Entertainment Magazine

Remember the Night

Posted on the 26 December 2016 by Christopher Saunders
Remember the NightSeveral years before plotting murder in Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray teamed up on this sweet-natured Christmas comedy. Remember the Night (1940) offers a beautiful blend of humor, romance and pathos for holiday viewers.
Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is arrested for shoplifting on Christmas Eve, but her trial's delayed until after the holiday. Due to a strained chain of events, Lee ends up in custody of Assistant DA Jack Sargent (Fred MacMurray), her prosecuting attorney, for Christmas. Jack drives Lee from New York to Indiana to meet his parents, who immediately take to her. But Jack's mother (Beulah Bondi) learns of Lee's past, causing tension as Jack and Lee fall for each other.
If you can buy its eminently silly conceit, Remember the Night is utterly charming. Director Mitchell Leisen and writer Preston Sturges (in his last script before becoming a director) hook viewers with a story that transcends logical boundaries. Jack and Lee's star-crossed romance becomes inevitable, yet the show puts many obstacles in their path. As cozy as their holiday idyll is, Jack's duty and Lee's conscience make a happy ending difficult. The bittersweet resolution alone elevates it above most Christmas comedies, yet Night has much more to commend it.
Sturges' greatest gift wasn't his comic timing but his humanist warmth. Lee acts tough in New York that crumbles immediately once she warms to Jack. She's horrified to reunite with her mother (Georgia Caine), so cruel she'll barely acknowledge Lee. With her tough background, who can begrudge her stealing jewelry? (Sturges suggests that, but for the Hays Code, she's actually a prostitute.) Mrs. Sargent understands her son's predicament. She makes a heartfelt appeal to Lee to consider Jack's career, yet doesn't actively discourage her affection: she just wants a family like Jack, yet can't escape her background. Touches like this make the movie hard to dislike.
Night skillfully blends genres: a light romantic comedy, a courtroom drama, a holiday. Sturges allows supporting players like Willie and a bloviating attorney (Willard Robertson) amusing moments, with trademark silliness like Lee and Jack's night in a cow field, their escape from a hick judge (Thomas W. Ross) and a raucous holiday barn raising. It's surprising when dramatic moments like Mrs. Sargent's big scene, or Jack's overanxious examination land equally well. With such skillful interweaving of tones, Night's ending becomes positively poignant.
Barbara Stanwyck mostly plays against type: after some sharp banter early on, she's mostly warm-hearted and tragic, happy to find a home then stricken when it's brutally wrenched away from her. Stanwyck plays Lee with the pathos of Stella Dallas and The Lady Eve's joking sensuality. Fred MacMurray does his straight man shtick with unusual warmth and pathos; he's a convincing stiff with enough heart to invest us. Without slighting a game supporting cast - Beulah Bondi, Sterling Holloway and Elizabeth Patterson's nagging aunt - the stars own the show.
It's a shame Remember the Night isn't among the Christmas perennials. It's got enough humor, sweetness and well-earned sentiment to rank with the best of them.

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