(United States, 1939, 94 minutes, b&w, 16mm)
Midnight is one of the most elegant of Hollywood's screwball comedies, and yet, an overlooked film. Why? David Chierichetti has known the answer for more than 35 years.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Chierichetti became a rabid film fan. He stumbled upon the films of a man named Mitchell Leisen. Leisen had been one of Hollywood's most versatile and well-regarded directors during the 1920's, `30's, and 40's, and was renowned for having directed some of the best performances of the sound era in some of the wittiest and most dramatic of classic Hollywood's films. In the 1930's, Leisen was Paramount's most consistently successful house director. And then there was Leisen's first career, in the 1920's, as one of the most gifted costume and scene designers in the film colony; that, as well as his legendary personal flamboyance and scathing bon mots, merely added to his lustre.
And yet, by the close of the 1960's, film history had forgotten Leisen. As a budding film scholar, Chierichetti must have felt as if he had found a diamond lying at his feet. Chierichetti commenced a long and fruitful oral history project with him. Chierichetti made the interview part of his Master's thesis in cinema studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. Leisen died in September of 1972; by that time, Chierichetti had become a cherished friend as well as Leisen's biographer. Chierichetti published his revised thesis as Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director, in 1973. It was one of the very first in-depth studies of a Golden Age director to appear in America, and should have foretold a new interest in Leisen. Unfortunately, the series which had published the book was abandoned, and the book went out of print. But beat-up copies of the little blue paperback edition of Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director, scrounged in places like Larry Edmunds' film book shop in California, or the Strand in New York, quickly became a basic text for any film student interested in how the life of a director at a great studio in its heyday was lived. (At long last, Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director was republished in 1995, with important new additions about Leisen's personal life.)
Leisen became a film connoisseur's favorite, happy proof to a select few of us of the pinnacles of sophistication and intelligence the studio film could reach in its heyday. Whether they were comedies, dramas, films noir, or melodramas, even the titles of Leisen's best films, like Remember the Night, No Man of Her Own, Hold Back the Dawn, Easy Living, and To Each His Own, sound like filigreed creations of Hollywood's finest years. And so they were.
But David Chierichetti, a student of film history, knew that it was Leisen's strange curse to be a great collaborator, and the case for a prospective auteur isn't helped by a reputation for being a team player . Leisen was able to work with the best cinematographers, writers, designers, and actors Paramount could bring him, and all did their best work with him. The scripts for some of his most important films were written by none other than Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, and those films have tended to be thought of as proto-Sturges or almost-Wilder, rather than as the Mitchell Leisen films they so plainly are. Wilder, in particular, could be cruel in later years when discussing Leisen, claiming that it was partially outrage at the philistine manner in which Leisen treated Wilder and Charles Brackett's screenplay for Hold Back the Dawn in 1941 for Wilder's decision to become a director. Well, maybe, but Hold Back the Dawn is a delight, by turns ironic and passionate, but always warm-hearted. Perhaps that was what galled the cynical Wilder; Leisen's view of life was simply more optimistic than Wilder's, and it shows.
Likewise in Midnight, another Wilder-Brackett screenplay. Eve Peabody (played exquisitely by a Leisen favorite, Claudette Colbert), a threadbare American gold digger, joins forces with a devil-may-care Parisian cab driver, Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche). The two of them, constantly squabbling (since it's a screwball comedy, that's how we tell they're in love, of course) crash Parisian high society with the flimsiest of bonafides. Eve's cover story is about as durable as the wet newspaper she holds over her head when she first meets Tibor, and her envious host keeps sneakily checking up on her...
Where Wilder, directing one of his own scripts, would point out to us the slimiest motives of the many liars and deceivers in the film, Leisen simply enjoys the show they put on for one another, and for themselves. "You see, there's a little bit of good and a little bit of bad in all of us," said Leisen when he reminisced about Midnight to Chierichetti. With Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett writing the script, it's not surprising that Midnight has a thumping big plot twist in its last few minutes. But watch how Leisen uses a light touch to keep the grapes from getting sour.
Midnight bears Leisen's stamps in a way his colleagues in Hollywood must surely have noticed at the film's premiere. The womens' costumes and the film's interior sets, though credited to others, are the typically extravagant yet inventive designs of a Leisen film. Leisen was instrumental in creating the eclectic aesthetic that made the society comedies of Hollywood's Golden Age seem as if they were happening in a scented, sexy Utopia. Whether it's the gilded sunroom of an expatriate heiress' chalet, or a surreal millinery shop, Leisen makes all his spaces both impossible and inviting, and fills them with women gowned as if for a coming-out party in Heaven.
For Mitch Leisen, like Cinderella, midnight came too quickly. His opulence and high spirits were out of place in the austerity of post-television Hollywood in the 1950's. And his reputation as one of the finest of all the collaborative directors in Hollywood meant that his work went into critical eclipse as the auteur theory waxed. But watch his films, the comedies, the dramas, and the "women's films" -- watch their lightness of being, watch the exquisite erotic ballets of seduction he puts his heroes and heroines through, the attraction and repulsion and attraction again, the sweet delays and final consummations of their affairs always managed with perfect grace.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
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