The recent conversation about the state of the romcom in the 2010s - is it dead or dying? is it revivable? why do people hate laughter and love - amuses me to no end, because it misses the most important part of all: the golden age of romantic comedy was over before most of the people involved in the conversation were ever born. The romcom has been dead a looooong time, it's just that the corpse is finally starting to smell.

I mean, there have been some fine and even great romcoms in the years since America entered World War II, but the genre peaked in the 1930s, and if anyone disagrees with me, I will fight you in an alley with a knife. Seriously. Even a desperate, barrel-scraping C-picture in the genre from that period still oozes wit, charismatic actors, a short enough running time that the contrivances don't register until long after the movie is over. And I think most importantly - at any rate, it explains why the genre went off the cliff after 1940, except for Preston Sturges, and he only hung around a short while longer before hitting his desperate years - prior to the war, leading women in American cinema were of an entirely more sturdy, self-reliant stock than the generations that followed. Just a quick tour of names: Hepburn, Davis, Stanwyck, Garbo,Crawford, Lombard, Harlow, Loy, Dunne. They all were best at playing strong people, the kind who would refuse to put up with bumblers or schlubs, unwilling to stand by as the supporting character in somebody else's story. Social considerations aside, it simply makes for better comedy when you put two equally-matched sparring partners against one another, and there simply haven't the leading ladies with the skill or motivation to sell that kind of thing in any kind of mass quantity in later years.

If you'll permit me to stash my soapbox, we can then turn to one of these Golden Age romcoms, and one that is criminally under-recognised in modern days, Paramount's Midnight of 1939, directed by capable journeyman Mitchell Leisen and written by the unbeatable team of Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett, whose work was also on display in another exquisite romantic comedy that same year, Ninotchka. It is not, despite all I just said, the most gender-balanced of '30s comedies, owing mainly to a jaw-dropping final act moment in which Claudette Colbert insistently agrees with a judge that men should spank their wives, in a completely frivolous aside that does nothing else besides suddenly make the film bitterly uncomfortable for moderns. But for the most part, her Eve Peabody is the smartest person in every room, a quick-witted con artist and former golddigger who with a little bit of good luck and a lot fleet improv manages to finagle her way into the lives of several upper-class Parisian socialites. And also into the life of a Hungarian immigrant taxi driver named Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche), and it doesn't take noticing what two names show up on the pre-title credit card to guess who Eve ends up with. Though I am pleased to note that Midnight doesn't have any twinge of "they have to end up together because they shouldn't co-mingle with richer classes" messaging, but the more direct and satisfying "...well, look at them, of course we want them to fall in love".

Apologies for harping on sociology, but it's one of the strengths of comedies that, because they so rarely feel the need to filter and editorialise, they paint a much clearer picture of the cultural norms that produced them. None of this is necessarily the first thing one has in mind while actually watching Midnight; it's much easier to be carried along by its excellent farcical plot, sharp dialogue (though the script, tweaked a bit by Leisen to Wilder's irritation, lacks the punishing wit of the best lines in Ninotchka), and Colbert's splendid performance. Colbert, I might point out, was not an actress who lacked for splendid performances in a career that included plenty of headlining roles but, maybe, fewer long-lived classics than we might prefer (I suspect that to the casual fan of old movies, she's known pretty much exclusively for her Oscar-winning role in 1934's It Happened One Night), and not nearly enough roles with directors or producers who could really exploit her unusual and unique traits as an actress. Above all, her rather direct, deflating way of cutting through bullshit with line readings that are more honest and rueful than just about any other actor in the '30s could reliably produce - in Midnight, that it including the wry, slightly angry delivery of "Well, from here it looks an awful lot like a rainy night in Kokomo, Indiana", as her first words upon entering Paris. Or, at one point, she issues the instruction "Tell him I wouldn't be at all surprised" to a chauffeur with a remarkable mix of confusion, happiness, and nervousness, all communicated through a giggling line delivery she barely completes. And then there's the matter of her one-of-a-kind looks, with wide-set almond eyes exaggerating her face to look squishy and round, and the set of her mouth looks perpetually amused by a joke nobody else heard that even she doesn't genuinely think is funny. Her look is far enough from the standards of beauty active in the '30s (or today, to an even greater degree) that, coupled with her blunt way of speaking, make it feel like someone who wasn't a movie star somehow managed to get all of these leading roles, and that leaves her performances with an eccentric vibe to them, one that's more, I'm almost tempted to call it "modernist" than any of her contemporaries. She's one of the most interesting '30s actresses to watch; I adore her completely, even when her vehicles aren't the greatest.

No such reservations apply to Midnight, one of Colbert's best films and one of the few to understand that her skills are flawlessly suited to the somewhat artificial and brittle world of screwball farce. Eve Peabody has just arrived in Paris from an ill-fated trip to Monaco, with nothing but the evening dress on her back; her first friend in town is Tibor, who takes her from place to place looking for work that's not to be found. At her last stop, she gets accidentally swept in with a group of other people dressed for a night out, and manages to sneak into a society party held by a blowsy sort of woman named Stephanie (gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, the one clunky note in the cast); she is immediately found out by the perceptive eye of one Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore), but he keeps mum for reasons of her own. Those reasons, she finds out after Georges secretly bails her when she loses a small fortune at bridge, are named Helene (Mary Astor) and Jacques (Francis Lederer) - Helene being Georges's wife, and Jacques being Helene's lover. Georges has noticed that Jacques had his eye on Eve all evening, and wishes to put the broke American up in a fine hotel with plenty of clothes and a car, under the name Baronness Czerny - the name she came up with on the spot - in order to keep pushing her towards Jacques, thereby breaking up his wife's affair. Seeing nothing but the dollar signs, Eve accepts his offer. But Tibor, meanwhile, has assembled all the taxi drivers of Paris to hunt for Eve, and when he finds her, he shows his own quick wits by posing as the Baron Czerny. And thus it is that everyone ends up at the Flammarion estate for a weekend, with Eve trying to seduce Jacques as Helene tries to expose Eve as a fraud and Tibor concocts a series of elaborate lies for why his fake marriage is sacrosanct and happy.

At the simplest level, Midnight is a wonderfully pure farce: it starts because people tell lies, and in order to keep those lies from being found out have to tell increasingly madder lies, that run afoul of other lies told by other people for their own benefit. The only sour note in all of it is its drowsy final sequence; by no means the most elegant or high-energy way to end, it moves the action to a courtroom where a fake divorce is held, as the protagonist uncharacteristically defends spousal abuse. But everything till that point is gloriously nutty, as Wilder and Brackett ladle one wrinkle on top of the last, never reaching such a fever pitch as to push the film firmly into screwball territory instead of the more arch sophisticated comedy subgenere, though it is certainl manic enough to never be boring. The cast is top-to-bottom divine: Barrymore, in the final chance he had to do something really special before sputtering out in nothing films made in the last stages of his alcohol-related death, is absolutely brilliant, with innuendo-laden facial expressions and a hilarious willingness to go totally silly during a late-film scene on the phone; Astor's snappish iciness is in excellent form; Ameche oscillates between charming mooniness and comic petulance nicely.

But it is Colbert's film, and she makes the most of it. She's the center of every shot that includes her, kept in focus and weighted by the compositions; the film lingers on her line deliveries, which are absolutely perfect in every instance, with a certain calming, "now, now, let's all be sane" cadence and a clear sense of authority, as though even when her fate hinges entirely on the whim of other people, she knows that she's smarter than they are and needs to keep them on track. She's a superb, grounding center to a frequently giddy film, but without ever playing the straight man to the material; there's too much sardonic wit to her performance for that to be the case.

At any rate, Midnight is a flat-out comedy masterpiece, the best work of Leisen's solid but hardly inspirational career, and enough to make a lifelong Colbert devotee of anybody who somehow remained unaffected in the face of It Happened One Night. There's an old-fashioned elegance and formality to the storytelling that dates it, sure; and it's narrative is based in a social situation that makes no sense on many levels (besides the gender politics, the class-based plot could only take place in pre-war Paris). But the crowd-pleasing instincts and high-speed literacy of the dialogue are fresh as they were 75 years ago; it's among the best, sharpest, fleetest comedies of its era, and worthy of far more of an audience and bigger classic status than it has ever enjoyed.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1939, the Greatest Year in Hollywood History
-Producer David O. Selznick marshals an army of actors and craftsman to make the epic of all epics, Gone with the Wind
-Garbo Laughs in Ninotchka
-MGM vomits out the most glorious expression of Technicolor ever filmed, The Wizard of Oz
-Disney's idiot dog Goofy makes his solo debut in the shockingly tender short Goofy and Wilbur
-George Cukor oversees the cavalcade of actressexual delights, The Women
-John Ford zooms in on John Wayne and a megastar is born in Stagecoach

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1939
-The first edition of the Cannes International Film Festival is called on account of war
-Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, a timeless and essential masterpiece, is booed and rejected for its mockery of society on the cusp of war; similarly, Marcel Carné's Le jour se lève, though a hit this year, will be banned in 1940 for harming social morale
-Mizoguchi Kenji's Story of the Last Chrysanthemums has nothing to do with war, but it's awfully good anyway