By Alan Hurst
Remember the Night starts off as a snappy and fast paced comedy, very typical of the genre in the late thirties and early forties. But then it takes you places you aren’t expecting – first a little risqué (but not really) and then it becomes quite dark, almost threatening. But minutes later we are in the midst of a picture-perfect Christmas celebration that would make Norman Rockwell blush.
An unsung gem from writer Preston Sturges and director Mitchell Leisen, over the last few years Remember the Night has found its place at the pinnacle of holiday films, thanks to Turner Classic Movies and a DVD release a few years ago. I was thrilled when it finally came out on DVD because my VHS copy was about to disintegrate. The film was a hit and reasonably well reviewed when it came out in 1940, but over the years it was overshadowed by other Sturges classics that he both wrote and directed such as The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). For me Remember the Night is one of his best stories and a near perfect balance of comedy and drama, cynicism and idealism.
Barbara Stanwyck stars as a woman who’s caught shoplifting and faces spending Christmas in jail, thanks to the DA (Fred MacMurray) getting the trial pushed to after the holidays in the hopes of getting a jury not so filled with the holiday spirit. MacMurray starts to feel guilty about her situation, so he gets Stanwyck out on bail with the promise of driving her to see her family in Indiana as he heads home to see his. On the way they have a comical run-in with a gun toting farmer, but when they get to her mother’s place it becomes very clear that this cold, bitter woman has never had any use or love for her daughter, so MacMurray invites Stanwyck home to spend Christmas with his family.
Up to this point the film has shifted gears from lightweight comedy to bleak reality – the scene in Stanwyck’s hometown is like a slap in the face. But then very quickly we’re at the most beautiful farmhouse you can imagine, with snow on the ground, cookies in the oven and MacMurray’s mother (Beulah Bondi) and maiden Aunt (Elizabeth Patterson) there to greet them. They both welcome Stanwyck into their home with open arms, no questions asked. For the first time she sees what a true home and unconditional love feels like and, of course, she and MacMurray start to fall in love.
This entire section of the film is idealized to perfection and it’s wonderful to experience the impact of holidays through Stanwyck’s eyes before the inevitable trip back to New York and the reality of what’s facing her. Director Leisen balances the changes in tone beautifully with some really beautiful visual touches: the bleakness of the Stanwyk’s home town, the softly lit and melancholy tone of the aunt sharing the memory of her wedding dress, and an architecturally perfect house decorated to the definition of an old-fashioned Christmas. Leisen started filming soon after completing Midnight (1939) with Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche, a near perfect comedy that also benefitted from his keen visual sense.
Leisen was fortunate to have a terrific cast to work with. Both Stanwyck and MacMurray give two of their finest, most gentle performances. Stanwyck starts off all tough and streetwise, but you can see her soften and basically rehabilitate herself thanks to the unconditional support of MacMurray and his family. MacMurray’s character also goes through a transformation – but in the other direction. As they make their way back to New York through Ontario, he’s so in love and guilt ridden he suggests she avoid jail by staying in Canada. But she doesn’t. She knows what she has to do if there’s gong to be any kind of future for her and MacMurray.
Bondi and Patterson are also a delight and I think they’ll remind a lot of people of their own mothers, grandmothers, or aunts – their lighthearted bickering and contradicting of each other is very comical, but also endearing. You know these are two characters who would be lost without each other. Sterling Holloway is another a nice addition as the farm hand. If you don’t recognize his face, you’ll recognize the voice – he provided the vocals for Disney’s Winnie the Pooh in the late sixties and early seventies.
I’m glad this film is finally more accessible. I’ve been talking about it for years after an initial viewing on TV and now, thanks to the DVD, each year I’m able to make a few converts. While it’s not quite my favourite Christmas movie – for whatever sentimental reason The Bishop’s Wife (1947) still holds that spot – but it is right up there. Admittedly I have to be in the right frame of mind to deal with the icy piety of Stanwyck’s mother and the bittersweet but ultimately optimistic ending. This isn’t an easy watch like Holiday Inn (1942) or White Christmas (1954) – both great holiday films – but it is an ideal and ultimately more rewarding encapsulation of the holiday spirt.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.