Remember the Night (1940)

Remember the Night has become one of my favorite films not only at Christmas but throughout the year.  First and foremost it has Barbara Stanwyck, who in 1940 was hitting full stride with a string of fantastic comedies that also showed her dramatic capabilities.  Shortly after this film she made The Lady Eve (1940), followed by Meet John Doe (1941) and Ball of Fire (1941).  All were done with top-notch directors: Preston Sturges, Frank Capra and Howard Hawks.  Four years later she would stun everyone under Billy Wilder’s direction in Double Indemnity (1944), which co-starred Fred MacMurray, who is the second reason I love Remember the Night. If you are used to MacMurray only from TV’s My Three Sons, then you must see Remember and Double to see what skills he had as actor in both romantic comedy and film noir.  My third reason for loving this film is the script by Preston Sturges and how it provided the catalyst to his career as a director.  Long recognized as a skilled writer for such films as The Power and the Glory, Easy Living and The Good Fairy, Sturges had grown increasingly upset with directors who tinkered with his scripts.  Mitchell Leisen, who directed both Easy Living and Remember the Night, was Sturges’ main antagonist. Ironically, Leisen is the fourth reason I love this film.  Remember the Night first introduced me to Leisen’s work, which includes some true gems: Easy Living (1937), Midnight (19439), Kitty (1945) and The Mating Season (1951).  Finally, of course, this film has a wonderful group of character actors who help bring this film so richly to life and who reappear in several fine Christmas films.

PLOT SUMMARY

Lee Leander (Stanwyck) has been arrested for stealing a bracelet from a Fifth Avenue jewelry store.  It’s her third offense, and assistant district attorney John Sergeant (MacMurray) has been tapped to convict her.  Sensing that the jury is feeling forgiving just before Christmas, he has the trial postponed till after the new year but then feels guilty for leaving Lee in jail for the holidays and arranges her bail.  Realizing that they are both from Indiana, he offers to take her home for the holidays.  In a particularly dark scene, Sergeant learns how much Lee’s mother hates her, so he offers to take her to visit his family.  Lee begins to fall for the lawyer, and he begins to fall for her, even though the relationship could damage his career.  Returning to Manhattan after the holidays, he tries to throw the case, but Lee sacrifices herself, pleading guilty in a tear-jerking conclusion.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The story begins just a few days before Christmas, features a sentimental family Christmas Eve party, including popcorn being strung into garlands for the tree, and an old-fashioned barn dance on New Year’s Eve.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Sargent) will be seen again as George Bailey’s mother in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  She also played Jimmy Stewart’s mother in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).  Other notable, sympathetic roles for Bondi included The Good Fairy (1935) and Penny Serenade (1941).

Elizabeth Patterson (Aunt Emma) had a long career ranging from roles in Dinner at Eight (1933) and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) to an extended role as Mrs. Trumbull in 11 episodes of  I Love Lucy (1954-1956).  She also played Aunt Blanche in the Bulldog Drummond movie series.  She appeared again in the Sturges film Hail the Conquering Hero (1944).  Her other roles include Lady on a Train (1945) and Hannah in Little Women (1949).

Sterling Holloway (Willie) makes a reappearance on our holiday film list.  He played the cashier at the diner in Meet John Doe (1941).

Charles Waldron (the New York judge) had his most notable role as General Sternwood in The Big Sleep (1946).  He also appeared in the fine comedy The Devil and Miss Jones (1941).

Paul Guilfoyle (District Attorney) appeared with Barbara Stanwyck in The Mad Miss Manton (1938).  He had small notable roles in two classics: Floyd in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and as the man shot by Jimmy Cagney in the trunk of a car in White Heat (1949).

Charles Arnt (Tom) we have already seen in Christmas in Connecticut (1945). He appeared in two classics with William Powell: as Billings in I Love You Again (1940) and as a drunk in After the Thin Man (1936).

John Wray (Hank the farmer) also had several notable roles, including I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), the desperate farmer in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and the prison gang overseer in Gone with the Wind (1939).

Georgia Caine, who plays Stanwyck’s cruel mother in this film, had sympathetic roles in two Sturges films: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944).

Fred Toones (Rufus) appeared in many classic films: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Twentieth Century (1934), Imitation of Life (1934), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and two by Preston Sturges — Christmas in July (1940) and  The Palm Beach Story (1942).

Tom Kennedy (Fat Mike) had a long career in movies and television. Two of his notable film roles are with the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business (1931) and the classic musical 42nd Street (1933).

Chester Clute (jewelry salesman) we have already seen in  It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947) and Bachelor Mother (1939). He appeared in three Cary Grant films — Night and Day (1946), My Favorite Wife (1940) and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). He also had roles in Saratoga Trunk (1945), Lady on a Train (1945) and You Can’t Take It With You (1938).

Spencer Charters (judge at rummage sale) appeared as the marriage license clerk in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and also appeared in Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).  He had three roles in William Powell films: The Kennel Murder Case (1933), Libeled Lady (1936) and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936).  And he also plays in an interesting, underrated film with Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan — The Moon’s Our Home (1936).

Julius Tannen (complaining jury member in the closing sequence) we have already seen in The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek (1943).  He was a regular member of the Sturges stock company, including the lovely film, Unfaithfully Yours (1948).

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Charles Waldron appeared on stage with Fred Astaire in Actors Equity Benefit at the Metropolitan Opera on May 9, 1920.

Paul Guilfoyle played the elevator starter in the Astaire-Rogers film Carefree (1938).

Georgia Caine played a charwoman in Astaire’s The Sky’s the Limit (1943).

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

Beyond the five reasons mentioned earlier, I love the carefully constructed camera shots.  Pay particular attention to the scene where Beulah Bondi asks Barbara Stanwyck to give up Fred MacMurray and how we see Stanwyck’s fateful promise made with her back turned to Bondi while we see her face in the mirror.  It is a beautifully directed and acted scene.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies has Remember the Night available on demand with its WatchTCM app through December 30.

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