Remember the Night (1940). 91 minutes. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. Starring Barbara Stanwyck (as Lee Leander), Fred MacMurray (as John Sargent), Beulah Bondi (as Mrs. Sargent), Elizabeth Patterson (as Aunt Emma), Sterling Holloway ( as Willie Simms), Paul Guilfoyle (as district attorney), Charles Waldron (as New York judge), Fred Toones (as Rufus), Tom Kennedy (as Fat Mike), Georgia Cane (as Lee’s mother). Screenplay by Preston Sturges.
Remember the Night is a Preston Sturges comedy starring Barbara Stanwyck as a thief and Fred MacMurray as a New York prosecutor who spend Christmas together in Wabash, Indiana. Although not as well known as other Sturges films such as The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, and The Palm Beach Story, Remember the Night is nevertheless a surprisingly enjoyable holiday film weirdly mixed together with elements of a trial drama. In addition, and probably the reason that I recommend it the most, the movie also functions as a love story to the American Midwest, one of the most sincere odes to life between the coasts that I have seen in a long time. Indiana in this film serves as a kind of rural fantasy land for the New York characters and is a far cry from the gritty Los Angeles backdrop of Stanwyck and MacMurray’s masterful collaboration a few years later, Double Indemnity (1944). If you enjoyed that famous film noir, you might be especially amused to see the two actors engaging in more wholesome activities in Remember the Night, such as milking a cow and waltzing at a New Year’s Eve barn dance. But the movie’s depiction of the Midwest, while enthusiastic, is also complex, resulting in a story that is nuanced and deep.
When this movie opens around Christmastime, habitual shoplifter Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is apprehended for stealing an expensive bracelet. At her trial, prosecuting attorney John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) sees that her attorney is winning, so he asks for the proceedings to adjourn until the new year. When he realizes this means Lee will be in jail during the holidays, John bails her out and treats her to a meal. He intends to drive home to Indiana that night, and when he learns that she is from the same part of the state that he is, he offers to drive her to her parents’ place on the way.
The two hit the road, nearly get thrown in jail in Pennsylvania for trespassing and accidental destruction of property, and make their way to Lee’s parents’ place. Her mother and stepfather reject her utterly, calling her a thief and making it clear that they want nothing to do with her. John offers to take Lee to his family’s farm, where she is warmly accepted by his mother, his aunt Emma, and their farmhand Willie. The holidays there involve a good deal of small-town fun and local color, including a final barn dance on New Year’s Eve where Lee and John kiss. But that night after the ball, John’s mother, who knows about Lee’s crimes and ongoing trial, asks Lee not to ruin John’s career by causing him to lose the case due to his feelings for her. When John and Lee leave for New York the next morning, they cut through Canada, and John, who is by now in love with Lee, tells her to stay there and not return to the New York courts. Lee, however, refuses. Back in New York at the trial, she confesses her guilt and is taken to jail. John meets with her and tells her he wants to marry her right then, but she insists that they wait until she is released.
Remember the Night is like a reverse Wizard of Oz (1939). In the 1939 film, Dorothy Gale is plucked out of Kansas and dropped into the lively and colorful land of Oz. In Remember the Night, Lee and John travel to the Midwest, which in this movie functions as a kind of magical and gracious wonderland. In Wabash, Indiana, where John’s family resides, the local culture offers Lee an alternative to her criminal past and present. The food is different: we watch Lee bake popovers in the old oven with the help of Emma. The animals are different: Lee and John wake up in a field of cows on their journey west, and Lee wrangles a heifer while John attempts to milk her. How people see is also different: the Sargents light their houses with gas lamps and candles. Even the clothes are different: Emma dresses Lee in her never-used wedding gown for the New Year’s Eve barn dance, which requires an assortment of antique underthings. For Lee, who we learn has rejected her Midwestern family as a result of having been rejected by it, wearing that dress is symbolic of her return to her roots, and her acceptance of her roots is one of the reasons that she falls in love with John. Her separation from the cocktails, cabs, and nightclubs of Manhattan, coupled with her enthusiastic reception of wholesome Midwestern customs, enables her to find room within herself for the love that shoplifting in the city had been crudely approximating.
John’s family home is an antidote to all of Lee’s painful feelings of abandonment. The Sargent home is teeming with love, and not syrupy love either, but real affection. It is clear that Mrs. Sargent, Emma, and Willie have taken a great deal of care to prepare for John’s visit, but they are also not so loving as to be a cartoonish version of a happy family. The mother in particular seems very earnest. When she talks to Lee on the night of the barn dance about her concern for John’s career, it is with compassion for both John and Lee. In an inept movie, Mrs. Sargent would have seemed cruel in this scene, selfish and preoccupied about her son, judgmental and prudish vis-à-vis Lee and her reputation as a thief. But instead here she seems like a good person with a reasonable worry, and it is one that ultimately has a good effect on Lee, who chooses to return to New York, stand trial, and confess her guilt.
Lee hails from the same area as John, but her family of origin is deeply troubled. The scene where her mother turns her away is rather painful to watch. Some relief comes when we hear John say that they are short on time and need to leave after he senses how unpleasant Mrs. Leander is. This is a loving gesture, but Lee still has a hard time of it. Standing in her parents’ yard after meeting with her mother, she stares at the tree that she fell from as a girl and wishes out loud that she had broken her neck and died when she fell long ago. Meanwhile, her mother simply stares from inside of the house. So there is a darker, colder side to the Midwest in this story, and the film is content to let it exist in pretty stark detail.
Remember the Night does not let stray details go to waste. Through parallel construction, the emotional barrenness of the Leander home is implicitly contrasted with the warmth of the Sargent home. When Lee greets her hostile mother, the Leander house is unsettling and dimly lit, although Mrs. Leander takes care to light an oil lamp when her guests arrive. When we cut to the Sargent place, Mrs. Sargent, Emma, and Willie are also lighting the house, but whereas Mrs. Leander’s solitary gas lamp made her house feel ominous, the Sargents’ candles make their home feel cheery and full. The same conditions in two households do not produce the same effect. So we should be careful lest we think that rustic props such as quaint lighting devices are what primarily make the movie’s Indiana special; that special quality depends on the people who make use of rural customs.
The scenes I’ve been describing above are tightly written, and in spite of the movie’s sometimes serious side, there are some cute exchanges, which we would expect from a Preston Sturges-penned screenplay. Although the movie’s central premise is implausible (the idea that a prosecutor would bail out a defendant and take her home for Christmas), the smart dialogue makes everything believable. For example, in order to highlight their different personalities, Lee explains to John that if he was starving and some bread fell off a truck, he would steal it and eat it. If she were hungry, she says, she would steal money and then go to a good restaurant and have a five-course meal. There is also a neat scene in the car, after they have escaped the Pennsylvanian Justice of the Peace when his trash can catches on fire. When John realizes that Lee set the fire so that they could escape, he is not mad at her, and she is pleased at her quick thinking. We understand, as John points out, that her cleverness could have resulted in a great deal of damage, but at the same time we begin to see her not merely as a thief but also as a resourceful person who is looking out for more than just herself.
Remember the Night is a light holiday movie much like Stanwyck’s Christmas in Connecticut (1945). Although the courtroom material at the end is dramatic, the holiday scenes have a warmth that lingers. I think especially of the scene where the family opens up Christmas presents, and Lee is surprised with trinkets from the Sargent ladies. It is the kind of holiday movie that Hollywood made before the holiday movie became a saccharine franchise with a strong, explicit message about the importance of family. Here the characters’ experiences are deeply colored by their relationships with their relatives, but the movie never needs to give us treacly speeches about the meaning of Christmas or the love we should have for our parents. Instead the movie manages to effortlessly balance the holidays with a trial story and a love story and a geographical paean. Remember the Night is a solid example of how Golden Age Hollywood could use the holidays as a dexterous setting to tell a range of rich stories.