My Favorite Christmas Movie: Remember the Night at Film Forum

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12/24/2013 10:12 AM |

remember the night movie 1940 barbara stanwyck fred macmurray

The best time to go to the movies in New York City—to do anything in New York City—is right around Christmas, when the city is emptied out and seems, more than at any other time, to be basically a dream. So many people in New York are from somewhere else. Think about Nick Carraway, preparing to leave the city, and his reverie of journeys back West at Christmas, beautiful prep-school kids gathering on train platforms and then dropping off one by one, “unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.”

Remember the Night, which plays at Film Forum for a week beginning Christmas as part of its Barbara Stanwyck retrospective, is a movie about the time of year when the American hometown calls its own back with “a twitch upon the thread.” Scored to the strains of “Back Home Again in Indiana,” the film is a deeply moving return journey into the heart of the country.

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Remember the Night opens with a gauzy, slightly unreal close-up on a wrist which sparkles cold with jewels. When Lee Leander (Stanwyck) walks out of SE Meyer and Company into the bustle of Fifth Avenue, the bracelet still on her wrist, it does indeed begin a chain of events which leads inexorably to an odd coupling with her goody-two-shoes prosecuting attorney; but though the film, written by Preston Sturges, comes out of the urbane, often urban cycle of screwball comedy, this thief is a third-time offender, not a penthouse kook like a Carole Lombard or Katharine Hepburn character. Her prosecutor, Jack Sargent (Fred MacMurray), has the kind of nonthreatening corn-fed good looks that make him ideal for locking up ladies in the docket, but after Lee’s attorney stemwinds a load of bunkum that the jury seems to buy (Sturges loved hucksters, he was a huckster himself), Sargent gets a continuance until the holiday spirit has passed.

Sargent, who lives the unexamined life of a movie bachelor in prewar Manhattan, complete with mumblemouthed black servant in white coat (it’s embarrassing, but it could be worse, and it’s over quickly), is jarred by his conscience when he realizes that Lee will be locked up over Christmas. So he bails her out. Then he discovers that this fallen woman, like him, is sprung from an Indiana home. So he offers her a ride. (Stanwyck’s priceless delivery of “You’re a hoosier!,” a wonderful guileless exclamation of solidarity from one expat meeting another in the big city, is surely the basis of a similar line, with the same geography but a very different implication, in the screwball-inflected The Hudsucker Proxy.)

Following this is some mismatched road-trip hijinx (pay close attention to Stanwyck’s explanation of what a “bubble dancer” does), with detours into hick slapstick and small-town small-mindedness. Asked earlier in the film if her mother is still alive, Lee stops short—she doesn’t know. Stanwyck, of course, did know—when she was a very little girl in Brooklyn, her mother was pushed by a drunk off a moving streetcar, and died from her injuries—and so when her movie-mother hoves out from within a forbiddingly darkened and cold-looking farmhouse, full of ancient recriminations and venal piety, it’s both a shockingly calm depiction of blood-deep red-state evil, and, arguably, an effective stand-in for Stanwyck’s origins as an orphan of Classon Avenue.

MacMurray, for his part, literally grew up in a town called Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. When the odd couple arrive at the Sargent homestead, the smell of baking cookies in the air, it takes about half a scene for Stanwyck’s mouth, initially half-open in incredulity, to close into a small smile, wistful and eager to please. Over the course of a hayseed Christmas—tree strung with popcorn, “Swanee River” played very badly on the piano, very many cozy hand-knitted presents, Church rummage sale, barn dance with exaggerated Great War costumes—Jack’s doting mother (Beulah Bondi!) and spinster aunt seem to cure their broken-winged houseguest through sheer force of sincerity. Meanwhile MacMurray shows us a self-assured character just beginning to comprehend the immensity of his good fortune.

Reading about Stanwyck—Dan Callahan, The L’s theater critic, has written a terrific biography—you get the sense that she lived for her work, and maybe through it. She’s so city-kid streetwise when doing comedy and so vulnerable—unguarded to the point of masochism—in her moments of romantic surrender. Here, the third act, in which the accused admits her love for her prosecutor only to forswear it for the sake of his career—plays like a ritual of self-purification. The film, which begins with Lee trying to elude the police, and shows her running away from her childhood home for a second time, ends with her decision to stop running, and to face reality: prison, guilt, responsibility, life in New York City, and maybe also, thanks to her dreamy American interlude, just a little bit of hope to project forward into the future.

Happy New Year, everyone.