The Perfect Yuletide Mix of Schmaltz, Schmerz and Schmutz

That was how Preston Sturges described his screenplay for Remember the Night (1940), directed by Mitchell Leisen. Overlooked and underrated for years, this small scale but intimate romantic drama has become a Christmas favorite in recent years thanks to frequent airings on TCM and its availability on DVD.  

The Sargent family, which includes the matriach (Beulah Bondi, second from left), her son John (Fred McMurray), Aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson) and Willie (Sterling Holloway, lower right) welcome Lee Leander (Barbara Stanywck) to their Christmas gathering in REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940).

I suspect that one of the reasons for the movie’s new popularity is because it’s a welcome alternative to the heavy rotation play of It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, the 24 hour marathon of A Christmas Story on TBS or any of the many film versions of A Christmas Carol that come with the season. While it does have some of the darkness of Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, it avoids the joyous, uplifting ending of that film or most family-friendly holiday fare and opts for a distinctly bittersweet mood instead. Yes, there are a few brief detours into sentimentality and cornball humor with some old-fashioned moralizing thrown in but it’s refreshing to see a movie set during the Christmas holidays that reminds us of what the season can be like for the less fortunate and how an act of charity can be truly transforming for both the giver and the receiver.

Remember the Night takes place a few days before Christmas and opens with a jewelry store robbery and the thief, Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck), being apprehended. Through a series of mishaps, John Sargent (Fred MacMurray), a prosecuting attorney, ends up playing guardian to the shoplifter until after the holidays when the trial can resume. So, despite some reservations, John decides to take Lee along with him to his family’s home for the holidays. What could have dissolved into a trite, sappy love story becomes something deeper and richer in feeling thanks to Sturges’ sharp dialogue and characterizations.

A rare moment of cornball country humor in the bittersweet romantic comedy REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940), set during the Christmas season and starring Barbara Stanwyck & Fred MacMurray.

Stanwyck’s character is like a warm-up role for her supremely sexy gold digger in The Lady Eve (made the very next year by Sturges who must have realized her potential here). She’s dishonest, selfish, cynical and calculating but her self-confidence is at an all-time low. And it’s her vulnerability and yearning for what she never had that disarms us and MacMurray’s character. MacMurray, on the other hand, seems quick to judge with the smug self-satisfaction of an inveterate do-gooder. Yet during their road trip he begins to drop his guard as well.

The second half of Remember the Night details the growing attraction between the attorney and his charge but Leisen and Sturges are not afraid to mix in some gloom amid the Yuletide trappings. Lee’s formative years are summed up in one brief, ugly scene where she visits her hateful mother (who shuns her at the doorstep) and you get a sense of her miserable childhood.

Lee (Barbara Stanwyck, left) confides in Mrs. Sargent (Beulah Bondi), the mother of the man she is falling in love with, in the 1940 Yuletide classic REMEMBER THE NIGHT.

Even during her happiest moments with John’s family, Lee realizes she is an outsider who probably doesn’t deserve the life she longs for. The film may lack the happy, feel-good ending of Stanwyck’s other popular holiday picture, Christmas in Connecticut (1945), but it seems more realistic and ends on a note of redemption and hope. We’re rooting for these characters to make it. Maybe they will.

A tender moment between Lee (Barbara Stanwyck) and John (Fred MacMurray) in REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940), the first of their four-film collaborations.

Remember the Night marked the first pairing of Stanwyck and MacMurray and it’s a great matchup. It’s also intriguing to think of their fatalistic relationship in Double Indemnity four years later (They would appear in two more films after that, The Moonlighter [1953] and There’s Always Tomorrow [1956], an excellent Douglas Sirk romantic drama). This 1940 release also makes you wonder what Sturges would have done if he had actually directed it. Leisen is certainly no slouch and has made some swell romantic comedies (Hands Across the Table, Midnight) but the film’s pacing is somewhat erratic with radical mood shifts along the way. In some ways though this is part of the film’s non-formulaic appeal.

Barbara Stanwyck feeds director Mitchell Leisen a piece of cake on the set of REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940).

For Sturges, the movie marked a major turning point in his career. The experience intensified his determination to direct his own screenplays and within the same year, he made his directorial debut with The Great McGinty.

Remember the Night was not a happy experience for Sturges, however, as Leisen did not faithfully follow the final script, often discarding written scenes and deleting others in the editing process. In his autobiography, Sturges was completely frank about the problems facing him on Remember the Night: “At the studio, writing Remember the Night for my new producer, Al Lewin, almost caused me to commit hara-kiri several times, but I postponed it for some later assignment. The trouble was in finding a way to get some pizazz into the story. When I had Fred MacMurray, as the district attorney, take Barbara Stanwyck, the girl on trial for theft, up to the mountains to reform her, the script died of pernicious anemia. When I had him take her up because his conscience bothered him for having had her trial continued until after the Christmas season, it perished from lack of oxygen. When I had him take her up moved by charitable impulse and the Yuletide spirit, it expired from galloping eunuchery. So I thought of a novelty. The district attorney takes her up to the mountains for the purpose of violating the Mann Act. This has always been a good second act. It is an act enjoyed by all, one that we rarely tire of, and one not above the heads of the audience. In Rain, for instance, the preacher started to reform her and ended up laying her like a carpet. In Remember the Night, love reformed her and corrupted him, which gave us the finely balanced moral that one man’s meat is another man’s poison, or caveat emptor. As it turned out, the picture had quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz to make it box office.”

Lee (Barbara Stanwyck) and John (Fred MacMurray) take a coffee break on the road during the Christmas holiday season in REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940), written by Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen.

The critics certainly agreed with Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times voicing sentiments shared by most of his peers: “Remember the Night…is the real curtain-raiser for 1940, the first word of reassurance Hollywood has offered since ’39 went into the past. It is a memorable film, in title and in quality, blessed with an honest script, good direction and sound performance. Perhaps this is a bit too early in the season to be talking of the best pictures of 1940; it is not too early to say that Paramount’s nomination is worth considering.” Unfortunately, Remember the Night received no Oscar nominations in a year that had plenty of stiff competition: The Grapes of Wrath, The Letter, Rebecca, The Philadelphia Story, The Great Dictator, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, The Westerner, Our Town, and Waterloo Bridge to name a few.

The Sargent clan welcome their visitor Lee (Barbara Stanwyck, second from left) to their holiday gathering while John (Fred MacMurray) plays the piano in REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940).

Still, Remember the Night has slowly been acquiring a new generation of fans thanks to its wide availability now and reassessments by such film scholars as David Thomson, who wrote, “It is close to a great film, and arguably the most human love story Preston Sturges ever wrote.” And popular movie bloggers like the Self-Styled Siren and David Cairns have championed its many virtues. Cairns, in particular, pinpointed part of the movie’s compelling appeal: “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.”

A publicity still from the 1940 Christmas favorite REMEMBER THE NIGHT.

So, if you’re still in the mood for a December tale on Christmas day or during the Yuletide season and haven’t seen Remember the Night, what are you waiting for?

A shoplifter (Barbara Stanwyck) and a district attorney (Fred MacMurray) get to know each other better over the Christmas holidays in REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940).

The film has been released on various formats over the years but in November 2018 Universal released a Blu-ray edition that was fully restored and digitally remastered from the original 35mm film elements (pictured below). Even better is the Blu-ray edition issued by Indicator in December 2022 which includes a host of extras including an 80 page book and two Lux Radio Theatre productions, one featuring MacMurray & Stanwyck, the other with MacMurray and Jean Arthur (you will need an all region player to view the Indicator edition).

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