Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Remember The Night

Premiered January 19, 1940.

Shortly before Christmas, Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) shoplifts an expensive bracelet and is subsequently arrested.  When her defense lawyer Francis X. O'Leary (Willard Robertson) suggests Lee committed the crime under hypnosis, her trial is delayed until after Christmas.

John and O'Leary face off during in court.
Prosecuting attorney John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) takes pity on Lee and doesn't want her to spend Christmas in jail.  He pays a bail bondsman named Fat Mike (Tom Kennedy) to get her out of jail for the holidays.  Fat Mike, thinking John has romantic feelings towards Lee, drops her off at Sargent's apartment.

Fat Mike takes Lee to John Sargent's apartment.  John's butler Rufus (Fred Toones) answers the door.
John is not happy about this and asks her to leave, but Lee has nowhere to go.

This is problematic, since John is getting ready to drive 750 miles to visit his mother in Wabash, Indiana.  During their dinner conversation, John learns that Lee is also from Indiana, about 50 miles away from John's mother.  They bond a bit over this and John agrees to drop her off at her mother's house and pick her up when he returns to New York.  Lee is touched by this offer and accepts it.

There trip to Indiana does not go smoothly.  Highway repairs cause them to take an alternate route and John crashes his car into a farmer's cow pasture in Pennsylvania.

They're arrested and charged with trespassing and petty larceny (for milking the farmer's cow).   While standing trial, Lee causes a diversion and they flee the state, which makes them fugitives.

When they arrive at Lee's old home, her mother (Georgia Caine) is not happy to see her.  She confronts Lee for taking money from her and never paying her back years earlier.

She wants nothing to do with Lee and reduces her daughter to tears.  John decides that he can't leave Lee there and brings her to his family home instead.

When they arrive the home  of John's mother (Beulah Bondi), her reaction is the exact opposite to Lee's mother.   Mrs. Sargent is delighted to receive an unexpected Christmas guest.  She lives in the family home with her sister (and John's aunt) Emma (Elizabeth Patterson) and Willie (Sterling Holloway), who works for them as a field hand.  

Lee joins them in their holiday preparations, stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree.

John and Lee take turns playing piano, Willie sings along with Lee's playing.  It is a wonderful Christmas celebration, Lee has never experienced anything like this.

Mrs. Sargent believes that John and Lee are in love.  John fills his mother in on Lee's legal issues.   His mother is heartbroken when she hears about this, but feels sorry for Lee.

On Christmas morning, the Sargents exchange gifts and have presents for Lee.  She is treated like a member of the family.

Over the next several days, Lee grows closer to John.  They attend a barn dance on New Year's Eve and share a "Happy New Year" kiss at midnight.  John and Lee are falling for each other.

Later that night, Mrs. Sargent has a private conversation with Lee.  She tells of how poor they were when John was growing up.  He worked early in the morning and after school, paying for his education, working extremely hard to get where he is.  Mrs. Sargent likes Lee, but fears that John would destroy everything he worked for if he falls for Lee.

Will John and Lee find a happily ever after?  Or will Lee have to face the music in prison?

J.A. Morris says:

I've been a fan of the work of director/screenwriter Preston Sturges (who wrote the script for this film) and Barbara Stanwyck for a long time.  But I hadn't seen Remember The Night until recently, since it was "out of circulation" for decades.

It's a good Christmas movie with some great holiday scenes.  John's invitation to help Lee is a wonderful Christmas gift.  There have been several Christmases in my life where my family has invited friends to spend part of Christmas with us, if they had nowhere else to go.  John barely knows Lee, but realizes she'll spend Christmas on the streets and (eventually) welcomes her into his family home.

The two leads have an interesting discussion about morality and why Lee steals.  When asked if he steal a loaf of bread if he was couldn't afford one, he says yes.  Lee says she'd simply go to an expensive restaurant and claim she forgot to bring her purse.  Remember The Night deals with subject matter that's a bit heavier than the average old time Hollywood romantic drama.

Georgina Caine, in a cameo role as Lee's mother, is also good.  She's one of the cruelest people you'll ever see in a Christmas movie.  

If I have problems with this movie, it's that it requires some major suspensions of disbelief, even by the standards of 1940s Hollywood films.  John and Lee talk about how their relationship could jeopardize John's legal career.  But I'm pretty sure that bailing her out of jail, let alone driving Lee to Indiana would be enough to get John disbarred.  Tabloid newspapers were around in the New York at the time and would've pounced on such a scandal.  So the story is a bit hard to believe.

But that's okay, since we get such great acting from Barbara Stanwyck.  During so many scenes, Stanwyck is able to convey how happy Lee is to be with John's family through facial expressions alone.  After watching this film, I believe Stanwyck could have had a long career in silent movies.

Fred MacMurray gives does a nice job playing off Stanwyck.  The two of them appeared together in several movies, most notably the classic film noir Double Indemnity.  Their chemistry from that movie is also on display in Remember The Night.

The scene where the Sargents exchange Christmas gifts manages to be very touching and sentimental, without being at all maudlin or cloying.

It was also nice to see a New Year celebration.  There are tons of Christmas movies, but very few films or specials that celebrate the New Year.  The New Year's Eve barn dance makes Remember The Night feel even more festive.

The citizens of Wabash celebrate the New Year.
 Some notes about the supporting cast:

John's butler Rufus is played by character actor Fred Toones.  He's listed in the credits as"Snowflake," since African American actors were often forced to use degrading pseudonyms in old movies.

Rufus is an ugly stereotypical character, something that was very common in films of this era.  In Rufus' first scene, John calls him a "dumbbell" to his face.   There's a later scene where John says of Rufus, "He's not very bright, but he can cook."  I try not to judge pop culture of the past by standards of today, but John's treatment of Rufus seems cruel even for 1940.  It sort of took me out of the movie and made me like John a bit less.  The sad thing is that you can see that Toones had comedic talent, even in a thankless role like Rufus.

Toomes acted in over 200 films and TV shows between 1932 and 1951.  His credits include classics like I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, A Star Is Born and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

Mrs. Sargent is portrayed by Beulah Bondi.  She isn't familiar to younger viewers, but she was a prominent actress in the 1930s through the 1970s.

Bondi received two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress.  She later made several guest appearances on The Waltons TV series, which earned Bondi an Emmy Award at age 88.

Remember The Night marks a turning point in Sturges' career.  Mitchell Liesen, who directed the movie made edits to the script that Sturges didn't like.  After that, Sturges would direct all the films that he wrote.

This movie is available on DVD and also is also shown frequently on Turner Classic Movies.

While Remember The Night has a plot that is sometimes hard to swallow, it features some excellent acting by Barbara Stanwyck and some wonderful holiday sentiments.

J.A. Morris' rating:

3 candy canes.

A studio promotional photo for Remember The Night.

RigbyMel says:

Remember the Night was new to me in the past couple of years.   As J.A. Morris says above,  the acting is great, but the story has a tendency to strain credulity.    The judge in charge of Lee's trial actually sees her out at dinner with John and recognizes them both -- I think that alone would be cause for a mistrial at best and at worst could well see John disbarred.    (To say nothing of later events in the movie -- crossing state lines, going into Canada, etc.)

John and Lee share a kiss ... at Niagara Falls!
But I don't think the plot, such as it is,  is entirely the point with this movie -- it is more to do with the characters interacting and also with playing on the sense of nostalgia we tend to get around the holiday season.   This is evidenced by the goodness of the Sargent family -- they take an unknown woman and treat her like one of the family.

The barn dance is a deliberately archaic look back to a perceived "simpler time." The characters even joke about it: "This year we're having an old-fashioned barn dance like the hicks we're supposed to be."   At the same time, everybody gets gussied up in 19th century finery for the event.

Aunt Emma helps Lee squeeze into a corset!  To quote another movie,  "Hold on, and suck in!"
It's interesting to see Sterling Holloway -- best known to modern audiences as the original voice of Winnie the Pooh in various Disney shorts -- in a live action role.   (I don't know that I'd ever seen a live action film with him before.)   He sings a sentimental old parlor song,  "A Perfect Day" (first published in 1910),  in a rather sweet scene featuring the Sargent family gathered around the piano.  (Another nostalgic touch!)

Sterling Holloway and friend at Disneyland  some years after Remember the Night was filmed.
The warm, fuzzy nostalgia is contrasted with the quite literally dark  -- both in lighting and content --  scene where Lee's mother rejects her once again.   Late December is, of course, the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and perhaps the light of nostalgia at the holidays is helpful in getting through the darkness.

Singing at the piano
The actors and the nice Christmas and New Year's Eve touches make the thin plot of this movie watchable.  It's fun,  but not quite a classic.

RigbyMel's rating:


2 and a half candy canes.

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