer to the postwar skepticism that gripped American film way into the '60s. Mitchell Leisen's Midnight survives as a harbinger of this change. As film critic Molly Haskell points out, Leisen's work is the transitional link between the fairy tale Paramount of the '30s and Billy Wilder's acerbic output for the studio in the '40s and beyond. In this initial collaboration between the two filmmakers (Wilder and partner Charles Brackett developed the screenplay), Leisen wisely allows the impending pessimism of his writers to pollute the outdated felicity of his genre. The extroverted intelligence of screwball's conventional heroine, here played by Claudette Colbert, is supplemented by a worldly understanding far beyond the usual bawdy wit. When her potential suitor asks what kind of job she desires, the gold-digging Colbert answers that at this time at night, she is certainly not looking for needlework. Beneath this sentiment's sexual innuendo is a sense not of simply sarcasm, but of a fatalism and resignation presaging Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment -- characters all too aware of their place in the world. In fact, it is the knowledge of their position in the universe that is made strikingly obvious to all of Midnight's characters. Wilder and Brackett's script does not hesitate to remind them and the audience of the war about to ravage Europe -- at the height of the film's shenanigans, a French judge gravely derides the main characters' tomfoolery in the midst of world turmoil. Contrasted with Leisen's sumptuous direction (he was a filmmaker who often mistook opulence for refinement), this outlook exemplifies the notable metamorphosis of the screwball comedy from insouciant to mordant. Midnight, thus, is much more than an amusing diversion; it is remarkable as a turning point in the annals of film history.