Stanwyck and MacMurrary draw few laughs: Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen, 1940)

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I was interested in Remember the Night because it’s one of the four films that Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurrary starred in together, and I managed to forget it’s a Christmas film but still watch it at Christmastime anyway. Stanwyck is Lea Leander, a thief who gets nabbed and put on trial shortly before Christmas. MacMurray is John Sargent, a prosecution attorney, who manages to get the trial postponed until the new year, when the jury will be more likely to convict Lea. When Lea gets bail, that leaves her with nowhere to go, and through a series of unlikely decisions, John takes her home to see her estranged mother, and then to stay with his own family over Christmas. Of course, they fall in love, which makes the impending trial all the more difficult.

Remember the Night seems to have its fans but, unfortunately, it didn’t really win me over. There’s a lot to like about it, especially if you’re after a certain type of film, and can accept that its premise is silly. It has a warm and cosy feel, with charming characters and a story that can be moving in places.

I think the problem is that Lea never seems unlikeable, to the audience or to John. He wouldn’t help her out in such a personal way if he really thought she was a terrible person, after all. When they have dinner after her first court appearance, Lea quickly shows that she’s troubled and has the potential to repent. Her decision at the end doesn’t seem hard won.

I can’t wholeheartedly accept Remember the Night as a feel good movie, either. It’s of its time when it comes to gender and race, and although that’s understandable, its attitudes keep me distanced from the story. Watching Rusty (Fred ‘Snowflake’ Toones), a black cook who’s also dim-witted, bumble about while saying “Yessur” makes me go “Nnnnghhhh” and try not to look at the screen.

Stanwyck is champing at the bit here, doing her utmost with the material, and ready to take off if given something better. Preston Sturges, this film’s writer, would make sure she got it next year with The Lady Eve, which he wrote and directed.

(There’s one moment in Remember the Night that I find inappropriately funny. Stanwyck’s staircase descent in Double Indemnity is legendary. In this film, she also has a moment in which she walks down a staircase while wearing an outfit that inspires awe. This dress, however, is fit for a barn dance and, well, it couldn’t be more different.)

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