COMEDY GOLD #12: The telephone conversation from Midnight (1939)

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Midnight (dir. Mitchell Leisen, 1939) is one of the many, many gems that came out in Hollywood’s greatest ever year. Not only that, but the Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett-penned screwball comedy is also probably the funniest of the bunch: showgirl Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) arrives in Paris with nothing but an evening gown. She befriends taxi driver Tibor (Don Ameche), who lets her stay with him for the night. However, unbeknownst to him, she soon slips out and crashes a high-society party. While there, she meets Helene Flammarion (Mary Astor), her toyboy Picot (Francis Lederer), and her husband Georges (John Barrymore), who immediately hires her to break up the relationship between Helene and Picot. Not only that, but Tibor is now searching for Eve as well…

Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how funny John Barrymore was. His extensive Shakespearean background and dramatic screen roles could have easily overshadowed his comedic performances, but you have to look no further than Midnight (and Twentieth Century, 1934) to see that he deserves just as much praise for these as anything else. In Midnight, the telephone scene is certainly his crowning moment: chaos is well on its way by the time Tibor, pretending to be Eve’s husband, tries to get her away from this mess she got herself into. He comes up with a fake daughter called Francie and pretends to have received a telegram from Budapest saying she has the measles. Eve and Georges are onto him, of course, and Georges quickly goes into the next room, while Eve places a fake call to Budapest. Obviously, Georges’ one-liners and baby-talk on the other side make the entire scene. It’s such a silly moment, and that’s what makes it so funny. The wonderful absurdity of screwball comedies is unparalleled, even to this day, and Midnight is one of those that gets funnier every time you watch it. And while Claudette Colbert was one of the queens of the genre, John Barrymore should rightfully be up there with her and the rest of them. But then again, how can you not be funny with a script written by Wilder and Brackett?

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