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Midnight (1939) is the first of three films written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett that Mitchell Leisen directed. Midnight is a screwball comedy of mistaken identities that in the hands of Brackett and Wilder lampoons the aristocracy and government bureaucracy. There’s a more bitter bite to Midnight than there is to most screwball comedies of this period, for those reasons, which is counterbalanced by Leisen’s own sensibilities.

In Midnight Claudette Colbert plays an American show girl who is enlisted by John Barrymore to draw his wife’s lover away and into marriage. It isn’t long before this deception runs into trouble when Don Ameche, a cab driver in love with Colbert, arrives and masquerades as Colbert’s fictitious husband, a Hungarian nobleman. Soon enough the unmarried couple is in divorce court and every thing comes apart, for the best of course.

Midnight has some of the best one-liners of any screwball and the subtle social commentaries only help to add depth and agency to the proceedings. Colbert, as always, delivers but it’s John Barrymore who steals every scene. Barrymore is a ham and it works. His bold choices and obvious relish makes him the focus of every shot he appears in. The scene on the phone where Barrymore pretends to be Colbert and Ameche’s ill daughter is one of the funniest one is likely to ever see.

Next to Ernst Lubitsch, Mitchell Leisen is the best director of comedies in the thirties. His light touch and playfulness gives his films both an element of escapism and pure joy. Unlike Howard Hawks who builds tension out of anxieties, Leisen builds his films as ever escalating spectacles of good hearted mayhem. Midnight is a great place to start with Leisen if one isn’t familiar with his ouevre; it epitomizes his signature aesthetic.