Originally reviewed Remember the Night on December 16th, 2011
We journey back to 1940 for today’s 25 Days of Christmas film featuring two huge stars of day, Remember the Night. I found this movie via Wikipedia and only knew it was the first film pairing up Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck; four years later they’d go on to make the film noir classic Double Indemnity. This film is a frothy tale with a script by Preston Sturges that if it were to be remade would be laughed out of the studio because of a fast and loose wrangling of the legal system. Despite that, and its overt themes of urging women back into the home, it’s a sweet romance covered in Christmas snow.
Lee Leander (Stanwyck) is arrested and put on trial for shoplifting a diamond bracelet. The District Attorney prosecuting her, Jack Sargent (MacMurray) doesn’t think he’ll win the case so close to Christmas and asks for a continuance since the jury won’t be so sympathetic after the holiday. Unfortunately, that leaves Lee nowhere but the jail to spend Christmas. Out of guilt, Jack bails out Lee, but Lee still doesn’t have anywhere to go and decides to tag along with Jack. Jack takes her to visit her mother on his way to drop Lee off with her family, but that doesn’t go so smoothly leaving Lee to go with Jack to his Indiana home.
I may have given a lot of the plot away but it’s only an hour and a half film and moves very quickly. The core of the story is Jack taking Lee to visit his family and the two falling in love, but that takes a good 30 minutes to get going. The movie is sweet and pretty standard of 1940s romance films, if you want inspiration for The Notebook you’ll find it here (two characters on opposite ends of the tracks falling in love over insurmountable odds…blah, blah, blah). I enjoyed the film but didn’t find anything memorable in it other than the leads. It’s one of those movies you can turn on, zone out, and come back to realize you know exactly where it’s going. From the minute you meet Lee and Jack you know they’ll fall in love.
That led me to the big problem with this film. I don’t know what version of the justice system they’re referring to, and mind you I only have a Law and Order degree in law, but I’m sure there’s not a chance in hell anyone would allow the District Attorney to bail out a defendant and take her to visit his family for Christmas…whether she’s a woman or not! What if Lee was a murderer? I doubt her legs and husky voice would compel Jack to free her. And sure they make her a thief, but would you want to travel in a car with a known, high-end robber who would probably steal everything you own? Yes, I know Jack’s family gives her the milk of human kindness and it’s that kindness which makes her fall in love, but I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t give up a life of crime for a piece of ass! I know I’m being cynical, but come on! On top of that, they continue to let Jack try the case, even though he’s planning on marrying Lee! Do these people not know “conflict of interest?” Lee is so worried she’ll ruin Jack’s career yet she already has! Jack would probably be disbarred for having a relationship with a defendant, it would allow all future defendants to think if they just slept with the prosecutor they’d get off (see Jeff Bridges and Glenn Close in Jagged Edge to see how a real version of this movie would play out).
Once the duo get to Indiana, you’re forced into seeing the stereotypical “hick” characters a la The Grapes of Wrath. There’s the spinster aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson), the loveable goof cousin Willie (Sterling Holloway who you’ll immediately recognize as the voice of the Cheshire Cat), and the loving mama (Beulah Bondi). The characters giggle over people thinking they’re “hicks,” but they don’t do anything to dispel the notion, with the film culminating in a barn dance. The movie also forces Lee to prove how female she is to win Jack, complete with Jack’s mother trying to talk up Lee’s cooking skills, and forcing her into a corset! I know it was the 1940s, the war was still going on, but I’m not sure if they were trying to push Lee on Jack because she’s female or to get you to see how reformed from a life of crime she is? Either way it’s a mixed message.
The chemistry between Stanwyck and MacMurray is electric and I’m sure it’s what proved to someone that they should make Double Indemnity. I wasn’t too kind to Stanwyck when I reviewed Clash by Night, but I really enjoyed her in this. For one she’s fully embraced her beauty in this film, and she’s a character who could be good or bad (which worked to her advantage in Indemnity). Her relationship with MacMurray is sweet and there’s enough sexual tension to cut with a knife. I’m not a fan of MacMurray-I haven’t forgiven him for playing an utter tool in The Apartment-but he’s sweet, strong and commanding as Jack.
Remember the Night is cute, but it’s unmemorable. The movie has a confused tone and message, and simply ends because the Hays Code dictated how it should end. It’s a film to see as it totally highlights the 1940s standard of film and what the Hays Code dictated (without spoiling anything let’s just say the bad guy needs to be punished). The two leads are good but the movie is just too bland and cookie cutter for them.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.