When a fallen woman shows up in a feel good movie, it’s a safe bet her reason for being there is to be redeemed, and when that movie in question was released in 1939, it’s an even safer bet her redemption will come in the form of a man. This reality of the film is worth noting as an example of how popular culture has and continues to reinforce the patriarchy, but beyond this fact it is not, at least to me, distasteful as a theme. After all, male or female, (and of course I’m talking outside of a religious context here) who doesn’t want to be redeemed? Less forgivable, however, is the film’s depiction of its sole African American character, a butler played by Fred “Snowflake” Toones. It is, in a word, cringeworthy. But if you can hold your nose and get past these things (Toones’ part is confined to the beginning of the film), Remember the Night offers up a warm-hearted, satisfying, and surprisingly complex melodrama.
What it’s about: Written by Preston Sturges and starring Barbara Stanwyck as Lee Leander and Fred MacMurray as John Sargent, Remember the Night is basically an opposites attract story of a jewelry thief and the lawyer tasked with convicting her. Without going into the whole plot, suffice to say, they get thrown together and spend the holidays at John’s country farm in Indiana. Charming cottages, well-meaning matchmaking aunts, Christmas cheer, and barn dances ensue.
Remember the Night is pretty ham-fisted, thematically. Lee wasn’t loved as a child. Had she been, she wouldn’t have turned out the way she has. We know this both because Barbara Stanwyck is beautiful and charming as Lee and because if that isn’t enough the movie pretty much straight up tells us. What makes it work, however, is that even though she is thrown into an environment straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, Mitchell Liesen, the director, nevertheless manages to keep it real. Well, real enough anyway.
Liesen does so primarily via deft, understated touches that carry an undercurrent of melancholy. When Aunt Emma opens the package containing her old dress she wants Lea to wear to the dance, on top is a stack of letters. She holds them for a moment and then simply tosses them aside. In that stack of letters is her whole story, a spinster’s story. We know this just as assuredly and much more effectively than if she had told us. Later, the technique is repeated when Mrs. Sargent on her way to bed catches a glimpse of her late husband’s portrait. After staring silently into the distance, she goes to talk to Lea. She knows Lea and John are in love but asks Lea to consider the impact a relationship between them would likely have on his career, effectively breaking the spell Lea is under.
In addition to these silent soliloquys, Liesen, or perhaps Sturgis, or perhaps both, include small exchanges between family members that personalize the story and ground it in a way that’s sure to be familiar to anyone who’s ever been part of a family. For example, when Lea offers to play the piano for them, cousin Sterling, played by Willie Simms, enthusiastically counters, “I can sing the end of A Perfect Day.” Openly unimpressed in only the way a family member can be, Mrs. Sargent calls his name reproachfully, looking at him with that stern, “now we’ll not be having any of your nonsense” glare that all mothers know. These touches and others like them prevent the story from becoming a maudlin mess while still allowing the audience to fall willingly for the idea that Lea is transformed by John, yes, but also by the entire social milieu. Which leaves us with one question: So what happens when they have to return for that court date in New York? I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anybody, so I’ll leave it at that. Suffice to say, the ending is in keeping with the tone and sophistication of the rest of film.
Recommended for fans of Christmas movies, fans of Stanwyck, and fans of movies that invite compassion and understanding while nevertheless maintaining a black and white moral compass, so long as you approach it with the understanding that it is a product of its times in some unfortunate and distasteful ways.