Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 25 December 2004
Source Universal Studios VHS
Four years before they teamed up for Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray appeared jointly in the romantic Christmas tale Remember the Night. Although Remember the Night is a far gentler story, the chemistry between its stars, especially in the last half hour, hints at the sexually-charged electricity the pair would generate in the later film.
The movie begins with a rapid-paced scene depicting Stanwyck’s character, Lee Leander (who may or may not have been a prototype for her character in The Lady Eve), shoplifting an expensive diamond bracelet from a New York City store. The action swiftly moves to the courtroom, where Lee watches bemusedly as her melodramatic defense attorney makes an emotional plea for her acquittal. It’s Christmastime, he explains, and she could very well have been hypnotized. Sensing the jurors falling for this act, John Sargeant, the prosecutor played by MacMurray, intervenes, asking for a continuation so experts can be brought in to verify the defense’s ludicrous charges. To Lee’s dismay, the judge agrees, and she finds herself facing jail time for the holidays.
The sight of Lee being dragged off to prison triggers something in John’s conscience, prompting him to plop down the money needed for her bail. He then sets on his merry way, his impending trip home to his mother’s farm in Indiana for the holidays outweighing any other matter on his mind. It is to his great surprise, then, when he returns to his apartment to find Lee sitting in the middle of his living room, having been dumped there by the bailiff. At a loss for what to do, John reluctantly agrees to give her a lift back home for the holidays. Unsurprisingly, the feelings they develop for each other along the way lead to complications when they return to Manhattan.
Directed by Mitchell Leisen from a screenplay by Preston Sturges (who had yet to cut his teeth as a director), the movie, while unabashedly sentimental, contains some surprising moments that temporarily knock it out of its conventional mold. Although its wholesome depiction of the American heartland mirrors Vincente Minelli’s rendering of small-town life in Meet Me in St. Louis (which was made four years after this film), Leisen’s handling of the romance between Stanwyck and MacMurray is decidedly more complex, and in the end, unexpectedly moving. While many romance films of the era imply that love entails sacrifice (usually on the part of the woman), Remember the Night boldly envisions both of its characters as willing to change for each other. Ultimately, honesty triumphs, and Lee takes the fall, but she does so voluntarily, having been given the opportunity by John to take the easy way out.
Unlike the pictures Sturges would go on to direct, Remember the Night is full of moments celebrating traditional family life. It is implied that Lee’s waywardness stems from her mother’s outward disdain towards her, whereas John’s upstanding character is attributed to his warm, hard-working mother, played by Beulah Bondi. Life of the farm is given a nod of approval for its wholesomeness, whereas city comes across as somewhat corrupting.
Although MacMurray delivers (with the exception of the movie’s final scenes) a disappointingly bland performance as John, betraying none of the wit or darkness Jimmy Stewart was able to bring to similar characters, Stanwyck shows herself perfectly primed for the knockout roles she would take on during the rest of the decade. In a single glance, she is able to convey Lee’s restlessness, hope, and despair, transforming a character who could have easily been unsympathetic or unconvincing into a fully-rounded human being. Remember the Night has been long buried in the pantheon of Christmas movies, and Stanwyck is easily the best reason to resurrect it.