Star of Midnight (1935)
Writers: Screenplay by Howard J. Green & Anthony Veiller, and Edward Kaufman, from a novel by Arthur Somers Roche. Howard Green has a long list of credits that include After Midnight with Boston Blackie and Meet Nero Wolfe. Anthony Veiller was nominated for an Academy Award for 1946’s The Killers and 1937’s Stage Door, and won the Edgar for The Killers. He also wrote the screenplay for The List of Adrian Messenger and Seven Keys to Baldpate (the 1935 version). Edward Kaufman has only a short list of credits but they include The Gay Divorcee.
Arthur Somers Roche’s work was previously unknown to me and there doesn’t seem to be much of it, but he did write “mystery thrillers” in the 1910s and 1920s, including Find The Woman (1921) which is found here, if you’re interested.
Other Data: 90 minutes long. Released April 19, 1935, according to IMDB. Directed by Stephen Roberts, who died in 1936 but has a large filmography of mostly short subjects mostly silents. His final film was The Ex-Mrs. Bradford.
Cast: William Powell plays Clay “Dal” Dalzell, and Ginger Rogers plays wealthy socialite Donna Martin. It’s interesting to note that this film seems like a fairly clear variation on 1934’s huge hit, The Thin Man, but at the time of production, Myrna Loy was apparently under suspension/on strike to get more vacation time and better scripts, so Powell made films in 1935 with Rogers, Luise Rainer and Rosalind Russell, among others. The small cast doesn’t contain many actors whose names have remained well-known, but Paul Kelly and Ralph Morgan are principal among them. Gene Lockhart plays Dal’s butler — something of a departure for the times in that he appears to be clearly heterosexual — and Vivien Oakland stands out as the much-married Jerry Classon, who apparently dallied with Dal at some past point and is now mixed up with the murder. More about her role below.
About this film:
Spoiler warning: I must announce at this point that the concepts I wanted to discuss about this film cannot be explored without revealing the ending of the film, and the identity of the murderer. If you have not yet seen this film and wish your knowledge of it to remain blissfully undisturbed, stop reading now and accept my apologies. If you read beyond this point, you’re on your own.
Once you’re aware that M-G-M was attempting to cash in on the success of The Thin Man, it’s much clearer what this film is attempting to do; the problem is, Ginger Rogers doesn’t appear to have much chemistry with Powell, and the movie just loses its sparkle when compared with the electricity between Powell and Loy. Rogers also suffers through a series of truly regrettable gowns in this production — this was apparently the height of the “Pilgrim” fad in women’s evening gowns and Rogers is swathed in a voluminous red outfit with a huge collar and shoulders. Another ridiculous outfit is a full length satin skirt with matching jacket, and the jacket is trimmed with huge mink lapels and mink sleeve puffs that look like swimming sleeves for buoyancy. It might have been the height of fashion in 1935 but in 2013 it just looks uncomfortable, hot, and confining.
The story is interesting, but the central premise is so strange and unbelievable that for me it sucked the life out of the plot. It’s focused on “Mary Smith” — whom we never see for more than about three frames of film — who is the star of a musical revue called Midnight. Get it? She’s the star of Midnight, and that’s where the title comes from. No mysterious diamond stolen from the forehead of a Hindu god, just an unclever play on words. Mary Smith is anxious to avoid her past and apparently is never seen on-stage without, are you ready for this, her mask. This is strange, but not so strange as the idea that no one in the movie seems to think it’s strange, if you follow me. The star of a major musical review is named “Mary Smith”, no one knows where she comes from, and she always wears a mask. Pfft, could happen to anyone, it seems, and the producers are quite happy to keep her secret rather than capitalizing on the potential publicity. Nobody knows what the “mask” looks like because we never see it, but if it’s anything like the one the murderer wears at the end of the film, this is the world’s only musical star who can fill the theatre with song without opening her mouth beyond a slit.
She’s onstage performing when a former fiancé recognizes her, heaven knows how, and stands up and shouts “Susan!” Mary Smith finishes Act I and promptly vanishes. Oh, and this all takes place out of the view of the audience; apparently they didn’t want to complicate the plot with any exciting drama or anything like that. It’s a bizarre omission because we see the principals sitting in the audience and the theatre set is shown — the only bit we aren’t allowed to see is the crucial one, and it’s because Dal leaves to take a phone call. No, we hear all this from the lips of a gossip reporter who visits Dal’s apartment to tell the story and is promptly shot before he can complete it. There’s apparently gangsters in the mix, who know more than they are telling, and an old girlfriend of Dal’s who is married to a lawyer who is looking for Susan/Mary Smith as a witness that will enable him to save his client from the electric chair for a murder he didn’t commit.
I’ll save you the trouble; the lawyer is looking for Susan/Mary to kill her, and is ready to take out anyone in his path. To be honest, it’s not absolutely clear why, or at least I found the explanation so impenetrable that I just let it sit there indigestibly. Susan/Mary was apparently quite prepared to disappear forever — if you accept the fact that she wanted to be a musical star under the name of “Mary Smith” and preserving her incognito with the mask, which strains credulity — and it’s only the lawyer’s messing about that leads to the exposure of his crimes. It seems as though Alice/Mary’s desire to disappear is connected with the murder for which the lawyer’s client is about to die, but apparently the lawyer committed the murder himself. All he has to do is refrain from looking for the witness, but noooooooo …
Meanwhile, the much-married Jerry Classon seems to have her eyes on Dal as her next ex-husband, and comes to visit him late at night in his apartment, seemingly on a whim. Ginger Rogers steps in and pretends to be his new wife, and Jerry decides to leave, but not before she tries to get information from Dal. The thing I cannot understand is — why on earth is Jerry Classon considered to be a femme fatale here? The producers could have cast anyone, but they present us with a stocky, middle-aged matron with severely shingled hair and a severe case of rubbery triceps and ask us to believe that at least four men have fallen for her, including Dal at one point. Is it because she’s independently wealthy? (She’s always dripping with chinchilla and diamond bracelets.) Nothing against Vivien Oakland, who does the best she can with this character and actually portrays her with as much verisimilitude as possible, but she’d have to lose 50 pounds to look like Ginger, and we’re expected to believe that they are potential rivals. It makes one wonder what kind of heifer Mary Smith was, since we never see her.
Speaking of Dal’s apartment, which is the scene of more than half the film, it seems, I think the producers were trying to indicate that Dal is the wealthiest man in Chicago. He has what must have been groundbreaking and avant-garde at the time, a glass-enclosed shower stall in his bathroom AND a full barber’s chair where he is shaved by the butler. His bathroom, in fact, is about the size of my apartment. His living space does have one disadvantage, though; apparently anyone can easily get onto his balcony by some unspecified means, because at least three times somebody is out there to inimical purpose, twice with a gun, and there’s a police officer who simply sits out there listening to the microphone the cops planted clumsily. I’d have looked into a one-way gate on the fire escape, frankly.
After a bunch more hugger-mugger, frequently involving Dal and Donna spending time in cocktail lounges making amusing comments about who has to pay for the drinks, Dal finally decides to set a trap to catch the killer. They announce that Mary Smith has showed up and make arrangements so that innocent people will go to Dal’s apartment and guilty ones will head for Mary’s cheap flat to cover their tracks. Of course, Dal doesn’t bother to bring a gun, or anything useful like that; merely a recording of Alice/Mary singing, to lure the suspects, and a portable record player. A strange woman arrives looking for Mary and turns out to be — the male lawyer, wearing a mask of a woman’s face and in top-to-toe drag. I’m not sure why. (Is the lawyer trying to leave a false trail to his wife?) Maybe, though, Jerry Classon had to be a chunky matron so that her husband could fit into her clothes. So there is a dramatic climax, the murderer is arrested and Dal and Donna finally agree to tie the knot.
I have to add that Mary Smith never appears, even after the real murderer is caught; she is said to be “at the Inspector’s house” as a kind of throwaway line, about a minute before the movie ends, and Dal adds that he traced her through her bank account (conveniently forgetting that she insisted upon being paid in cash to avoid precisely such an entanglement). I don’t know if the writers simply felt they didn’t need to tie off that loose end, or whether they figured nobody would remember, or care, or what. What it means is that the title character, who is possibly one of the most interesting people in the film, never appears and is only heard. It’s not enough to suggest that the writers couldn’t find a way to wedge her in — this has to be deliberate, and it’s frustrating and quite annoying. She’s never seen in her mask, and the murderer is never said to wear one before he shows up in one. If the producers were trying to focus on the witty byplay and cocktail-drinking scenes between Dal and Donna, well, there’s not enough of them and they’re not sufficiently amusing to carry the story over its bumpy patches. The mystery doesn’t make sense, the chemistry of the leads is insufficient to make us believe in their romance, the sub-plots don’t add up, and the script pulls its major punches for no reason. I admit there is a certain amount of charm here; Ginger Rogers tries hard to live up to Myrna Loy’s characterization, William Powell is his usual suave and urbane self, and there are a few funny lines. But there are so many things wrong with this movie that it’s not surprising that it hasn’t survived as an example of a great movie mystery.
Notes For the Collector:
Amazon sells this film individually for about $15 and TCM screened it earlier this year; as I always remark, TCM is not shy about repeating its offerings and you can expect to see it about once a year from now on.