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Although Hollywood's golden year of 1939 is best remembered for Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, it was also a banner year for sophisticated screen comedy, and Mitchell Leisen's Midnight is a deliciously prime example. Screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were in peak form when they concocted this smooth confection about Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert), an American showgirl in Paris who is out of work, money, and luck when a handsome cabbie (Don Ameche) offers to drive her around the City of Light to search for employment as a nightclub chanteuse. Nobody's hiring, but Eve has a better plan: posing as a Hungarian countess, she smuggles her way into Parisian high society and suddenly finds herself in the lap of luxury, commissioned by a wealthy aristocrat (John Barrymore) to seduce a French playboy (Francis Lederer) away from Barrymore's not-so-loyal wife (Mary Astor). While Eve is living it up at the Ritz Hotel and enjoying trips to Versailles, Ameche's on a mission to find her and declare his true love. Class distinction, infidelity, false identity... these were daring ingredients for a 1939 comedy, and Midnight (a casebook display of Paramount's shimmering studio style of the '30s) is as fresh today as it was when first released. The silky perfection of the Wilder-Brackett screenplay is expertly served by Leisen (a director who deserves ranking with Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges), and Colbert is merely the brightest star in a flawless cast of screwball veterans. Poking fun at the elite was a Wilder-Brackett specialty, and Barrymore is particularly savvy to the material, giving a performance that's simultaneously sly, desperate, and hilariously inspired. The plot is so elegantly executed that Midnight makes most comedies of later decades look pale in comparison. Gone are the days, it seems, when sophistication, wit, and good taste were an integral part of Hollywood comedy. Midnight offers all of those qualities in abundance, making it a perfect antidote to the crudeness that dominates mainstream comedy at the turn of the millennium.

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MC33129 Midnight DVD (1942/Claudette Colbert) $14.98