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It's not often when a new contender for "Christmas movie" comes to light, but this one has grown in popularity since Universal seemingly rediscovered it in around 2008. Mitchell Leisen's Remember the Night is a witty and sentimental 1940 romantic comedy starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. Its nearly perfect screenplay is the last completed by Preston Sturges before he made the jump to full writer-director status. Several gags will resonate with viewers familiar with Sturges's string of wartime comedy hits, such as a funny cross-eyed portrait and an unexpected encounter with an affectionate cow. That and a lively New Year's barn dance party are definite "Hey Hey in the Hayloft" material -- a joke title Sturges invented for his marvelous Sullivan's Travels.
Unlike Sturges's later comedies, Remember the Night is not a farce. Despite the Paramount glamour treatment and the Christmas theme the heroine's legal problems can't be wished away; crime and romance both have consequences. Stanwyck's tough-girl heroine puts a spin on Sturges's dialogue, which varies from slick and clever to downright earnest:
John: "How'd you like to go home for Christmas?
Lee: Oh, Gee!
It's snowing in New York, and life is as tough as usual. As Christmas approaches, Assistant District Attorney John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) has no intention of missing his holiday trip back home to Indiana. He sees an opportunity to postpone a trial, a convenience for him that will result in defendant and career shoplifter Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck), spending Christmas and New Year's in jail. Feeling guilty, John arranges Lee's bail and volunteers to drive her to her mother's house on his road trip west. He'll pick her up on his way back. John makes an immediate impression on the streetwise Lee, as she's not accustomed to this kind of chivalry.
The drop-off doesn't work out, in a scene of harsh motherly rejection that gives us an insight on Lee's life of petty crime. John thoughtfully offers to take Lee home with him to the family farm.
Mother Sargent (Beulah Bondi) warms to Lee immediately, and when told that she's a criminal, refuses to be scandalized or to change her opinion. John's sweet Aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson) is written as a fully dimensional character and not a stock Old Maid. Sturges and director Leisen conjure a time when families were close enough that old folks could vicariously share some of the experiences of the younger generation. Lee blossoms in the climate of acceptance. It's apparent that in surroundings as loving as these she'd have become a different person entirely.
Remember the Night succeeds because it generates an undeniably warm feeling about its characters, which is partly due to the leeway granted a fine set of actors -- "art director" Mitchell Leisen has been underestimated for a very long time. 1 Aunt Emma has a fine scene helping Lee dress up in an ancient party dress requiring a corset and a half dozen undergarments. The sentimental high point comes at a piano sing-along. Hayseed farmhand Willie Simms (Sterling Holloway) wants to sing a solo, even though Mrs. Sargent tries to stop him. But the excitable fellow has a beautiful voice, and his The End of a Perfect Day is a gem ... a keeper for any montage of classic movie sing-along scenes and a marvelous appreciation of the beloved actor. This violation of star prerogative -- granting the big song to the supporting clown -- registers extremely well, lending Remember the Night genuine warmth. Sterling Holloway should sound familiar even for viewers that don't know his face: he provided the voice for Disney's Winnie the Pooh.
Why this moving film hasn't already won recognition as a solid Christmas contender may be PC-related. Fred MacMurray's character treats the bumbling valet Rufus (Fred "Snowflake" Toones) like a near-moron. In the 1970s more than a few classic films were pulled from TV distribution or screened less frequently because of their racial content.
This is the first pairing of stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, who would of course make an even bigger impression together four years later in Double Indemnity. It is really Stanwyck's film all the way; her Lee Leander goes through most of the emotional changes. That Lee seems rather glamorous for a destitute shoplifter is irrelevant. Stanwyck handles Preston Sturges's mildly risqué jokes in high style:
John: I suppose you know that's called arson?
Lee: No. I thought that was when you pinch somebody.
The trial scene back in the city is not the expected Screwball farce; Lee is facing real jail time. Sturges opts for a tough-bittersweet fade-out of the kind that Billy Wilder might admire, and leaves us with a heady mix of emotions. Remember the Night really makes an impact.
Preston Sturges and Mitchell Leisen would appear to be the perfect writer-director team; their previous collaboration was the charming Depression fantasy Easy Living. Sturges reportedly criticized Leisen's alteration of Fred MacMurray's character from the script's more self-involved egoist. Leisen responded that the change was necessary to fit MacMurray's personality. MacMurray certainly seems slick enough in his early scenes; perhaps he couldn't play cynical and sincere at the same time.
The TCM Vault Collection Blu-ray of Remember the Night follows up their DVD of five years previous with an even better transfer. With certain exceptions, Universal did not jump on the DVD bandwagon to the extent that Warners and MGM did. Universal controls the pre- 1948 Paramount library, end it is even less represented on disc of either format.
This movie was produced at perhaps the most stylish studio of its day. By 1940 Paramount's house style benefitted from the most elegant process shots in the business. When Lee and John take a nighttime walk at Niagara Falls the camera trucks with them. Neither the camera nor the rear-projected background of The Falls actually moves; instead, the entire pathway set that they walk on is being rolled underneath them, like a treadmill.
The extras begin with a TCM Robert Osborne intro and an informative text essay written in the style found on the TCM website. An original trailer follows, as well as galleries of photos and poster artwork. Finally, two selections from Turner's massive collection of filmed interviews feature art director Henry Bumstead and actress Constance Moore, who offer memories of director Mitchell Leisen. They recall the former art director as being a fussy but efficient professional; Ms. Moore likens him to James Whale.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Remember the Night Blu-ray rates:
1. Fine Mitchell Leisen pictures, admittedly written by some of the best Hollywood writers ever: Hands Across the Table, Midnight, Easy Living, Hold Back the Dawn, Lady in the Dark, To Each His Own, No Man of Her Own, The Mating Season.
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T'was Ever Thus.