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 whose 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 and love that would eventually reveal itself. This double side of Stanwyck’s persona is clearly on display in many of her films including this 1940 holiday comedy/drama.
Fred MacMurray is prosecuting Assistant District Attorney, John Sargent. He arranges through a legal technicality, to have Lee Leander’s (Barbara Stanwyck) trial for shoplifting postponed until after the holidays. This gesture 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. When the bondsman delivers Lee to the ADA’s apartment, she is cynical enough, and has no doubt, her payback to him will be in sexual favors. To her surprise, 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.
Soon after, finding out she is a Hoosier like himself, John agrees to take her home to visit her family who live in a nearby town from his own family. Upon their arrival, Lee’s mother turns an unwelcome, and heartless, cold shoulder toward her thieving daughter’s return, John brings her home to meet his loving homespun family. Over the course of the holiday week, Lee becomes a different person as she sees the love between John and his family, as well as the kindness and warmth they bestow on her, a complete stranger. The odd couple fall in love, but hanging over them is her court date.
After the holidays, John and Lee return to New York and Lee’s trial. Sargent attempts to throw the case, however, Lee pleads guilty when she realizes John will get in trouble for doing so. Lee is sentenced to spend a few years in jail. John wants to marry her right away before they take her away. She refuses, telling him, that if he still wants to marry when she is released, they will get married then. She is led away in handcuffs to serve her time. We are left with the hope that upon her release, John will be there waiting for her. Remember, this is the 1940’s when screen sinners had to pay for their sins.
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 this is her turning point. The cynical, shoplifting woman she was at the beginning of the film is gone. For the first time, she sees what it’s like to have a warm, loving family.
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. Stanwyck is now in a robe, her hair down. Part of it falls slightly over her face. The lighting is soft and caressing. Stanwyck never looked more beautiful.
Barbara 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 MacMurray is fine in the film, this holiday joy belongs to Stanwyck and Preston Sturges. The rest of the cast all do well, including Beulah Bondi, Sterling Holloway and Elizabeth Patterson (best known as Mrs. Trumbull in I Love Lucy). Who wouldn’t want a mother and aunt as sweet and loving as these two ladies? Especially notable is Georgia Caine, in the small though very effective role of Lee’s cold-hearted 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 much 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 the director needed her. The film was well received, though it strangely opened after the Christmas holidays in mid-January at the Paramount Theater on Broadway in New York. 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.”
This is the last post for 2014. Will be back early in 2015 with new reviews, articles and the continuation of the 101 Movies to Watch Over and Over. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Holidays and a Merry New Year.