Barbara Stanwyck was always at her best when her character came from the wrong side of the tracks. She seemed to have a natural affinity for those who lives have mostly been filled with hard times, scrapping by the best way they can. Maybe it had to do with her sad Brooklyn upbringing, her mother dying when she was four, pushed from a streetcar by a drunk, and her father leaving only weeks later, never heard from again. That kind of pain has to leave an indelible mark on one for life. Yet, beneath the tough exterior would hide a gentle desirous heart longing for acceptance that would eventually show itself.
This double side of Stanwyck’s persona is clearly on display in an early scene in the 1940 holiday comedy/drama, “Remember the Night,” when Fred MacMurray’s prosecuting Assistant District Attorney John Sargent arranges, through a legal technicality, to have Lee Leander’s (Barbara Stanwyck) trial for shoplifting postponed until after the holidays. This results in Lee, unable to post bail, having to spend the long holiday week in a jail cell. Sargent, in a twinge of guilt, or holiday spirit, arranges through a shady bondsman to have Lee’s five thousand dollars bail paid for. When the bondsman delivers Lee to the ADA’s apartment, she is cynical enough to have no doubt her payback to him will be in sexual favors. To her surprise ADA Sargent expects nothing in return. He really just did not want her to spend Christmas in jail. The look of surprise in Lee’s eyes and face is priceless when this realization hits her.
Okay, so the plot of “Remember the Night” is implausible; a young ADA, paying a woman’s bail so she would not have to spend Christmas in the clink. Soon after, finding out she is a Hoosier, like himself, he agrees to take her home to visit her family. When her mother turns a heartless cold shoulder toward her daughter’s return, the ADA brings the woman home to meet his loving homespun family. Over the course of the week the couple falls in love. After the holidays, they return to New York and Lee’s trial. Sargent attempts to throw the case, however Lee pleads guilty when she realizes he may get in trouble for doing so. She is led away in handcuffs to serve her time hoping Sargent will still be in love with her after she is released. Improbable, oh yes! Also warm, humorous and a great Christmas film, all that too!
The script is sharply written with plenty of witty dialogue, as you would expect, from a Preston Sturges screenplay. Still, Sturges was not happy with the film, mainly due to cuts and changes made to the script by Paramount house director Mitchell Leisen. He thought Leisen put too much “schmaltz” in for the sake of commercialism. Sturges was so unhappy that for his next screenplay, “The Great McGinty,” he sold the script to Paramount for the price of one dollar, with one stipulation, he would get to direct! Sturges also told Barbara Stanwyck during the production of the film he was going to write a screwball comedy for her, and sure enough, the following year they made one of the best, “The Lady Eve.”
Stanwyck lights up the screen. Watch her during the scene in the Sargent family home; John is playing the piano as his mother, aunt and cousin sit by listening. The camera focuses on Stanwyck soaking in the joy and the warmth that fills this loving home, something she has never experienced with her own family. Sentimental yes, but very touching.
Stanwyck gives a wonderful performance, and additionally the woman is very sexy, even in a bathrobe! After the New Year’s Eve barn dance, back at the house Mrs. Sargent (Beulah Bondi) is talking to Lee in her bedroom. Lee had previously changed into a bathrobe when Mrs. Sargent knocks on her door. Her hair is down and part of it fall slightly over her face. The lighting is soft and caressing, and Stanwyck never looked more beautiful. Stanwyck seemed to bring out the best in Fred MacMurray. They made four films together of which this was their first. In 1944, they made one of the best film noirs, “Double Indemnity” followed by “The Moonlighter” (1953) and “There’s Always Tomorrow “(1956). While Fred MacMurray is fine in the film, this holiday joy belongs to Stanwyck and Preston Sturges. The rest of the cast does well including Beulah Bondi, Sterling Holloway, Elizabeth Patterson (best known as Mrs. Trumbull in “I Love Lucy”) and especially notable is Georgia Caine, in the small though very effective role of Lee’s cold unforgiving mother.
Director Mitchell Leisen was no auteur, but he was a solid craftsman who made some fine films. Generally, he was at his best when he worked with good screenwriters like Sturges or Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett (“Midnight” and “Hold Back the Dawn”). The studios liked Leisen because he worked quickly and was always on time and within budget. According to a TCM article on the film, Leisen brought in “Remember the Night” eight days and $50,000 under budget, however he gave most of the credit to Barbara Stanwyck who he says was the ultimate professional. This included the wearing of a painful old fashion corset for the barn dance sequence which she wore for hours between takes wanting to be prepared just in case he needed her.
The film was well received when it strangely opened after the Christmas holidays in mid January at the Paramount Theater on Broadway in New York. The New York Times film credit Frank S. Nugent called it “the real curtain raiser for 1940……a memorable film in title and in quality, blessed with an honest script and sound direction.”
Note: This is a revised version of an earlier review from 2008 which has been deleted.