Remember the Night December 24, 2006Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1940s , trackback
I’m continuing my unofficial series on films unavailable on DVD that were directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by brilliant future writer-directors (see Midnight) with Remember the Night, from 1940. Scripted by Preston Sturges, the film is set at Christmas in New York City (although Paramount released it in early January for some reason, probably the worst time of the year to release a Christmas-themed movie). After catching up with the film recently via its Turner Classic Movies debut, I searched around the internet for information about this neglected gem. I read almost everything I could find about the film, which wasn’t much, and nearly every article or blurb seemed to point out its status as a forgotten Christmas treasure with a perfect balance of sentimentality and humor. Well then, why, I wondered, is Remember the Night not better known, even among classic film buffs.
It certainly seems to have the pedigree. Leisen was a capable director who had just made the wonderful Midnight, written for the screen by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, the year before. Sturges was a true wunderkind who began his string of classic comedies the year after Remember the Night, which would be the last screenplay he wrote but didn’t also direct, was released. Stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray are genuinely likeable, popular actors who reteamed for one of the absolute greatest movies of all time four years later when they made Double Indemnity so one would think that the interest would definitely be there in that regard.
The cast of supporting characters is quite good as well, with Beulah Bondi and Sterling Holloway (who’d go on to voice such Disney characters as Winnie the Pooh and the Cheshire Cat) featured prominently. There are no legal problems regarding its showing or release to home video (it was released on VHS, but prices are now outrageously hefty for a copy). Universal controls those rights, from their lucrative deal with Paramount, but thus far there’s been no hint that they’re interested in providing a DVD release, even though the print shown on TCM looked quite good and absent any significant damage.
Then there’s the film itself, which is not quite at the level of other films scripted by Sturges, but still manages to be highly enjoyable. It’s genuinely moving and romantic at times, as well as offering a decent amount of humor. Opening with a shot of a woman’s wristwatch in a jewelry store, we soon realize that she has left the store without paying for her expensive timepiece. She’s later caught trying to pawn the watch and arrested. The next scenes take place in a courtroom with prosecutor Fred MacMurray trying to convict the shoplifter, played by the enchanting Barbara Stanwyck. MacMurray’s problem is that it’s much more difficult, he claims, to persuade a jury to convict near Christmas, especially when the accused is female.
Following an over-the-top summation by the defense attorney, who posits that his client may have been hypnotized by the shiny jewels (!), MacMurray wins a continuance to have the trial postponed until after Christmas, leaving Stanwyck in jail for the holiday. With his guilt getting the better of him, MacMurray has a bail bondsman provide her release and the next thing you know the two are on their way to Indiana, where it just so happens both of them are from. Not surprisingly, although it never seems like a foregone conclusion in these actors’ hands, the two grow closer during their time away from the big city and they begin to dread the pending remainder of the trial. The ending shouldn’t be spoiled, but it’s well done and comparatively realistic despite being somewhat unsatisfying.
While MacMurray is effective and an enjoyable screen presence, the film really belongs to Barbara Stanwyck. As anyone who’s seen The Lady Eve, directed by Sturges a year later, can attest, she was at her alluring height at this time and her performance here is really of a high caliber. I read one article on the film that mentioned Sturges’ original script focused much more on MacMurray’s character, but Leisen was very impressed with Stanwyck and altered the final product to make her the main character. If this is accurate then it was a good decision by Leisen (who didn’t always have the best instincts in such situations and didn’t appreciate input from his screenwriters), catering to the strengths of both MacMurray, who evokes a perfect sense of noble understatement, and Stanwyck, who excelled at playing strong female characters while retaining just the right amount of sensitivity.
Now, returning to the idea of Remember the Night as an underseen Christmas classic, it’s worth mentioning that the film doesn’t have a lot of the things found in other, more enduring holiday films. While there’s a healthy dash of humor, it’s more romance than comedy overall with the romance not really kicking in for much of the picture and, even then, unavoidably as somewhat of a doomed proposition given the circumstances. Also, the sentimentality is never grating and not as heavy as in many other holiday-themed classics. In fact, Christmas serves mostly as a backdrop for the story, necessary to bring these two together, and not as the film’s main attraction. The only scene that feels truly to belong in a Christmas-themed film is when MacMurray’s family, along with Stanwyck, are gathered around their tree. Of course, many of the themes in the film are closely tied to Christmas and certainly appropriate to the holiday. Nevertheless, my point is that it works as a seasonal favorite while also playing well other times of the year, more so than, say, Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life.
Unfortunately, the use of Fred “Snowflake” Toones as MacMurray’s butler Rufus is, despite being thankfully brief and only in the first part of the film, cringingly offensive to today’s audiences and troubling enough to make me wonder if it may have contributed to Remember the Night’s unavailability on DVD. I’m not a believer in censoring or ignoring shameful moments in cinema history, but I can also see (even if I don’t agree with) the argument for suppressing such hurtful content. The problem thus lies in the numerous instances in classic movies with racially insensitive scenes, making it virtually impossible to release unaltered versions of many otherwise worthy films without including some offensive content. The only real solution is to trust the audience enough to allow for these films to be released despite their undesirable moments, with the hope that we can learn from past mistakes and recognize the wrongness in such scenes.
Despite those brief, distasteful moments, Remember the Night remains a more than worthy candidate for DVD release and a welcome addition to the holiday film catalog. There are enough of the staples we’ve come to expect from such films, while also providing a refreshing absence of cloying sentimentality. As in It’s a Wonderful Life, there are some serious themes and darker ideas explored in Remember the Night that would please the cynical viewers who are fed up with more saccharine fare. And the romance between the tough prosecutor and his accused is effective enough to melt even the most Grinch-like of hearts. All in all, it’s a fine film made even more enjoyable by its relative obscurity, which adds a sense of discovery that’s becoming increasingly rare nowadays.