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Star of Midnight (DVD Review)

2 Jul, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$17.95 DVD-R
Not rated.
Stars William Powell, Ginger Rogers, Paul Kelly.

Does anyone really care that much who-dunit? Well, Mike, apparently so — because just judging by all the Agatha Christie movies alone, think how many of them there’ve been. What’s more, when I was programmer for the American Film Institute Theater (then in Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center), a Whodunit marathon was one of the most voluminously attended series, wall to wall, that we ever did.

But getting back to Christie, the only really exceptional one of the famed author’s screen bunch is Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution — which, like, Rene Clair’s And Then There Were None and Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (both passable, though others will tell you they’re better than that) are put over by their casts. I think this is the clue: If 90 minutes or more are going to be devoted only to finding out who knocked off someone else (which is why the far more psychologically attuned Alfred Hitchcock didn’t like the form), the actors had better be fun to watch. This is where the non-Christie Star of Midnight comes in, a movie with which I have some history.

Before MGM could even get its first Thin Man sequel into production, RKO borrowed lead William Powell to play another sleuth who liked to drink during the day. And so as not to pound the rip-off point home too much, the character here is not precisely a detective but a lawyer who enjoys dabbling with crime solving. Nor is this guy married like the “Thin Man” series’ Nick Charles, but he does have a good-natured girlfriend (rich, too) around for aid and wisecracks. She’s played by Ginger Rogers — a performer, who like Powell, had a knack for making her co-stars look good. Working out of a cool ‘30s New York apartment where a male lounges around in a tux that he probably also wears to the deli, the two try to sleuth why the girlfriend of a Powell friend disappeared a year or so earlier in Chicago — and why they can’t even go see a New York play without having the lead actress (whose style is to wear a mask on stage) disappear as well during the performance.

I spent a lot of time trying to see this movie in my youth because when Steven H. Scheuer put out the first paperback book — ever — that assigned star ratings to old movies (predating the first Leonard Maltin guide by more than a decade), Midnight was one of give-or-take 225 out of maybe 3,000 or so that got a four-star rating. But it didn’t show very much, and I could never track it down until I booked it into that same AFI Whodunit series about 20 years later — only to find, with the program notes set in type, that RKO didn’t have a print. I don’t know if it had something or not to do with the underlying literary rights — the source was mystery novel by Arthur Somers Roche — but the studio archives had nothing. This began a desperate “collector’s market” search that, after about six degrees of separation, located some woman in a small town who had a 16mm print she agreed to loan us so we could get the movie on the screen (“Adventures in Programming”).

Over the years, this agreeably performed comedy-mystery (though a four-star movie it isn’t) has popped up a lot more, and Turner Classic gives it a whirl from time to time. The supporting cast includes Gene Lockhart in what I have to assume was a rare butler role; Ralph Morgan (the Wizard of Oz Frank’s real-life brother); Leslie Fenton (whose future directorial credits included the final Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake pairing, Saigon); and Paul Kelly. I’m always amused whenever I see Kelly in one of these mysteries because in real life, he himself went to the Big House (San Quentin, in fact) for beating to death the drunken husband of a woman Kelly later married. The extenuating circumstances were fairly interesting — though maybe not as interesting as the fact that Kelly later played Warden Clinton Duffy in 1954’s Duffy of San Quentin. Which, by the way, is a onetime Warner Bros. release that seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth much as Midnight had a few decades ago.

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