"Right and wrong is the same everywhere, but the rights and the wrongs are different."
I don’t know why Remember The Night isn’t a "beloved Christmas classic", trotted out on television every year, except that unlike It’s a Wonderful Life it’s still in copyright and therefore costs money. But since the film is in fact neglected and underseen, I can write about it here.
The screenplay is by Preston Sturges, written shortly before his brief and blazing directorial career began – in a burst of enthusiasm, Sturges handed in a script that would have run well over two hours, and it fell to director Mitchell Leisen to cut it down. But this doesn't mean Leisen was what another Paramount Pictures screenwriter, Billy Wilder, called him, “that faggot who ruined my pictures,” a hack who tore pages out of perfect scripts and favoured art direction over story values. That bunkum needs to be laid to rest.
Sturges supplied Leisen with a beautiful but unwieldy script, and Leisen’s cutting is seamless and intelligent, preserving the startling shifts of tone, and even genre, of the original work.
Sturges began by integrating Christmas into his story, while forcing together two rather unusual characters. Fred MacMurray is a young assistant D.A. in New York, who has a recognised talent for convicting women: his soft touch works around the natural sympathies of jurors for the fair sex. Barbara Stanwyck plays a glamorous jewel thief, glib and completely unrepentant, watching her defence counsel’s courtroom histrionics with frank amusement. Realising that festive goodwill may result in an acquittal, MacMurray asks for an adjournment on spurious grounds, so that the case will be concluded in the new year, but then feels bad about Stanwyck facing Christmas in the slammer. Bedford Hills isn’t exactly Bedford Falls, so he bails her out.
Now the problem is that she’s got nowhere to stay. MacMurray offers to drive her to her mother’s house in Indiana, since he’s on his way to spend the holidays with his own mom in the same state, although technically this means violating her parole (violating the Mann Act isn’t raised as a serious possibility until later).
At this point we’re yanked out of screwball territory into something far darker, emotionally and photographically. Stanwyck’s mother is a God-fearing puritan who rejects her daughter for having sinned. She even seems to take grim pleasure in seeing that her instinctive dislike of her offspring has been justified by subsequent events. Not only does this grim scene derail the comedy, it flips around our perception of Stanwyck’s charmingly amoral character, now revealed as the victim of a loveless upbringing.
Having seen off her daughter, the mother goes back into the house and turns off the lantern: she lives in the dark, like an ulcer. But as MacMurray tries to reassure Stanwyck outside, we see the mother peer through the curtains at them – is she having second thoughts? The point isn’t pursued, nor is it even accorded a cutaway shot, but it’s a little grace note. Leisen doesn’t like pure villains.
MacMurray is now forced to take the felon he’s trying to convict home to meet mother. Here the film moves from screwball, past that little noir insert, into bucolic sentimentality, exemplified by Sterling Holloway’s rendition of "The End of a Perfect Day." It could easily be ghastly. I would argue that it’s devastatingly effective, but you just have to see it for yourself.
If heart-warming isn’t your style, you’re still in luck, since Sturges decided to leaven the “schmaltz” with “schmutz”, and the sexual tension builds nicely. MacMurray and Stanwyck were always good together: his modesty as an actor (he considered himself a sax player who got lucky) translates into a likeable low-key presence, and she’s an emotional powerhouse whose nuances Leisen follows with a sensitive eye.
"In Remember the Night, love reformed her and corrupted him." - Preston Sturges.
Genre-shift again: doomed romanticism sweeps in like a storm front. The lovers embrace at a studio-built frozen Niagara. Will MacMurray sacrifice his career to save Stanwyck? Will she let him? The film not only abandons all pretence at comedy, it benefits from having got the laughs out of the way in act one. The second courtroom scene is the opposite of the first, as a comedy defence is supplanted by a tragic prosecution. By subjecting Stanwyck to a savage cross-examination, MacMurray hopes to make the jury sympathise with her. Now he's the criminal, willing to throw away his whole career and perpetrate a travesty of justice in the name of love. But will she let him?
This is one of the few Sturges stories where he forces himself to play completely fair and follow the drama through to its logical conclusion: no Morgan's Creek miracle can be allowed to save the day, so he's authentically painted himself into a corner where a wholly happy ending is just not possible. The grace and sensistivity with which Sturges and Leisen play the ending out testifies to their unique talents.
The tonal shifts that dominate Remember the Night have echoes both in Sturges’s later films, and in other Leisen movies, but for too long, films like Swing High, Swing Low, Hands Across the Table and Remember the Night have been neglected, robbing audiences of the chance to appreciate some of the boldest dramatic mood swings in classical Hollywood cinema.
THE FORGOTTEN is a Thursday column by the author of Shadowplay.