Remember the Night (1940)
Last year I did a “Favorites” list for Christmas inviting comments about it and readers’ own favorite movies. One that was recommended by Cristiane is “Remember the Night.” It took me a while to find a copy of it but I finally did. Then it took me a while to actually watch it but once I did, I could easily see why it’s such a favorite of those who’ve seen it.
Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is a career shoplifter who gets caught just before Christmas. John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) is the assistant DA assigned to prosecute her case. As he tells an assistant, getting a conviction against a female defendant at any time is hard but it’s almost impossible right before Christmas. Or at least if might have been hard in 1940. When the defense attorney (Willard Robertson) looks to almost have the jury convinced of Lee’s innocence – with an amazing performance to which he ought to sell tickets – Sargent pulls a stunt to get the trial postponed until after the holidays.
But upon learning that Lee will be locked up in jail over Christmas, he feels sorry for her and goes her bail. Then, after he finds out she’s a fellow Hoosier (from the state of Indiana), he offers to drop her off at her mother’s home on his way to see his own family. When they reach Lee’s hometown, she’s rejected by her mother (Georgia Caine) and John then takes her home with him. As the two spend more time together, an unlikely love starts to blossom. Yet, what will happen when the trial resumes in the new year?
Cristiane, if you’re reading this, thank you for this recommendation. It is a wonderful Preston Sturges script which is directed in an understated way by Mitchell Leisen and which features superb actors. Unfortunately, it is caught up in the group of Paramount films which were sold to MCA/Universal and which don’t appear to be getting much if any distribution as DVDs. Which truly is a shame since here’s a Christmas themed film which goes ought to be seen more.
Someone at IMDB stated that this is about as close to a noir holiday romance/comedy as you can get and I totally agree. If you’re tired of overdone holiday sentimentality in your movies – not that holiday sentimentality is a bad thing but the overdose level can be quickly reached – “Remember the Night” can help de-sugar you. It might start off as a bit of a screwball comedy but don’t let that lull you into thinking that’s all it is. It quickly becomes so much more than that. The movie is a series of contrasts – swanky NYC and bucolic Americana, street smart crook Lee and honest, honorable attorney John, Lee’s horrible home life and John’s warm family that embraces Lee like an eiderdown quilt, Lee’s determination to save John and his to save her. And just when you think it is headed one way emotionally, Sturges subtly switches directions on you with the touch of a master who manages to avoid making me feel as if I’m being manipulated.
While it might initially appear to have a silly plot set up, there are actually no dumb hijinks to it. John discovers Lee is from his home state, to which he’s driving for the holidays, and from a town only 50 miles from his. What could be easier than to offer her a ride there and back? Especially since it’s something his down-to-earth, honorable character would do. The couple even joke about how it all sounds like something from a corny movie. But after an amusing sequence in which Lee saves the pair from being convicted of trespassing and theft – of milk from a farmer’s cow – comes a gut wrenching scene in which Lee arrives home only to discover that her cold mother will have nothing to do with her. Watch for the delicate way John extricates Lee using tact and gentlemanly courtesy and how he comforts her as she weeps while her mother turns off the lights and goes back to bed. Here is a beta hero to fight any heroine’s battles.
The action then moves to John’s home where they greet Lee like a long lost daughter. Surrounded by such love, her hard shell starts to melt as she watches John play the piano – badly – just because his mother (Beulah Bondi) is so proud of him, learns his aunt Emma’s (Elizabeth Patterson) secret for baking popovers and plays a duet with their farmhand Willie (Sterling Holloway of Disney movie vocal fame). And after Mrs. Sargent is finally convinced of Lee’s past, she cries for Lee even as she asks Lee to give John up so as not to ruin his reputation.
Now this is where this movie rises above mere comedy or holiday schmaltz. This is where we see just how much Lee and John love each other because they are two diametrically opposed characters having to face the reality of the situation which existed before they fell in love. I will admit to being slightly surprised at the ending but after I thought about it, I remembered that in 1940 the Hays Code was still in effect. There really is no other way the film could have ended and yet, I’m not depressed about it. I’ve been so convinced about the depth of Lee and John’s love for each other, that I know eventually all will end well for them even if they will have to make adjustments for her past.
Laughter, tears, smart dialogue, excellent performances and a view of life in 1940 (you might want to look up what WPA means and remember that cars didn’t have heaters then) – this film has it all. Well, almost all as there are sour notes struck with the characters of John’s valet Rufus (Fred Toones) and “Fat” Mike (Tom Kennedy) the Irish bail bondsman – yep this was very pre-PC Hollywood. But it’s also got a love story that makes me believe in it and be happy to watch it again. B+
So, how can you see this film? There is a Region 1 DVD-R release from Universal but it’s pricey. There are also used VHS tapes for sale. A quick check of ebay also shows some Region 2 DVDs for sale but again the price is steep. Turner Classic Movies has it scheduled for December 24th at midnight EST. Check their website to be sure of the timing for your time zone. And thanks to Jeanne, I now know that it’s up on youtube!