Welcome to another Film Friday! Today we’re continuing our series on films released in 1935, the first full year in which Hollywood studios were forced to adhere to the Production Code, which became official in the summer of 1934. The pictures we’ll be looking at are not connected by performers, but rather by their common bond to the censoring of creativity. So far we have covered The Goose And The Gander, Dangerous, and No More Ladies. Today we’re looking at Star Of Midnight.
Star Of Midnight (1935)
A New York lawyer tries to track down a kidnapped actress.
Starring William Powell, Ginger Rogers, Paul Kelly, Gene Lockhart, Ralph Morgan, Leslie Fenton, J. Farrell MacDonald, Russell Hopton, and Vivien Oakland. Screenplay by Howard J. Green, Anthony Veiller, and Edward Kaufman. Based on the novel by Arthur Somers Roche. Directed by Stephen Roberts.
This film has the unfortunate distinction of being regarded as a less-than-successful attempt to recreate the magic of The Thin Man (1934) — which was released the previous year and remains, to this day, perhaps the greatest film in the mystery/comedy genre. As it happens, Star Of Midnight does have a lot in common with that picture; for starters, they share the same star: William Powell. Additionally, the script screams of a desperate RKO hoping to reignite the same spark that MGM had just lit the year prior. So, unfortunately, comparisons are inevitable. But don’t worry — I’ll tell you both the film’s merits and its flaws. But first… the plot.
Determined to find his girl friend Alice, who disappeared a year before in Chicago, Tim Winthrop goes to New York and seeks the help of his friend, criminal lawyer Clay Dalzell. After discussing the situation, Tim, Clay and Donna Mantin, Clay’s would-be fiancée, go to the theater, where Mary Smith, an actress who is famous for the lifelike mask that she wears on stage, is performing. As the curtain rises, Clay receives a message to meet gangster Jimmy Kinland and leaves to pick up a packet of incriminating love letters that Donna has asked him to retrieve. While Clay is negotiating with Kinland for the letters, which he discovers are not from Donna, but from a married friend, he hears a radio news report about the sudden disappearance of Mary Smith during the play’s first act. Clay returns home and is visited first by Tim, who tells him that Mary Smith is Alice, and then by newspaper gossip columnist Tommy Tennant. Before Tommy can explain why Mary Smith bolted from the stage, he is shot and killed by an unseen gunman in Clay’s bedroom, who also grazes Clay. Before escaping, the killer throws his gun next to Clay, thereby incriminating the lawyer in Tommy’s murder. Now the main suspect of Inspector Doremus, Clay determines to find the killer and, with the help of Donna and Horace Swayne, his butler, undertakes to connect the woman’s disappearance with Tennant’s murder.
Eventually Clay finds out that his former lover, Jerry Classon, and her wealthy lawyer husband Roger are also looking for Alice, who Classon claims is the only person who can exonerate his partner in the murder of a Chicago mobster. From Kinland, Clay learns that Alice’s father had been ruined by John Moroni, Classon’s partner, and that, out of revenge, she fled Chicago to avoid providing him with an alibi, and then became Mary Smith. From Donna, Clay hears that Jerry had affairs with both Moroni and the slain gangster. Sure that the killer’s target is Alice, Clay telephones all of his suspects and tells them that Mary will be waiting for them at a certain Greenwich Village address. By using a recording of Mary’s singing, Clay, Donna and Doremus trap the killer, who turns out to be Classon dressed in women’s clothes and Mary’s mask. As deduced by Clay, Classon killed the Chicago gangster out of jealousy and, wanting to pin the crime on the equally guilty Moroni, tried to eliminate Alice as Moroni’s alibi. The murder solved, Tim and Alice reunite and marry on the same day that Donna finally snags the elusive Clay. (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
With regards to the above story, the entire first paragraph of the summary accounts for about 25 minutes of the 90-minute film. To say that it’s fast paced would be an understatement. The mystery is surprisingly engrossing, and the story takes several twists and turns that, fortunately, aren’t too obvious or readily telegraphed. Interestingly, most of the shortcomings involving the premise occur in the first 25 minutes. We have to suspend our disbelief to accept that Tim would come to Clay about finding Alice only hours before recognizing her in the show. Additionally, we have to accept that Mary Smith is a performer who always wears a lifelike mask. (I don’t think this was a traditional practice in 1930s theatre.) It’s just such a bizarre way of reckoning the fact that Alice has since escaped from Chicago and ended up a Broadway star without anyone’s knowledge. The whole point is forced — but if you can get past it, you’re pretty much okay as far as the story goes.
Comparisons to The Thin Man are undoubtedly going to involve the ending. In the brilliant conclusion of The Thin Man, Nick gathers all the suspects at a formal dinner party. In Star Of Midnight, Clay gathers the suspects by tricking them into believing he’s found Alice, and thus catching the murderer. It’s a fine ending to this film, but it never reaches the thrilling heights of that climactic and iconic dinner party (later spoofed on The Carol Burnett Show). Again, it’s unfortunate that comparisons must be made between the pictures, but it seems more than obvious that the creative team was doing exactly that during construction. But, here’s where this film really comes up short: the dialogue. The Thin Man sparkles with wit and delicious lines by almost all involved. Star Of Midnight tries desperately to be as smartly flippant, but rarely manages to be anything more than bizarrely glib. And when it’s not glib — it’s full-on mystery. I suppose we can sum it up succinctly and say: this film isn’t as funny as it should be. (Can we pin some of this on the fact that this is Post-Code and The Thin Man is Pre-Code. Well, we could, except that The Thin Man series extended into the Post-Code series and, though none were as funny as the first, they all had a base level of quality — especially the first three or so.)
In regards to the performers, William Powell is William Powell: solid, engrossing, and capable of handling both the lighter and the heavier moments. And then there’s Ginger Rogers — a supremely talented lady for whom I have a high regard. But she’s not Myrna Loy. And I know she’s not supposed to be. (I’d feel cheated if she pretended that she was.) But one can’t help but compare because the roles they’re cast in are so similar. In addition to the chemistry that just isn’t as strong, Rogers and Powell never get the banter that Loy and Powell shared. It’s a case of poor scripting that keeps Rogers from being a major force in this picture. Of course, I also think it’s safe to reason that Powell and Loy together are magic; Powell and Rogers together are two capable performers trying to bring life into substandard material. The difference is more than negligible.
However, I’d still recommend this picture. As I said above, the story is original and entertaining, and the cast are seasoned and fit for their roles. There are a couple of leaps we have to make with regards to the premise, and the script isn’t as sharp or funny as it needs to be. Comparisons to a similar picture with a similar star are part of this film’s package, but that shouldn’t stop you from checking out Star Of Midnight for yourself. If it’s on TV, sit down and watch it, and then let me know what you think!
Come back next Friday for another 1935 film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!