STAR OF MIDNIGHT (Stephen Roberts, 1935)

Myrna Loy’s 1935 suspension by M-G-M found William Powell, Loy’s co-star in the hugely popular The Thin Man (1934), playing opposite Luise Rainer in Escapade, Rosalind Russell in Rendezvous and Ginger Rogers, as Donna Mantin, in Star of Midnight, a sparkling mystery-comedy. Reviewers originally remarked that Rogers had nothing like Loy’s polish and sophistication; indeed, Rogers is less than fortuitously cast as a rich society girl. Nevertheless, she is a lot of fun with her trademark wisecracking, and Powell is even more brilliant as Clay ‘Dal’ Dalzell, a sleuthing attorney, than he had been as Nick Charles. This may be his most accomplished and liveliest performance.
     The mystery, which involves the murder of a scandal-probing newspaper columnist in Dal’s Manhattan apartment and the disappearance of Mary Smith, the star of the hit stage musical Midnight, is pretty transparent, although genuinely creepy. Onstage, Smith always appears wearing a mask to hide her identity; when the murderer ultimately confronts Dal, this person also is wearing a mask—of the other gender. Stephen Roberts and his black-and-white cinematographer, J. Roy Hunt, have made their visually striking entertainment primarily a pre-noir film of the night. The darkness conjures a fine sense of urban danger and menace. Offscreen past action in Chicago, like the current goings-on, suggests that urban environments pressure the adoption of false identities, much as the performance of a stage play does. Especially around Cinderella’s midnight, appearances deceive.
     The script, by Anthony Veiller, Howard J. Green and Edward Kaufman, is based on a novel by Arthur Somers Roche. Romantically, it ends improbably though winningly; the closing joke shuts out Donna’s parents, whom we never see, from their daughter’s marriage. Neither do we ever see “Mary Smith,” making hers, intriguingly, a “disappearance” (for us) absent any “appearance.”

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