"Just because I like to solve a mystery once in awhile, everyone thinks I'm Charlie Chan, Philo Vance, and The Sphinx all rolled into one."
~Clay 'Dal' Dalzell (William Powell) in Star of Midnight
Star of Midnight features William Powell as lawyer Clay "Dal" Dalzell who is well known in New York for his expertise in criminal law but also revered for his ability to solve tough criminal cases. Dal's friend Tim Winthrop comes to him and asks Dal's help in finding his girlfriend, Alice, who had vanished a year ago. When a gossip columnist named Tennant is shot in Dal's swank (and I do mean swank!) apartment, Dal must once again take the case to clear his name and find out who the killer is. Dal's fiancee, Donna Mantin (Ginger Rogers) works with him on the case. The complete synopsis is here, complete with spoilers, but one of the things I place the least emphasis on in movies like these are the plots, which are often indecipherable the first time around, at least to me!
This was clearly RKO's attempt to cash in on the Thin Man film, which had been an surprise hit in 1934. No doubt the prospect of Powell co-starring with RKO's box office champ Rogers had the RKO bigwigs seeing dollar signs in their dreams. But RKO's entry into the Thin Man sweepstakes has a lot to offer fans of the earlier film. Powell's Dal Dalzell is a sophisticated New Yorker, with a swellegant apartment complete with his loyal butler, Swayne (Gene Lockhart), and an amazing bathroom including a barber's chair and toilet (unseen, of course) which plays "Pop Goes the Weasel" when someone sits on it! Much of the film takes place in Dal's apartment and with a stellar RKO set by Van Nest Polglase, it's easy to see why; it's gorgeous!
Dal's world is very much in the Thin Man mold, as the amateur sleuth has a steady stream of cocktails flowing at home as well as at the King Charles Hotel's bar. Girlfriend Donna matches him every drink of the way, as well as in witty repartee. In fact, Star of Midnight finds Ginger's Donna every bit Powell's equal here, unlike Nora Charles, who often had to meddle in her husband's cases. Dal even refers to Donna as his "partner"; that's uncommon in 1930s cinema and it was refreshing to see. Initially, I was concerned that the Powell-Rogers chemistry might not be so hot, but about forty-five minutes in, I realized that things were quite good between the two stars, as if they had finally gotten used to one another after an inauspicious beginning. Their rapport is nowhere near the Powell-Loy level, but then, no one's is. Still, it's a shame the two stars never worked together again.
I'd recommend Star of Midnight to anyone who loves what I call the "Husband and Wife Detective" genre. Fans of the Thin Man series as well as RKO features will marvel at the beautiful sets, and of course Ginger Rogers is quite a sight to behold. She's not at her most beautiful ever, but that would come soon enough.
I hope this comes to DVD soon. TCM's voting as of this writing is 145 votes and the movie ranks 494 on their list, so go and vote for Star of Midnight! It's another healthy dose of 1930s wit, glamour, and Thin Man-esque mystery.
Update: Laura's Miscellaneous Musings has an entry on Star of Midnight.