About halfway through watching REMEMBER THE NIGHT on TCM I had a momentary pause. “How?” I wondered, “How have I never seen a movie THIS good?” Now that Thanksgiving is past I am finally allowing myself to start watching Christmas movies and thankfully, TCM is there with a great one! My first movie of the holiday season is a fantastic film written by Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen, REMEMBER THE NIGHT from 1940.
Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is a girl with a penchant for taking things that she can’t afford. One day in New York City, Lee walks off with an expensive bracelet. The theft is immediately noticed and when Lee goes to a local pawn shop, she is trapped inside by the owner who has heard about the bracelet going missing and recognizes it immediately. This isn’t Lee’s first run in with the law, in fact it is her third offense. That means possible jail time and what with it being almost Christmas, the more offenses mean the more likely a conviction. At least that is what the District Attorney (Paul Guilfoyle) is betting on. He calls up prosecutor John Sargent (Fred MacMurray), who happens to be getting read to travel back home to Indiana for Christmas. John, much to his dismay, is assigned the case and heads off to court to bring the state’s case against Lee. He isn’t too thrilled, because not only is his trip being delayed but juries are notoriously lax at Christmastime. It won’t be so easy for him to get a conviction.
In the courtroom Lee’s attorney is putting on a Broadway show, explaining to the entranced jury that Lee was not responsible for her actions. Why the poor girl was hypnotized into an acute state of schizophrenia by the beauty of the jewels on her wrist! Rather than objecting to this dog and pony show, John sits quietly biding his time. When the defense rests John steps forward and requests that he be granted a continuance, as his only expert witness who could address the defense’s claims of psychiatric disorder is out of town until after Christmas. As the defense has rested and the prosecution can’t offer a case without their expert, the judge has not alternative but to adjourn the case until January. Lee is less than thrilled with the continuance, as she will now be remanded to the jail until her court date unless she can post $5000 bail. On her way out she throws a sarcastic “I hope YOU have a ‘Merry Christmas'” to John, who asks his clerk to get Fat Mike the bondsman. Fat Mike appears and John asks him to get him a $5000 bond for “a friend”. Fat Mike is all wink wink, nudge nudge, no charge, and “she’s out”.
John returns to his apartment and continues packing for his trip home. Soon there is a knock on the door, and Fat Mike drops off an indignant Lee. After a bit of confusion, it is finally cleared up that John is just as surprised as Lee and that he did NOT ask Fat Mike to bring her up to his apartment at all, and she is welcome to leave any time she likes. So naturally, Lee says that she will stay. When John tells her that he is getting ready to leave for a trip home and actually could she please go, Lee wonders where John intends for her to go? John offers to square her bill at the hotel she was staying at, but the price is a bit too steep for him. As their discussion isn’t getting them anywhere, John offers to take Lee to a dinner club to get something to eat.
Over drinks and dinner, Lee and John discuss life and life philosophies. It seems that Lee has been taking things for as long as she can remember. She tells John that everyone believes in right and wrong, but right and wrong mean different things to different people. For example, if John was broke and starving to death he would steal a loaf of bread to eat. But if Lee was broke and starving to death, she would get a six course dinner in the restaurant across the street and then say she lost her purse. While they sit together talking, who should stop to talk with John but the very judge who is presiding over Lee’s trial! Shocked by John’s dinner companion, he hurries away with his wife. As the meal draws to a close and the two prepare to part ways until the trial reconvenes, Lee asks John for one more dance. They move across the dance floor to the tune of “My Indiana Home”, and discover that they are both Hoosiers from towns just fifty miles apart. John offers to take Lee home for Christmas, asking how long it has been since she was home. Lee, it turns out, has never been back ever since she ran away. She has only heard from her mother once, a letter she received telling her that her father had died. She isn’t even sure if her mother is still alive, though she hopes so.
The two set off on their Christmas road trip and soon hit a speed bump, literally. Part of the road is under construction and they have to take a detour down a country road. Completely turned around and lost, the two weary travelers decide it best to sleep in the car overnight and start again in the morning. They are awakened by the sounds of cows mooing, and not that far off. In fact, the cars are all around them and even in the car with them! John offers to milk the cows for their breakfast, but is interrupted by a rifle in his face. The landowner has discovered them, and mistaken them for trespassers. Placing them under citizen’s arrest, the man leads Lee and John to the local courthouse to stand trial. John tries to use his skills as a lawyer to explain the situation, but the judge is unwilling to listen and be pushed around by New Yorkers! Lee, sensing that this is getting them nowhere, creates a distraction by setting fire to a wastebasket. While the judge and the landowner race about put out said fire, Lee and John hurry off to their car to make a quick escape.
John and Lee finally arrive at Lee’s mother’s farm. Nervous, Lee asks John to go with her to the door which he agrees to readily. Lee knocks on the door and is greeted by a man, who turns out to be her mother’s new husband. He calls to his wife to come to the door and now it is Lee’s mother (Georgia Caine) who appears. But if John was expecting to see a warm mother-daughter reunion, he is to be disappointed. Lee’s mother is a cold and disapproving woman, who instead of welcoming home her lost daughter, berates her and extolls all her shortcomings and faults. She tells Lee to leave, that no one wants her here and that she has always been a disappointment to her family. Outside, Lee breaks down and begs John not to leave her here with these people. John agrees and offers to take her home with him, to spend Christmas with his family.
Finally, they arrive at John’s home and are greeted by his mother (Beluah Bondi), his Aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson), and their simple minded field hand, Willie (Sterling Holloway). Lee is surprised to find that she is welcomed with open hearts and arms, and treated like one of the family. She even gets presents from the family for Christmas! John, fearing that his mother might get the wrong idea about why he brought Lee with him, tells her all about Lee’s troubled past and her current prosecution. While things are platonic between John and Lee, his mother has no concerns and even comes to care for Lee as a daughter. But during the New Year’s dance, things between the two become more romantic and John’s mother begins to worry. On the night before they are to leave she comes to Lee’s room. John loves Lee, this is clear to her, but as fond as she has become of Lee she is afraid that entering into a relationship with her will damage John’s career and reputation. John has worked so hard to get where he is today, and she doesn’t’ want anything to ruin that. Lee agrees to stop things from going any further with John, even though she loves him deeply. It is because of her love, and his mother’s plea, that Lee insists on returning to New York to stand trial even as John offers to leave her in Canada instead.
Back in the courtroom the judge is convinced, having seen the two of them together at dinner, that John will try to throw they case in favor of Lee. But as they start, John seems to be going at Lee harder than ever. He is hounding her on the witness stand, challenging her testimony, and demanding answers like a man on a mission. But his mission is not to convict Lee, but to garner sympathy for her from the jury. If he appears too hard on her the jury will surely vote in her favor, if only out of compassion. But Lee senses what he is doing, and fearing for his career and reputation, begs the judge to accept her plea of guilty!
This is such an underrated and under appreciated film. I am so glad that I got a chance to see it on TCM, not just by myself but along with the members of #TCMParty on Twitter. If you aren’t familiar, #TCMParty is basically a viewing party via Twitter so that classic film fans can all watch the same film and tweet about it. Many of us were seeing REMEMBER THE NIGHT for the first time that night, and we were all stunned at how good this film is. The Preston Sturges script is so witty and smart, so funny and so touching. This was the last film that Sturges made as strictly a screenwriter. Tired of watching directors change his scripts during filming, including this one, Sturges made the move to writer/director/producer and thank God he did. But the story of REMEMBER THE NIGHT is so good, so well though out, and so well written it makes the movie truly special. I don’t think anyone could write a story like Preston Sturges. This film goes from comedy, to pathos, to drama, to romance, and back again. And it does it in a way that makes perfect sense to the story and to the characters. The acting is top notch too. This is the first of what would be four collaborations between Stanwyck and MacMurray, and even this early on in the partnership you can really see the chemistry. You believe they are in love and not movie love but real, honest, make you popovers in the morning love. Also, can we just take a moment here to talk about how fantastic Barbara Stanwyck is? There is a scene in which Lee has just been left in her new room by Aunt Sara, after receiving a nightgown to sleep in. Barbara Stanwyck has no lines, but just does everything on her face and in her eyes. In that moment you know exactly what Lee is thinking and feeling, and without one word ever being said. All in all, I really loved this movie. So much so, I ordered it from TCM after the viewing because I wanted to add it to my collection to watch during Christmas time for years to come. If you get the chance to see this movie, do it! It is a fantastic movie any time of the year, but I am so glad that it was my first Christmas movie of the season!