Remember The Night (1940) – A Review
It’s Christmas season and Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) has just been arrested for shoplifting. New York prosecutor John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) knows getting a conviction during the holidays can be a bit problematic with a jury in such a jolly mood. People are a little less willing to send a shoplifter to prison, even if it’s crystal clear she’s guilty.
Wanting to ensure an easy case, John manages to get Lee’s trial postponed until after the Christmas holiday. So Lee is let out on bail, but has nowhere to go and nowhere to spend Christmas. Now feeling he’s responsible for her, Sargent invites her to come along with him to spend Christmas with his family back home in Indiana.
And what a coincidence they find out they’re both Hoosiers! What a small world.
Lee and John take to the road to Indiana. After a few misadventures they end up spending Christmas with John’s family,who take an immediate liking to this mystery woman. They would love to see the two end up together somehow, as would the audience. I don’t think anyone needs to worry about that outcome very much.
Directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by the great Preston Sturges, Remember the Night is a great holiday gem that somehow doesn’t get as much attention as it should. I’m not sure why exactly. It’s very entertaining, sweet, funny, sad, romantic, an old fashioned Christmas takes place, it has two big stars who are both terrific in it. This should be a more popular movie during the Christmas season.
Perhaps it’s the title – ‘Remember the Night’. It’s an extremely bland, unmemorable title for a movie. You could use that title for any kind of movie! Comedy, romance, drama, horror, thriller – anything will work with ‘Remember the Night’!
The title never sticks in my head and I’m a fan of this movie. They should have come up with something else to call it. But don’t let the blah title put you off, Remember the Night is very good.
By the way, if you’re used to seeing MacMurray and Stanwyck plan a murder together in Double Indemnity you’ll be in for a shock at how sweet the pair are together in this. This is world’s away from those dastardly characters they played in that film noir.
The prosecutor and shoplifter travel back to Indiana and Stanwyck is given a very cold reception by her mother – a heartbreaking scene. From there MacMurray invites her to stay with him and his family for the holiday. His family is a complete contrast to her broken homelife she had run away from. Lee had never experienced a Christmas like this before.
Lee is greeted with warm, inviting open arms from MacMurray’s mother, aunt and his cousin. They welcome her and treat her as as new member of the family, even after they learn what her and John’s relationship really is. Having a guest who’s out on bail might put some people off, but not in this home. It’s Christmas afterall!
MacMurray finds himself conflicted, since he begins to fall for Lee. Plus, his family does their best to casually try to push these two together. But what is John supposed to do? He knows after Christmas wraps up he’s supposed to send Lee to prison. And given the Hays Code at the time a character guilty of a crime MUST be punished! So how can this possibly end other than in a heartbreaking way?
It’s this conundrum that makes Remember the Night so enjoyable. It’s a classic romantic tale where we know these two are meant for each other, but there’s a major roadblock for them to overcome. This could easily become sappy and preposterous (and in some ways it is), but Sturges’ script and the actors really make it all work.
Stanwyck and MacMurray are both so incredibly charming, likable and have such great chemistry that it’s a joy to follow them from the big city to the country. Stanwyck looks as great as ever. I wonder if shoplifters in 1940 really looked like her. Did they even have come close to being in Stanwyck’s league?
Anyway, Stanwyck was great at playing tough spitfire gals. She also could play more sympathetic roles. Here, we get them both.
She starts as the jaded cynical city gal. Her and MacMurray’s relationship begins with tough attitudes and bickering patter. That’s not surprising since they are prosecutor and criminal afterall. But those hostile attitudes slowly ebb away into sweet glances and smiles as they learn more about one another during this holiday. As we watch their edges get smoothed down, you can’t help, but root for them – even if she’s a serial shoplifter who he’s supposed to be sending to prison.
There’s some real touching, amusing scenes – Lee’s unexpected shock by being given a present by the family, MacMurray’s aunt trying to convince him that Lee is a good cook.
When the inevitable does begin to happen it’s MacMurray’s mother played by the wonderful Beulah Bondi who becomes concerned about the repercussions for her son’s career and reputation if he falls for a criminal. She confronts Lee about her worries and Stanwyck’s defeated reaction in this scene is great.
Stanwyck goes through the mill during this Christmas season. My heart breaks watching her in these emotional scenes.
But don’t get too down, there’s plenty of humor to keep your spirits lifted. The movie is filled with entertaining comedic performances. From Stanwyck’s overzealous lawyer to a country judge who MacMurray and Stanwyck find themselves in front of.
There’s one scene that I always remember where Lee is being given an old dress to wear for the holiday Christmas dance. John’s mother unwraps it and we see a headline on one of the crumbled newspapers that has sat protecting this dress since it was put away. From the headline we realize just how old this dress really is! It’s a very stylish and clever joke.
You might hear the popular phrase ‘they don’t make movies like that anymore’ to describe Remember the Night. That is accurate and is meant to be a high compliment.
I know Turner Classic Movies usually airs it during the Christmas season. That’s where I first saw it and was very pleasantly surprised by it. Since then it has become one of my favorite holiday films. It’s definitely worth looking for.
Maybe if they called this movie Christmas in Indiana it would get more attention. It certainly deserves it. Don’t miss it again this year.