Holiday Classics: “Remember the Night” (1940)

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck made film history when they teamed up in one of Hollywood’s greatest noir films, 1944’s “Double Indemnity”. But they actually first costarred together four years previously in the holiday romance “Remember the Night”.

Stanwyck plays Lee Leander, a shoplifter arrested for trying to steal a bracelet from a New York jewelry store. Assistant District Attorney John Sargeant (MacMurray) is assigned to prosecute her, but as it is so close to Christmas, he has the trial postponed until after the holidays, and posts Lee’s bail so she can go home for Christmas. When Lee’s family proves to be less than welcoming, John ends up taking her home with him, where she meets his kind mother (Beulah Bondi), Aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson), and klutzy cousin Willie (Sterling Holloway). Over the course of the holiday Lee and John fall in love, but Lee’s impending trial threatens their relationship.

From left to right: Barbara Stanwyck, Belulah Bondi, Fred MacMurray, Elizabeth Patterson, and Sterling Holloway in “Remember the Night”

Stanwyck plays the kind of tough and sassy lady she’s best at, and her performance makes the story even more convincing when the cold Lee warms to John. MacMurray has great chemistry with her (as evidenced by the fact that they proceeded to make three films together after this one) and, along with Holloway, provides the movie’s best comedic bits. But “Remember the Night” is almost as much drama as comedy, if not more so. Several scenes are rather melancholy, such as the terrible confrontation between Lee and her mother, and the film’s ending. Fortunately, director Mitchell Leisen and writer Preston Sturges keep the story focused, and the comedy and drama elements are balanced well so the film’s tone is consistent throughout.

“Remember the Night” was actually the last film for which the great comedic writer Preston Sturges only wrote the screenplay. He had a difficult time working with director Leisen, who made many alterations to his script, including shortening it and changing the focus from John to Lee. From then on out, Sturges wanted to have more control over his stories, so he served as director as well as writer on his films. He would make some of his greatest movies in the few years that followed, including “Sullivan’s Travels”, “The Palm Beach Story”, and “The Lady Eve”; the latter was a screwball comedy he wrote specifically for Stanwyck after working with her on “Remember the Night”.

“Remember the Night” is currently streaming for free on Peacock TV. It is also airing on Turner Classic Movies on December 18th at 8 PM EST. Runtime: 94 minutes.

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