Remember the Night, 1940, Paramount Pictures. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. B&W, 91 minutes.
Small-time thief Lea Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is in trouble again, this time for stealing a bracelet and trying to pawn it a short time later. Her trial is set days before Christmas, and the prosecuting attorney in her case, Jack Sargent (Fred MacMurray) is cynically aware the jury may not want to convict a woman right before the holidays. He manages a continuation, and the case is postponed until January.
Still, he himself is sympathetic to Lea’s plight, and quietly puts up the bond for her. What he doesn’t expect is to find her on his doorstep, dropped off by the bondsman, a short time later. He buys her dinner and learns she grew up a mere 50 miles from him, a few states away in Indiana. She reluctantly accepts his offer of a ride to see her family for the holidays, and the two set off shortly thereafter.
When he meets her mother, however, it’s immediately apparent why Lea ran away in the first place, and perhaps sheds some light on why she turned to life of crime. On impulse, he takes her home to meet his family and spend Christmas with the loving Sargent family.
This was the first of four films Stanwyck and MacMurray starred in together (the most notable perhaps being Double Indemnity) and their relaxed chemistry onscreen was due in part to Mitchell Leisen’s ability to work with their real-life personalities and bring out what was genuine within.
Stanwyck, best known up to this point for her melodramatic roles, is delightful as the street-savvy woman longing for a loving home. She is believable both as the wisecracking defendant and the softer, more gracious woman in love. For his part, MacMurray became the kind of character he played best: kind, optimistic and warm-hearted.
The film was shot in the summer, which meant the cast was wearing heavy wool clothing during some of the hottest days of the year. In one scene, Stanwyck and MacMurray are asleep in the car when they are awakened by a friendly cow. Between takes, Stanwyck sweltered in the winter clothing rather than delay the rest of the cast and crew by switching outfits.
Screenwriter Preston Sturges and Leisen (who was also the film’s producer) were at odds much of the time over Leisen’s script changes, and those familiar with the movies Sturges both wrote and directed will notice a markedly different pace in Remember the Night. Perhaps not coincidentally, Sturges, who had directed his first film The Great McGinty earlier that year, turned solely to directing his own scripts.
Remember the Night is a sweet film with engaging performances — and a somewhat less-than-satisfactory ending, due to Production Code standards. Stanwyck shines in one of her first ventures into comedy, and MacMurray is at his gentle best. A film to add to your list of Christmas must-sees.