Ranking high on the “movie homes I’d want to live in” list is WIlliam Powell’s apartment in Star of Midnight (1935). It’s a massive and luxurious bachelor’s paradise. Open concept, corner library set off with half walls, mirrors from floor to ceiling, a bathroom clad in granite with a barber’s chair and a toilet that plays Pop Goes the Weasel when someone sits on it. The swanky design by Van Nest Polglase will set your eyes wandering as you take in the striped upholstery, matching wallpaper, the grand piano, all the ornament, the cocktail sets and columns. This movie is worth watching just for this set, but there’s a mystery here too.
The story begins one year ago when a frantic man (Leslie Fenton) reads a telegram with the message “don’t try to find me, love Alice.” Now Fenton is in New York asking Powell to help him, since he’s a lawyer with a reputation for being a clever crime-solver. Powell reluctantly considers it but first goes to see the hottest ticket in town, the stage show “Midnight,” whose star is a masked mystery woman. That night, Fenton is there too, and recognizes the leading lady as his lost “Alice.” After he calls out to her from the audience, she disappears again, a reporter (Russell Hopton) is murdered at Powell’s place, and Fenton is kidnapped. How are all these things connected? The mystery plot is terribly confusing but no matter; the attractions are Powell and Rogers, the style, the speed and the scandal, the guns and the booze, all of which satisfy and make this play like a better Thin Man instalment.
As Powell works to clear himself from suspicion over Hopton’s murder (and recuperates from his own gunshot wound), he learns the missing woman is indeed “Alice,” and the only alibi of a mobster on death row in Chicago. Powell gains a few suspects when he runs into an ex (Vivien Oakland) who visits to reminisce about their “embers” and pump him for info on the actress, finds himself stalked by Oakland’s new husband (Ralph Morgan), and crosses paths with a mobster (Paul Kelly, who whittles guns out of wood) in a trade of Rogers’ love letters for tax evasion evidence. In the end Powell uses a record player and a baited trap to lure a killer in a very creepy mask.
Powell, and much of his Thin Man character “Nick Charles,” was borrowed from MGM to do this RKO film. Powell’s intelligent and elegant, and playfully cool to Rogers, who hounds him to get married, but he’s also caring and respectful, acting on clues she points out and knowing just how much salt she likes on her chicken. He’s a slick manipulator of people, whether he needs information or just wants to put them in their place. When he gets in his shower (a then-unique stand-up model) and makes the police repeat and shout their questions, he can barely hide his amusement at making a fool of one sergeant who has a weak grasp on the obvious. And just like in the Thin Man movies, there’s bottomless alcohol, and even a drunken Powell is still sober enough to know he’s being lied to.
Rogers can keep up with the drinking (“I’ll take the same, two martinis”), and has an easy, appealing rapport with Powell. He may squirm out of her proposals or give her the slip and leave her holding the bill for eight sidecars she never drank, but she deftly picks his pocket, helps piece together clues, has a comeback for every put down and a funny bit defending her future territory when she dons butler Gene Lockhart’s bathrobe and plays the jealous Mrs. to get rid of Powell’s ex. It’s easy to forget this falls outside the pre-Code era when it presents naughty surprises like Rogers bending over to offer herself for a spanking, or addressing their age difference by saying that when she was 10, Powell had a mustache.
In addition to the actors mentioned above there’s also J. Farrell MacDonald as the laid back but sharp inspector who’s forever in search of proper arch support and his dim bulb partner Robert Emmett O’Connor. Star of Midnight director Stephen Roberts also did the controversial The Story of Temple Drake (1933) and worked with Powell again for The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936) the same year he died at age 40. Star of Midnight is a fun cocktail of familiar ingredients that tastes just right.