Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Friday, November 25, 2011

Remembering the Night

This post is adapted and expanded from an article I wrote for the November 22, 2007 issue of the Sacramento News & Review.

I always dread this time of year, when the holiday movies are trotted out. You can't turn around without hearing some jackass bitch about how much he hates It's a Wonderful Life. He can't get enough of "I am your father, Luke" or "I'm King o' the World!", but Zuzu's petals once a year is just more than he can bear.

It makes me nostalgic for the days when I had It's a Wonderful Life all to myself (and yes, there was such a time). Well, almost to myself, anyhow. Certainly everybody else who knew and loved Frank Capra's picture had my own last name. Back about 1974 or so, in college, I had two friends who made a nightly ritual of staying up to watch car dealer Jay Brown's all-night movies on Channel 36 out of San Jose. One day -- and it was nowhere near Christmas -- they rushed up to me bubbling with enthusiasm for this great Jimmy Stewart movie they'd seen the night before. They figured if anyone would know about it, I would, and they were right. That was -- for me, anyhow -- the beginning of the revival of It's a Wonderful Life. And the beginning of the end for my family and me having the memory of It's a Wonderful Life all to ourselves. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad the picture finally came into its own, and I thank a merciful Providence that Capra, Stewart and Donna Reed all lived to see it. But then again, when people like that hypothetical (but all too credible) killjoy I mentioned above feel free to rag on it, sometimes I'm not so sure.

So I almost hesitate to mention Remember the Night. Maybe I wouldn't, but the cat seems to be getting out of the bag. When I wrote about Remember the Night in 2007, it was available only on out-of-print used VHS or bootleg copies of an AMC broadcast from the 1990s. Things are different now; the movie's available in an above-board (and beautiful) DVD from the TCM Web site (and as usual, there's an even better deal at Amazon), and I figure it's only a matter of time before someone runs up to me bubbling with enthusiasm about this great Fred MacMurray-Barbara Stanwyck movie they saw the other night. I want to be able to say I'm way ahead of them.

Most of the reason for Remember the Night's resurgency -- I mean in artistic terms, independent of the arcane ins and outs of who owns a film and who decides there's a market for it -- is its writer, Preston Sturges. This was the last script he ever wrote for somebody else to direct, the somebody in this case being Mitchell Leisen, then second only to his mentor Cecil B. DeMille as the alpha dog among Paramount directors (a position he would soon cede to -- or at least share with -- Sturges himself). Leisen's star has slipped a bit since his heyday in the '30s and '40s, alleviated somewhat by an excellent biography, Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director by David Chierichetti, originally published in 1973 (the year after Leisen died), then revised and expanded in 1995. I'll have more to say about some of Leisen's pictures later.

Right now I'm talking about Remember the Night. The version of Sturges' script published in Three More Screenplays by Preston Sturges is a facsimile of Sturges' actual typescript, dated June 15, 1939 and bearing the title The Amazing Marriage. Written in by hand on the title page is "Remember the Night[,] Or". Obviously, neither Sturges nor producer-director Leisen ever came up with a really good title. The Amazing Marriage at least has some slight connection to a line from the script, albeit one Leisen cut during shooting. The picture's final title, though, is so generic as to be meaningless.

If the title is generic, however, it's the only thing about Remember the Night that is. Stanwyck plays Lee Leander, a hardboiled, tough cookie who gets busted in New York for lifting a diamond bracelet from a Fifth Avenue jewelry store. MacMurray is assistant D.A. Jack Sargent, about to leave town to drive to his mother's farm in Indiana for Christmas when his boss yanks him in to prosecute Lee. Disgruntled and eager to get on the road, he takes advantage of a legal technicality and gets the case continued until after New Year's. Then he begins feeling guilty about leaving Lee in jail over the holidays and arranges to get her bailed out. To his surprise and discomfort, the bail bondsman remands Lee to his custody, and the surprise is compounded when, despite the fact that he was prosecuting her only that afternoon, the two find themselves taking a liking to one another. They even learn that they grew
up about fifty miles from each other in the same part of Indiana. So, still feeling responsible for Lee, Jack decides to take her home to spend Christmas with his mother (Beulah Bondi) and aunt (Elizabeth Patterson) and their hired hand (Sterling Holloway).

At the humble Sargent farm outside Wabash, Ind., Lee's hard shell begins to soften and melt in the glow of a household suffused by warmth, affection and mutual support -- the kind of nurturing family atmosphere that was completely missing from her own upbringing just a few towns away. This idyll of a Hoosier holiday brims with lovely moments, from Sterling Holloway leading the family in singing "The End of a Perfect Day" around the Christmas tree to the always-delightful Elizabeth Patterson (here at her sweetest) ruefully musing about her own youthful brush with romance ("I twiddled around with the idea one summer; was all right again by fall.").

Patterson's Aunt Emma sees clearly what we do: Love -- the other kind of love -- is beginning to bloom between Lee and Jack, and they allow themselves to forget -- almost -- that she's a repeat offender, and come January 3 he's going to have to try to send her to jail for a long time. 

Remember the Night wasn't marketed as a holiday movie -- it was released January 19, 1940, and besides, such a thing was almost unheard of then -- but it's one of the best and least-known. It was a hit in 1940, with Stanwyck and MacMurray already showing the sexy chemistry that would play to more sinister effect four years later in Double Indemnity. The picture was visible on TV through the 1960s and into the '70s, but was out of circulation for decades. Now that Turner Classic Movies and Universal (which owns the pre-1948 Paramount library) have partnered up to issue it on DVD, it surely won't be long before it becomes as popular and beloved as It's a Wonderful Life. Well, okay, maybe not entirely as much -- Wonderful Life has a mighty powerful mystique -- but I'm betting it won't be far behind. 

Now that the Thanksgiving leftovers have all been nestled snug in their Tupperware beds in the fridge, and as it begins to look a lot like Christmas, if you're casting about for a new movie to add to your list of holiday favorites, consider giving Remember the Night a try. There's still plenty of time to order your copy

Oh, and one more thing. Don't come around in 2037 moaning about how you're sick and tired of Remember the Night. I won't want to hear it.


Allen Pontes said...

Remember the Night" sadly goes unnoticed by many I'm sure, especially since it seems to be over shadowed so much by "...Wonderful Life" that year. Interestingly I noticed that Hollywood tried to hook us again the very next year with "The Bishop's Wife", and adding the delights of little Karolyn Grimes and Bobby Anderson. Coincidence?
Enjoy the holiday season, Jim. Nice to still be connected with you again after all these years.

Allen Pontes

VP81955 said...

Wonderful film (pun unintentional), and it's a tribute to Stanwyck and MacMurray that while watching this, you don't think of them in "Double Indemnity" (or in "There's Always Tomorrow," either). Three distinctly different films, made in three different eras (pre-WWII, WWII. mid-fifties), but with the same leads, and all three are splendid.

DorianTB said...

Jim, while I'm a big fan of DOUBLE INDEMNITY, I've never gotten an opportunity to see REMEMBER THE NIGHT. However, your endearing review has me interested in checking it out, especially with a supporting cast including Sterling Holloway (the voice of Winnie the Pooh himself!) and Elizabeth Patterson (Lucy Ricardo's neighbor/babysitter Mrs. Trumball!). And for the record, at the risk of sounding like a Philistine, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE always made me wish I could burst into the movie, grab George Bailey by the collar, and shout, "Stop letting everybody walk all over you! Tell 'em where they can get off!" It worked in the movie version of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY! :-) Anyway, great post, Jim, as always! May you and yours have a very happy holiday season!

Page said...

I enjoyed your experience with both films. If anyone grumbles about Watching "It's a Wonderful Life" during our families Christmas gathering they get the side eye and a few snippy comments.

Thanks for sharing "Remember the Night" and I agree with Allen that it is often overlooked and I'll be the first to admit that I'm guilty of that. I've enjoyed every on screen pairing of Fred and Barbara.

I will definitely add this fine film to my Christmas viewing list!

Jim Lane said...

Welcome, Allen! Glad you stopped by. For everyone's info, Allen and I are old stagemates: we were Feste and Malvolio, respectively, in Twelfth Night back in 1977. Of course, we were mere toddlers at the time...

VP, thanks for the tip on There's Always Tomorrow; that's one I've never caught up with, and I'll make a point to check it out.

Dorian, I forgive you your philistinism; personally, I've always wanted to lead the torch-and-pitchfork parade to burn down the Potter mansion. Happy Holidays to you and yours, if we don't talk again before New Year's.

Page, welcome to you, too, and have fun with your "Six Degrees of Separation" game over at My Love of Old Hollywood. I was tempted to sign on, but time and tide (of commitments) did not permit.

Grand Old Movies said...

I had a similar experience 'discovering' 'It's a Wonderful Life' in the 1970s on a late-night showing, and being astonished by the film. If it's greeted with cynicism today, that seems due more to the rampant commercialism that's general around Christmas time anyway (it seems nowadays you can't escape 'A Christmas Story' playing 24/7 at this time of year).

I first saw 'Remember the Night' at a revival showing at the NYC Film Forum about 2 years ago, so the film is obviously getting noticed. I also have the DVD---it's a beautiful print, which should help to make it a classic. But I sincerely hope that it doesn't become a round-the-clock item like Wonderful Life or Christmas Story; it has a delicate, melancholy aura that should be sampled like a fine Christmas brandy; just a little sip at a time.

Jim Lane said...

GOM, excellent point about the "fine-brandy-ness" of Remember the Night. But hey, even the finest brandy tends to flow a little freer at Christmastime.

A Christmas Story has certainly hit the stratosphere, hasn't it? Funny, but I don't recall it making that big a splash in 1983 (I still think Darren McGavin and Peter Billingsley were both robbed when Oscar noms went out), though Box Office Mojo indicates that it did rather well. Anyhow it played well at the theater where I saw it (twice) in Montclair, CA. I remember reflecting what a unique experience it was seeing a good Christmas movie for the first time in a theater full of strangers; I had known all the rest of the Christmas canon -- Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas Carol, etc. -- only through family viewings on TV (ditto for Remember the Night).

The Lady Eve said...

From the autobio Preston Sturges never published (to have been titled, "The Events Leading Up to My Death") but that his final wife published decades later ("Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges"): "In REMEMBER THE NIGHT, love reformed her and corrupted him...As it turned out, the picture had quite a lot of shmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz to make it box office."

Meanwhile, I love it.

Jim Lane said...

Eve, I've always thought Sturges's recollection of RtN in his memoirs must have been written from rather hazy memory. He enumerates three plot threads, two of which are actually present in the picture, explaining why none of them worked. Then he give what he says was his solution to the problem -- "The district attorney takes her up to the mountains [sic] for the purpose of violating the Mann Act" -- which is not present at all (the Mann Act is only obliquely alluded to, and then as a misunderstanding) and would never have gotten past the Hays Office.

Clearly, I think, Sturges had not seen the picture recently (or read his script) as he wrote. Still, his overall assessment that love reforms her and corrupts him, and his description of the picture's balance of schmaltz (sentiment), schmerz (pain) and schmutz (sex), are both right on the money.

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Dawn said...

I really enjoyed reading your "Remember The Night.", post. Which is also one of my favorite holiday classic movies, that I try and watch every year.

For those who have not yet seen this wonderful, holiday classic movie and you are into.. road trips, comedy, drama, wonderful characters, this movie is for you.

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