top of page

Deck the Halls December: Remember the Night (1940)

It's December, the time of year when the whole world gets nostalgic. There is no better time to watch classic movies with a Christmas theme. Join Adam and Samantha as they discuss Remember the Night.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Remember the Night is the story of a female shoplifter named Lee (Barbara Stanwyck) whose theft trial is scheduled right before Christmas. Her attorney pleads her innocence by claiming she was under hypnosis when she exited the jewelry store. Prosecutor John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) is seasoned and knows juries don't tend to convict women, especially during the holiday season, so he appeals for and wins a continuance until after the new year. Lee is furious that she has to spend Christmas in jail, and John feels sorry for her, so he asks a bail bondsman to let her out until the next hearing. She has nowhere to go, so she goes to Sargent, thinking he expects something in exchange for his generosity. He proceeds to take her back home to Indiana, where their families both live.

LEE: I suppose you do this with all the lady prisoners. JOHN: Oh my, yes, my life is just one long round of whoopee.

Sargent's family is enthusiastic and welcoming to Lee, assuming she is John's girlfriend coming to meet the family before he makes her part of it. The house is small and the festivities are simple (Does the family exist that gathers around the piano at Christmas to sing carols together? Can I join?) but it is easy to see why Lee is so charmed by everything. Even the tree is adorable; it is so big, the top portion bends across the ceiling to fit into the room. Sterling Holloway has several moments of expert silent comedy, like the scene where he admires his new hat in the mirror.

ADAM WILLIAMS: It must have been easy for Preston Sturges to deliver elevator pitches for his screenplays. A District Attorney invites the alleged shoplifter in a case he’s working along for a Christmas holiday road trip. The conflicts, comedy scenarios, and pathos almost write themselves. The why’s, how’s, and where’s are minor details. All Remember the Night needed was an appealing lead couple and the Sturges company of oddball supporting characters. Of course, I’m oversimplifying. It’s incredible how a movie could be so compelling and so ludicrous at the same time, but that’s Sturges for you.

SG: The first time I saw this movie I wasn't impressed with it, but seeing it again now I can't fathom why I ever felt that way. This is a slickly produced film with smart dialogue, appealing performances all around, and a beautiful believable love story. These characters feel like real people whose pasts inform who they are today. The screenplay is excellent. Sturges uses the location of Niagara Falls in an ironic way toward the end of the film, which I particularly liked.

AW: This movie certainly has all the hallmarks of a Preston Sturges movie, but the style is mostly due to the director, Mitchell Leisen. A lot of criticisms toward a director, both positive and negative, are aimed at the camera’s behavior—whether there are slick dolly shots, canted angles, jarring handheld photography, etc. Leisen’s direction doesn’t overindulge in these techniques. For the most part, he lets the cast just interact with the sets.

Take, for example, a single shot about halfway into the movie. Fred MacMurray’s character has arrived back home with Barbara Stanwyck. The family has finished dinner, and they’re preparing for a relaxing, festive night. The shot begins with MacMurray pulling the popcorn off the stove. As he’s speaking the camera pulls back slightly to a static medium shot, revealing Barbara Stanwyck and Elizabeth Patterson washing and drying the dishes. From the stairs barely visible from stage left come Beulah Bondi and Sterling Holloway, fresh from cleaning the upstairs bedroom. All six characters proceed to perform their duties—buttering and salting the popcorn, drying the dishes, putting away the cleaning supplies—while bantering back and forth. The one minute and ten second shot is perfectly blocked so that all the characters actions are visible simultaneously. The point of the shot is simple: it establishes that the household is animated and functional (in stark contrast to Stanwyck’s bleak house). The way the shot plays out with six moving parts is subtly complex. The performers make it look so effortless but there is no doubt this scene was strenuously rehearsed.

I’m surrendering to a cliché: this film is a visual feast. Leisen, Dreier, and Tetzlaff might sound like a law firm, but it’s the trio responsible for the overwhelming, decidedly opulent look of the film. Art Director Hans Dreier and Cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff both had worked for Leisen since the mid-thirties—in fact, this was the fifth film uniting the three. Naturalism be damned! This is the type of Hollywood stylization where an Indiana barn hootenanny looks like a Viennese masquerade ball.

SG: Edith Head was in charge of costumes. For a poor girl, Stanwyck sure does look like a million bucks. (See, I can do cliché too.)

AW: Fred MacMurray’s performances are usually somewhere on the spectrum from emotionally constipated to devoid of humanity. I mean that as a compliment. It’s this inscrutable quality that makes him more appealing to me than other male performers from that generation—Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, James Stewart, or Clark Gable, for example. Barbara Stanwyck is clearly the dynamic force of the film. Her character is impulsive, distraught, and vulnerable. By contrast, MacMurray plays a lawyer who is entirely invested in the legal system, a man who only knows a comfortable and supporting family. MacMurray plays a stiff-as-a-board mama’s boy. Yet, I found myself more interested in what makes the dullard observe the laws than what makes Stanwyck’s character break them.

SG: I think the reason that approach works is because when his walls come down, it feels like a powerful switch. This is the kind of love one can't help but surrender to.

This film was adapted for radio on the Lux Radio Theatre twice, the first time on March 25, 1940 with MacMurray, Stanwyck, Bondi, Patterson and Holloway reprising their roles. However, more than a year later on December 22, 1941 Lux recycled the story to take advantage of the Christmas setting and replaced Stanwyck with Jean Arthur. It is amazing how well she fits into the part and although Remember the Night is wonderful, it is intriguing to think how a change in casting would have altered the overall film.

There seem to be a lot of Christmas films concerning criminals from this era. I can think of I'll Be Seeing You (1944), The Cheaters (1945) and The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) which we reviewed last year. Any others?

AW: It’s not well known in this country, but there’s a French film from 1941 called L'Assassinat du père Noël or Who Killed Santa Claus? That might qualify.

We’re nearing the end of a year of movie reviews, so let’s look at how Remember the Night ties things together. Willard Robertson, who hams it up as the defense attorney, wrote the novel Moontide—we reviewed that movie back in June. The Bailiff is played by George Melford who a couple decades earlier directed The Sheik—we examined that one in February. Assistant Director Hal Walker graduated to Director and helmed Duffy’s Tavern—we reviewed (actually, you reviewed, and I savaged!) that back in August. Of course, there’s a Niagara Falls scene in Remember the Night and we covered Niagara in February.

SG: Eileen Creelman of the N.Y. Sun called the film, "A light comedy that gradually develops into believable and moving drama." Motion Picture Herald wrote that, "There is a feeling at Paramount that Remember the Night will prove the sleeper attraction of the season."

AW: In a New York Times column, Frank S. Nugent wrote about an issue that had been bothering me since I watched the movie. “By rights there should have been a question mark after the title, but, if there had been one, we should have been puzzled about the specific night they were trying to recall.” Ultimately, Nugent got over that trivial matter and found the movie “…altogether honest and human and sensible…” Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times wrote that this road trip movie was like It Happened One Night with “…more pensive over tones.” The Washington Post’s positive review came under a headline declaring the movie, “…as Unaffected as Indiana’s Popcorn.”

This movie nailed it. The screenplay is unforgettable, the style is impeccable, and it concludes on an unexpected note. Four stars.

SG: Yes, this is what I think of when I think of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It isn't necessarily the big name movies that everyone knows about and quotes. It is these lesser known but brilliantly crafted gems waiting to be rediscovered that make the era so rich. Four stars.

47 views0 comments


bottom of page