Well, it is the “Little Paris of Middle Europe.” At least that’s how our newly arrived Eyewitness Travel Guide introduced me to the city of Budapest. Since I am about to visit the Hungarian capital, I’ve been flicking the pages to get acquainted with the place, its people, and its language; but whenever I find myself in need of cultural initiation I go about it in a roundabout way, with a stopover in Hollywood. Or Paris. You know, the really big Paris to the West of Middle Europe.
You can really learn a lot from old Hollywood movies, as long as you don’t get taken in or turned off by fake sets and phony accents. Take Mitchell Leisen’s 1939 screwball romp Midnight, for instance, and profit from the experience of American adventuress Eve Peabody (as portrayed by Claudette Colbert, whose career was the recent topic of an Alternative Film Guide discussion). Eve’s story, the gist of which you can follow in this recording of a Lux Radio Theater adaptation broadcast on 20 May 1940, will teach you a thing or two about traveling on a budget of little more than a centime with a hole in it, about crashing a society party with a pawn ticket, and about the perils of unwittingly impersonating a Hungarian baroness—practical stuff not generally covered by Baedekers.
Now, as the previous entry into this journal will tell you, I have just been in the company of a true Hungarian baroness last night, one with an accent to prove at least the Hungarian part of her past. The misleading lady Eve, on the other hand, has to work somewhat harder to hoodwink her way out of the hood (in her case, the Bronx). After suffering a “nasty accident” in Monte Carlo (“The roulette system I was playing collapsed under me”), down-and-out Eve is forced to depend on little more than her wits, her sex appeal having gotten her into too much trouble already.
She takes the name of the first person she met in Paris, one Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche), a Hungarian cabbie who’s been rather too eager to chauffeur her around town in her futile attempt to land a gig as a nightclub singer. “I guess, mine is strictly a bathtub voice,” she concludes, and makes a swift exit before Tibor can make good on his offer of taking her home. “No woman ever found peace in a taxi. I’m looking for a limousine.” However much she really likes the guy, it’s dough, not romance, that this dame is after.
At the swanky soiree onto which she happens when dodging those driving forces (the Hungarian, the rain, and the subconscious), the Czerny handle proves somewhat of a liability. The assembled high society assumes Eve to be one of the Czernys—a baroness, no less. And while it proves a breeze for Eve to slide around the foreign angle by alleging to be a Czerny by marriage, not birth, she slips on a treacherous bit of trivia and soon blows her cover.
When asked about that “most enchanting” city of Budapest, where she claims to have left her ailing husband, the baron, she is dealt a trick question about the town’s famous subway. “Did they ever finish that?” a guest at the dull get-together she’s managed to infiltrate inquires. “The streets are still a little torn up,” she responds, rather flustered. Her inquisitor did not need to hear any more to know this Eve from Adam. The Budapest metro, after all, is one of the oldest subways in the world, and Miss Peabody is little more than an impersonatrix eager to get away from a past that involved being squeezed each day into the Bronx local.
According to Hollywood justice, Eve gets away with it all . . . and walks away on the arm of Czerny to boot. In fact, having gotten it wrong works out all right for her. History, geography, facts and figures—none of that matters, Midnight suggests, as long as you’ve got beauty, charm and moxie. Considering that I still know so little about my destination, and a gold lamé gown like Eve’s does so little to enhance whatever charm I might have, I’d better cram plenty of moxie into that duffle bag of mine.