Saturday, December 6, 2014

Stubs – Remember The Night

Remember The Night (1940) Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Beulah Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. Screenplay by Preston Sturges Produced by Mitchell Leisen Run Time: 86 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Comedy, Drama, Romance, Christmas

With Christmas approaching like a bullet train, Trophy Unlocked wanted to go down the snowy holiday lane again and take a look at some new-to-the-blog Christmas films. We start the new survey with Remember The Night (1940), released in January of that year. Back then, there wasn’t an emphasis on releasing holiday related films during the holiday season, as few of the classic films we associate with the holiday season actually came out in theaters at Christmastime. The film may take place during the winter, but production took place mostly during August 1939.

It’s Christmas in New York and Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) shoplifts an expensive bracelet from a Manhattan jewelry store. When she discovers no one is following her, she heads into a pawn shop, but the owner detains her and she’s arrested.

Trying a woman, and at Christmas, takes a certain touch and the District Attorney (Paul Guifoyle) chooses Assistant District Attorney John Sargeant (Fred MacMurray) to prosecute. Lee is represented by Francis X. O'Leary (Willard Robertson), a verbose defense attorney who spins a wild story for the jury, claiming that Lee was hypnotized by the sparkly jewels and weaving a story about how Lee was only trying to hawk the jewels in order to raise train fare to apologize to the owner of the jewelry store for taking them.

Even Lee (Barbara Stanwyck) doesn't believe what her lawyer is saying.

Fearing that the jury is thinking more about shopping than Lee’s guilt, John seizes on the hypnosis angle saying that would require the testimony of an expert, who is currently on holiday vacation. He asks and the Judge (Charles Waldron) grants a postponement until after New Year’s. Everyone can go home, except for Lee, who is held on $5,000 bail.

Feeling bad about her treatment, John arranges with bail bondsman Fat Mike (Tom Kennedy) to post her bail. Thinking he’s doing John a favor, Fat Mike does it for free and goes so far as to deliver Lee to John’s apartment. John’s servant, Rufus (Fred “Snowflake” Toones), can’t stop Mike from leaving Lee.

Lee, who comes with bags packed, thinks she’s there to “pay back” John for bailing her out. (Though it isn’t explicitly stated, the idea is that she would be providing sexual favors.) Nothing is further from John’s thoughts. He is about to leave town for the holidays and takes her out to dinner to discuss what to do with her.

John (Fred MacMurray) doesn't know why Lee is at his apartment.

It is at dinner, which is at a nightclub no less, that the Judge walks by with his wife. He not only recognizes John, but also Lee as the defendant from his court. Hurrying away, without introducing the women, the Judge leaves the two alone. At the end of the meal John asks for orchestra to play My Indiana Home. Lee learns John is a Hoosier like herself. When they realize they grew up within 50 miles of one another, John offers to take her home on his way. Lee agrees and that night, they leave.

Over dinner, John and Lee discover that they're both Hoosiers.

In the days before the Interstates, the highways were winding, going through every little town and hamlet, and with WPA (Works Progress Administration) detours not always clearly marked, John drives his car through a farmer’s fence and they spend the night in the pasture, after dining on Rufus’ sandwiches.

On the trip, they get lost thanks to the detours for construction.

A cow peeking its head through the window of the car awakes them the next morning. Hungry, John tries to milk the cow while it munches on Lee’s good hat. But the cow proves unwieldy and the farmer, Hank (John Wray), puts them under citizen’s arrest for breaking his fence, trespassing on his property and trying to steal his cow’s milk. Riding in the rumbleseat, he directs John to the Justice of the Peace’s house. Clyde Emory (Thomas W. Ross) is eating breakfast when his wife (Virginia Brissac) notices Hank bringing them up. She assumes it’s a shotgun wedding, but Clyde knows it’s another trespassing claim based on the new detours.

Publicity still of farmer Hank (John Wray) making a citizen's arrest.

Following Lee’s instructions, the two give false names and occupations, Lee claims to be Mary Smith, bubble dancer, and John to be Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, steam fitter. John pretends to know a little about the law, but Clyde is not amused, when John tries to pay his way out of trouble. Clyde is threatening to hand the couple over to the county for lock up when Lee starts a fire in Clyde’s wastebasket. In the confusion, Lee grabs John and the two manage to escape.

Lee creates a distraction by setting a fire in the Justice of the Peace's (Thomas W. Ross) wastebasket.

John drives Lee to her hometown of Eltonville and to her childhood home. Lee had run away many years ago and isn’t even sure if her mother still lives where she used to. A strange man (John Beck) answers the door and tells Lee that she’s looking for his wife. Lee’s mother (Georgia Caine) invites them in, but she is not happy to have her only child returning home. Apparently Lee had been forced to leave town when her mother publicly accused her of taking her egg money. Lee had wanted to pay her back, but no one in town would hire her, so she had to leave. The mother is not in the mood, even on Christmas Eve, to let bygones be bygones.

John makes the excuse that they have to keep going and Lee is thankful to be out of the house. She expects John to put her in a hotel or something, but instead, he takes her home with him, to his mother’s farm. John’s mother (Beulah Bondi) lives with his never married aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson) and cousin Willie (Sterling Holloway), who does the chores around the farm for room and board. Lee is received warmly by the family and while his mother thinks they’re a couple, John is honest with her about Lee’s past. Mother, to her credit, doesn’t treat her any differently and she doesn’t tell Emma or Willie.

Lee plays piano while Willie (Sterling Holloway) sings.

On Christmas morning, the family exchanges presents while Lee watches, but there are also presents for her, even one from John, which is a regift of a bottle of perfume he’d bought for his mother that she’d never opened.

The rest of the visit in Indiana includes a rummage sale, in which Lee helps sell an item to the richest man in the area (Spencer Charters) before he knows what’s hit him. There are other planned events for during their stay, like a taffy-pull, which we never see. The culmination of the trip is a barn dance on New Year’s Eve. Aunt Emma senses there is love in bloom and gives Lee an old dress of hers to wear, along with the corset and the other undergarments that go with it.

There are presents under the tree for everyone, including, from left to right, Lee,
John's Mother (Beulah Bondi), John, Willie and Aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson).

During the party, John’s mother doesn’t want to hear talk about their romance from Emma and is not happy to see the couple kiss lovingly after midnight. Back at the house, after everyone has gone to bed, John invites Lee over to his room to have a cigarette in front of the fire. Lee agrees to join him after she’s changed, but before she can, John’s mother comes to see her. She tells Lee about how hard John worked to get where he is and how important his job is. And even though Lee admits to loving him, she agrees not to do anything that would harm his position in the DA’s office and to give him up.

John's mother has a heart to heart talk with Lee about not hurting John's position with the DA's office.

They leave early on New Year’s Day and go back to New York via Canada to avoid Pennsylvania. On the border crossing, John admits with a smile that he’s a fugitive from justice, but they wave him through the check point anyway. Once they’re in, John tells Lee that she doesn’t have to go back, especially since he has no authority in another country. That night, at Niagara Falls, they talk about their relationship and Lee is adamant about going back to stand trial.

John and Lee talk about love at Niagara Falls.

The next morning, they even share a cab ride on the way to the courthouse, but Lee gets out before John so as to avoid being seen together.

The couple takes a taxi together to court.

Meanwhile, the Judge has called in the DA, worried that John might do something to throw the case. The DA agrees to listen in on the proceedings. John cross-examines her after her lawyer has questioned her about hypnosis. John is harsh with her, which everyone knows is not the right tactic to take with a woman on trial.

Lee senses that John is trying to throw the case and stops him, telling the Judge that she would like to plead guilty to the crime. Both her attorney and John protest, but the Judge agrees to accept her plea and remands her until a sentencing hearing can be set. She is taken to the holding cells and John follows. He proposes, wanting to marry her right then and there, but she doesn’t think that’s such a good idea for him. She promises to marry him, though, if he still wants to after she’s served her sentence.

John follows Lee into the holding cell and asks her to marry him.
Jail matron (Kate Drain Lawson) looks on.

The movie is tender with some of the dialogue being laugh out funny. Screenwriter Preston Sturges was well-known in Hollywood by the time this film was made. He had been writing for films since supplying dialogue for The Big Pond (1930). His first original screenplay to be made into a movie was The Power and the Glory (1933), a drama starring Spencer Tracy and Colleen Moore. He also contributed, though didn’t receive credit on, such films as The Invisible Man (1933) and Twentieth Century (1934). After Remember the Night, Sturges would become famous as a screenwriter/director starting with The Great McGinty (1940). Sturges would go on to write and direct such classics as Christmas in July (1940); The Lady Eve (1941); Sullivan’s Travels (1941); The Palm Beach Story (1942); The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944); Hail the Conquering Hero (1944); The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), starring Harold Lloyd; and the wonderfully dark Unfaithfully Yours (1948).

Part of the reason Sturges turned to directing his scripts was the treatment he received on this film. What Sturges objected to was that director Mitchell Leisen, whom he had previously with worked on Easy Living (1937), cut down his script. To avoid this in future, Sturges took his place in the director’s chair as well as behind the typewriter.

Mitchell Leisen began his career in movies in the art and costume departments. One of his earliest credits is as the costume designer for Cecil B. DeMille’s Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), a comedy starring Gloria Swanson. He would also serve as Art Director on DeMille’s remake of The Squaw Man (1931) and, though uncredited, on The Sign of the Cross (1932), before getting his chance to direct with the Cradle Song (1933).

Director Mitchell Leisen.

Known for melodramas and screwball comedies, Leisen would direct Death Takes a Holiday (1934) and the musical mystery Murder at the Vanities (1934). Leisen would also direct two Billy Wilder screenplays: Midnight (1939), starring Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche; and Hold Back the Dawn (1941), starring Charles Boyer, Olivia de Havilland and Paulette Goddard. Hold Back the Dawn was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, though he was not nominated as Best Director. Leisen would also direct The Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936) and The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938). While Leisen would continue to direct through the 1940’s and 50’s, he would also do some costume design work for his own films as well.

Leisen would also direct television, beginning with episodes of Shirley Temple’s Storybook (1958) and including The Twilight Zone (1959-60), Wagon Train (1961) and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. (1966-67). His last film was as co-director of Spree (1967), a documentary about the Las Vegas nightlife.

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck are best known for their work together in Double Indemnity (1944), the classic film noir directed by Billy Wilder. But Remember The Night was their first pairing.

Originally, a vocalist, MacMurray would appear on Broadway before beginning a career in films with Girls Gone Wild (1929), which though lost was probably nothing like the 1990s video series of the same name. While he’s best remembered as Steve Douglas, the patriarch on My Three Sons which ran from 1960 to 1972, MacMurray was a popular film actor in the 30’s and 40’s, at one time becoming the highest paid actor in Hollywood, making $420,000 in 1943.

MacMurray would work with several of Hollywood’s leading men and women, but most often with Claudette Colbert. They would be paired in seven films, including The Egg and I (1947), a comedy best known for introducing the Ma and Pa Kettle characters. He also starred opposite Katherine Hepburn in Alice Adams (1935), Joan Crawford in Above Suspicion (1943), Carole Lombard in four films and Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny (1954). He would also play Jeff Sheldrake in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960).

Barbara Stanwyck had been a Ziegfeld Girl before she began acting in films with her appearance as fan dancer in Broadway Nights (1927), a now lost film. She would appear in 82 films, almost always as the lead or one of the leads and in 1944, she was the highest paid woman in the U.S.

Stanwyck would appear in such diverse films as Illicit (1931), Night Nurse (1931), Baby Face (1933), Annie Oakley (1935), Stella Dallas (1937), Golden Boy (1939), The Lady Eve (1941), Meet John Doe (1941), Ball of Fire (1941), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Clash by Night (1952), Titanic (1953), Witness to Murder (1954) and Crime of Passion (1957). She would receive four Academy nominations for Best Actress, but was always a bridesmaid.

Stanwyck would end her career on television, appearing in episodes of The Jack Benny Program (1952) and The Untouchables (1962-63) before landing The Big Valley (1965-69), in which she played matriarch Victoria Barkley. She would also star in the miniseries The Thorn Birds (1983) and The Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys (1985-87).

Beulah Bondi may have started acting on stage at the age of seven, but she is best remembered for playing mothers on film, perhaps most famously as Jimmy Stewart’s in Vivacious Lady (1938) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Here she is on familiar ground playing MacMurray’s mother.

Actress Beulah Bondi.

Typically sweet and loving on film, Bondi never married and never had children. Bondi would also appear in Rain (1932), Watch on the Rhine (1943) and The Snake Pit (1948) in an acting career that would last until the 70s.  Bondi was twice nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. In fact, she was one of the first five women to be nominated when the category was created. Her nominations were for The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) and for Of Human Hearts (1938). She would also act on television, making her final appearance on The Waltons in 1976, in the episode The Pony Cart. For that performance she would receive an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series.

Elizabeth Patterson, Aunt Emma, is perhaps best known as Mrs. Mathilda Trumbull, the ever ready baby-sitting neighbor on the I Love Lucy show. Patterson had a love of the theater and appeared on Broadway in 1913 in the play Everyman. She did not appear in movies until 1926, at the age of 51, in the film The Boy Friend, a silent romantic comedy from MGM starring Marceline Day and John Harron. A character actress, Patterson would appear in such films as Dinner At Eight (1933) and Pal Joey (1957).

Elizabeth Patterson plays Aunt Emma.

Another character actor featured in the film was Sterling Holloway, who began his career in the silent Casey at the Bat (1927) and appeared in sixteen films in 1933 alone, including Wild Boys of the Road, Picture Snatcher, Gold Diggers of 1933 and a live-action version of Alice in Wonderland. He worked regularly throughout the rest of the 30's and early 40’s, appearing in Meet John Doe (1941). That same year he began a relationship with Walt Disney Studios that would see him become a regular in many of their animated features. Holloway would voice Mr. Stork in Dumbo (1941), the Adult Flower in Bambi (1942), narrate one of the segments of The Three Caballeros (1944), Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland (1951), Kaa in The Jungle Book (1967), Roquefort the Mouse in The Aritsocats (1970) and Winnie The Pooh in The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh (1977).

Willie (Sterling Holloway) got a new hat for Christmas.

Credited as Snowflake on the film, Fred Toones was a veteran actor appearing in over 200 films, most without receiving credit, from 1928 until 1951. The only black actor in the film, Toones plays his usual character, a middle-aged man with a high-pitched voice and a childlike demeanor. Neither his character nor his treatment in the film would win any NAACP awards, but his type of servant is seen throughout Hollywood films of that era. Snowflake would appear as a porter in over 50 films, and played a variety of service-oriented parts such as bootblack, elevator operator, valet, butler and bellhops. As an actor, he is cited as an example of racial and social stereo-typing in Hollywood films. Notable films he appeared in include Way Out West (1937), 20th Century (1934), Christmas in July (1940) and The Palm Beach Story (1942).

Credited as Snowflake, Fred Toones plays John's servant, Rufus.

Remember The Night sort of disappeared from view, one of the many films that time had forgotten. Working together with the Library of Congress, Universal Pictures and Turner Classic Movies preserved and restored the film, making it available on the TCM channel and on DVD in 2010.

The film presents a conventional view of families at Christmas, with the prodigal son returning to the loving embrace of mother, hearth and home. At the same time, the Sargeant family opens up their home and hearts to a stranger so she won’t be alone during the holidays. Lee is someone who, with a little love and understanding, can be saved, so to speak, from a life of petty crime. Not a religious film, it’s themes of love, forgiveness and inclusion resonate at the holidays.

Both MacMurray and Stanwyck show their versatility as actors with their roles, especially when you look at their next pairing in Double Indemnity. Here they are decent Mid-Westerners, heart of the country, backbone of the nation types. Oh maybe she's had a few bad breaks and her life hasn't turned out they way she intended, but they are both, down inside decent people. When next we see them, they are cold-blooded killers, pretty much 180 degrees from who they are in Remember the Night. To their credit, they are both believable in either role.

The supporting cast fills in precisely where and when they should. Bondi, Patterson and Holloway make for a good ensemble presenting just enough quirk to distinguish themselves without distracting away from our leads. Rufus is sadly not much more than a stereo-type, but that's not Toones' fault. Sometimes performances reflect their times and Snowflake's (sadly) does.  

The writing is good, also showing Sturges' depth as a writer. The story mixes criminal law with a road picture with a romance with a comedy. We get laughs and pathos, which is not usually done so well as it is here. I don't know what changes Leisen made or deleted, but the Sturges magic with dialogue and characters still shines through.

I sometimes find it hard to judge a director's work. If he/she does their job right, you're really not aware of their work, the way a good dancer makes it seem natural that they're dancing in roller skates. From that standpoint, I think Leisen does a good job with the story and with the cast.

Maybe it’s not ready to take its place alongside It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as the holiday classic, but Remember the Night is still an engaging and funny movie about two people thrown together by circumstance who realize they are in love. Somewhat typical Hollywood-fare storyline, but the screenplay by Preston Sturges, the direction of Mitchel Leisen and  the acting of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray make it one that you shouldn’t miss when you have the opportunity to see it.

Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson wish you a Merry Christmas.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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