It’s unfortunate—ironic, even—that a movie called Remember the Night should have been forgotten for so many years.
After all, it starred two of the most popular actors of the time, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray; it was written by the great Preston Sturges (this was the last movie he would only write—he would also direct every one of his scripts hereafter); and it was a box office hit when it was first released (oddly, on January 19, 1940, missing the holiday season by several weeks).
For whatever reason, though, the film faded into obscurity until recently, when TV showings and home video releases by Turner Classic Movies (including a restored Blu-ray release this year) have boosted its profile substantially.
And deservedly so: Remember the Night is a hidden gem with its two stars, writer and director (Mitchell Leisen) all at the top of their game, carefully toeing the line between romantic comedy and holiday drama without leaning to heavily on either. (Until the ending, anyway—more on that later.)
Stanwyck stars as Lee, an unrepentant shoplifter who has the misfortune to get busted right before Christmas. When her attorney puts up a spirited, unique defense (“Hypnotism!”) that appears to sway the jury, Assistant District Attorney John Sargent (MacMurray) convinces the judge to continue the case after the New Year—which means Lee will have to spend Christmas in jail.
Feeling guilty, John has Lee bailed out of jail, and the bail bondsman, thinking John has, um, other “plans” for Lee, delivers her to John’s apartment. John’s getting ready to head back to his Mom’s house in Indiana for Christmas, but it turns out that Lee is a Hoosier too, so he offers to drop her off on his way.
Road trip hijinks ensue--including car crashes, wrestling matches with cows and just a hint of arson—before they arrive in Lee’s hometown to find that her mother is a cold, hard, bitter woman who wants nothing to do with her larcenous offspring, so Lee sticks with John to visit his mom (Beulah Bondi) and the rest of the family.
Of course, Mom and everyone else assume that John and Lee are a couple, even when they both say they’re not, so guess what happens? Yup, they fall in love, which makes the whole prosecutor/perpetrator thing so much more complicated.
This may well sound like a typical screwball comedy with a holiday theme—and, except for the ending, which tips the storytelling scales in favor of full-blown melodrama, it pretty much is.
What distinguishes Remember the Night, however, is Sturges’s excellent script, in which adults talk and act like adults, even in situations that lend themselves to silliness or sappiness.
For example: Before John and Lee take off for Indiana, they have dinner and talk about Lee’s shoplifting “career” in terms both serious and witty (hint: it’s not “Hypnotism!”) And John’s mom, realizing the “kids” are falling for each other, goes to Lee’s room and expresses her concerns over what their budding relationship would mean for John’s career. It would have been very easy to paint Mom as cruel or insensitive, but Sturges fills her dialogue with warmth and gentleness, and Bondi and Stanwyck play the scene with beauty and sensitivity—when Mom asks, “But you love him, don’t you?” and Lee answers, “Yes, I’m afraid so,” it’s downright heartbreaking.
It doesn’t hurt that MacMurray and Stanwyck have great screen chemistry, which they’d uses to even greater effect four years later in Billy Wilder’s classic film noir, Double Indemnity.
It’s deeply cool that Remember the Night has emerged after all these years as a lost Christmas classic and is getting the respect and play that it deserved all along. If you’re tired of the holiday staples and are looking for something “new,” Remember the Night might just be for you.