Holiday Viewing: Remember the Night

The key to a merry Christmas is a shoplifter in the house

Does going home for the holidays have you fretful? Are you fearing the same old, same old family gathering will be just so much stale fruitcake? Have you considered bringing a shoplifter along with you – preferably one that you yourself will have to prosecute in court? Hey, it worked out pretty well for Fred MacMurray with Barbara Stanwyck.

If that's yuletide news to you, then you aren't among the fortunate few to have seen Remember the Night, a 1940 romantic comedy that's been forgotten by the masses but deserves to be in every cinephile's stocking come Christmastime. Four years before Stanwyck and MacMurray torched the screen in Billy Wilder's here's-how-you-do-noir Double Indemnity, the two did a slow-burn comic waltz in this surprisingly tender tale of a big-city assistant D.A. so softhearted that he can't leave the woman he's committed to convict in the slammer over the holidays and winds up driving her to his family home in Indiana.

I say "surprisingly tender" because the screenwriter behind the shenanigans is Preston Sturges, the primo satirist behind The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero, among others. Sturges' rep rests on his acerbic wit and willingness to undermine every motherhood-and-apple-pie institution that America holds dear. This is the man who built World War II-era comedies around a small-town sweetheart getting drunk and knocked up by a soldier she can't remember and a crew of Marines lying through their teeth to hoodwink a 4-F reject's hometown into believing he was a battle hero. Since I came to Remember the Night after having seen Sturges' later, gleefully subversive screwball comedies, I wasn't expecting scenes in the heartland that portrayed family ties in a generous and sympathetic light.

But that's very much what happens once Remember the Night heads out of Gotham and hits Hoosier country. Keeping the home fires burning for MacMurray's big-city legal eagle, Jack, are his mother, his aunt, and his cousin – a folksy threesome whose constant mild bickering is just the contrary way they express affection for one another. They bake cookies, string popcorn on the Christmas tree, sing songs around the piano, and proclaim their delight at whatever presents they receive, even if it's the same gift they were given the year before. Hugs and kisses and words of love are exchanged, and all without a trace of irony or show of condescension. Sturges may serve up narrow minds and hard hearts elsewhere in the story, but in this home he allows us to see a sanctuary of familial warmth and devotion. And he lets us see the way it works its way on Stanwyck's character, dissolving her distrusting, skeptical shell and opening her up to love and selflessness.

The sentiment of Remember the Night may not be quite as out of character for Sturges as it initially seems. Even his wildest satires typically include a character of true character, someone who's determined to do the right thing, even at a high cost to himself or herself. That's the bind that Stanwyck's character finds herself in: She's learned to do what's right from MacMurray's goodhearted attorney and his family, but doing the right thing means leaving him just as she's lost her heart to him.

While giving due credit to Sturges, some of the way that struggle is depicted in Remember the Night may be owed to director Mitchell Leisen, a lesser-known studio helmer who may not have been the auteur in the manner of an Ernst Lubitsch or Sturges himself, but who was responsible for a string of extremely successful pictures. Leisen reportedly trimmed back Sturges' script, in part to make MacMurray's character more appealing and down-to-earth than originally written. Leisen had already made four romantic comedies with MacMurray – including the underrated Hands Across the Table, which paired the actor with Carole Lombard for the first of four pictures – and knew how to play to MacMurray's strengths. Here, the actor comes across as just sharp enough to handle Sturges' witty, rapid-fire banter with grace, while being as full of decency as his character appears.

Stanwyck carries the dramatic weight of the film, making a series of emotional shifts that give her character the kind of depth and humanity that the actress did so well. She moves from cynical gal of the streets, quick with a scam and suspicious that any gesture of goodwill is meant to take advantage of her, to a genial companion, full of witty banter, to a wounded soul, still vulnerable when it comes to her own past and to shows of genuine kindness. A scene where her character, Lee, stops to see her mother only to be brutally rejected by the woman, ditches all the rom-com tropes in order to give us a raw look into this character's history and psyche, and Stanwyck is heartbreaking: so full of need, of some small sign of acceptance from this woman who gave her life, and so devastated when she not only doesn't get it, but is coldly denounced as a thief. Later, when Lee is fully embraced by Jack's clan, she joins in a sing-along around the family piano, and the camera goes in close on Stanwyck's face to show us her dawning awareness of the true love that exists in this place; it's like watching a flower bloom, opening up at once her appreciation of this family's love and her own loneliness. We're witness to the same change of heart that Scrooge undergoes, without the ghosts.

But the film's secret weapon may be Beulah Bondi. As much of a maternal treasure as she is in her best-known role, that of George Bailey's mom in It's a Wonderful Life, Bondi may be even better here. As a native of Indiana herself, the actress knew the territory intimately and conveyed all that heartland heart, even when trading barbs with her sister Emma (Elizabeth Patterson, recognizable to I Love Lucy fans as Little Ricky caretaker Mrs. Trumbull) or lighting a fire under her lazy rube of a farmhand, Willie (a bubbleheaded young Sterling Holloway, 25 years before he started voicing Winnie the Pooh). More to the point, Bondi's Mrs. Sargent isn't just an ideal of motherhood, she's a flesh-and-blood embodiment of it, kind and eager to give Stanwyck's intruder the benefit of the doubt, but also fiercely protective of her son. She finds a remarkable balance between the two in a scene with Stanwyck where she's essentially asking Lee to leave her son alone so Jack can be the success he's worked so hard to be all his life. There isn't an iota of anger in Bondi's performance; rather, there's profound sympathy for Lee and what she's being asked to do, and Bondi's silent, gentle embrace of Stanwyck at the end of the scene speaks volumes. In that moment, she's as much a mother to Stanwyck's Lee as to MacMurray's Jack.

In its way, Remember the Night is as full of the improbabilities of any of the more familiar Christmas movies that we ritually rewatch in this season every year. But it's also no less lacking in the affirmation it makes of the power of love, its ability to melt even the coldest of hearts, to transform our feelings for our fellow man and woman. If that's a feeling you treasure in your holiday viewing, remember the film.

Remember the Night airs on TCM Fri., Dec. 22, at 10pm.

Throughout December, the Chronicle film team is highlighting some of our favorite seasonal film and TV offerings. Find a new recommendation every day at our Holiday Movie Advent Calendar.

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Holiday films, holiday movies, Remember the Night, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Preston Sturges, Beulah Bondi, Mitchell Leisen, Holiday Movie Advent Calendar

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