Thursday, December 22, 2011
“Remember the Night” (1940) is a polar opposite to “My Reputation” (1946), covered here in Monday’s post. The latter film feels darker in tone and in cinematography. It featured flashes of noir. The characters were well-to-do upper crust. It was wartime. Conversely, “Remember the Night” brings us out of the Depression, among simpler, homespun people. It is screwball comedy when it’s not frankly sentimental, and is a much lighter film in tone as well as on the set. The linchpin between the two movies is Barbara Stanwyck, who with ease can be either a shy upper class widow, or a petty thief from the streets.
Because Miss Bondi played mothers so often, and was so recognizable a character actress, and had that trademark quiver to her voice, it might be easy to dismiss her, unless you watch her carefully. Especially those large, expressive eyes. Her years of stage work (she came to the movies in her early 40s) shows in her ability to play off her scene partner rather than the camera -- which is what a lot of movie stars did who did not have theater experience. Spring Byington, who also had a career of playing mothers, had a lighter, more comic touch, and she could be accused of sometimes playing a stereotype. That’s because comedy is often born of parody.
You have the sense that she has lived a very hard life, but managed to keep a good outlook in spite of it.
Preston Sturges reportedly was not entirely happy with the film. He felt that his screwball comedy was turned into sentimental schmaltz, and at times it was. But “Remember the Night” has become for us, in a more cynical era, a wonderful holiday tradition. It could not be so without the sentiment. That it is equal parts screwball only makes it better.
We are coming out of the Depression in 1940. The war is going on in Europe and Asia, but you’d never know it from this movie. When Stanwyck and MacMurray travel cross-country by car, they encounter a WPA sign announcing yet another road construction project -- that never seems to be completed. But it was such projects that helped to drag us out of the depths of the Depression some seven years earlier.
Barbara Stanwyck has her own way of dealing with hard times. She’s a thief, and has walked out of a jewelry store with a diamond bracelet on her arm. She’s caught, and Fred MacMurray is the prosecutor in court.
The case, which is tried on Christmas Eve, is postponed until early January. Since she has no money and can’t raise bail, she’s doomed to spend Christmas in the hoosegow. Good guy Fred feels bad, and pays Fat Mike the bail bondsmen to get her out for the holiday.
“The Singing Cowboy” discussed here was better.
Snowflake’s packing up Fred’s stuff and trying to hustle him out of the apartment because Fred’s supposed to drive to Indiana to visit his mother for Christmas. Stumped with what to do with Stanwyck, who is more amused than relieved that he has no designs on her, Fred takes her to a supper club for a bite to eat while they figure out where she can go.
It has been years since she’s seen her mother -- she ran away when a teen -- and Fred suggests he drop her off at her mother’s house for the holiday and pick her up on the drive back. She’s flustered by the idea, and there is a wondrous expression, anxiety mixed with longing, in her dark eyes.
I guess songs about our home states do that to us. Look how Jean Arthur completely lost it during her tipsy rendition of “The Iowa Corn Song” in “A Foreign Affair”, discussed here.
Doah! You can just sense a future trivia post about state songs in the movies, can’t you? This stream of consciousness writing is going to be the end of me one of these days.
I’m pretty sure “All Hail to Massachusetts” has never been in a movie.
I was on a train once, traveling through a dark upper New York State night, when, half asleep in my berth, I felt the train stop. I looked out the window to read the name off the train depot to see where we were, but we had not stopped at a depot. All was dark. All except a distant enormous red KODAK in block letters. Ah, I thought to myself. Rochester.
GPS? I spit on your GPS.
However, much as I admire the freewheeling adventure of our two travelers, I am invariably made freezing when I watch this movie because they travel for hundreds of miles in the winter with their car windows rolled down. Now, I know this was filmed on a nice toasty Hollywood soundstage, but jeez-louise. I have driven short distances with no heat and it’s a challenge to the soul. Several hundred miles would be a feat, I fear, beyond my endurance. You see, we here in the northern climes do not go to the trouble and expense of heating our homes for the ambience. We do it to keep from dying. Hypothermia also occurs in cars driving 700-plus miles in freezing temperatures with the windows open.
Especially when they get lost, tired, and decide to sleep in the car. With the windows open.
The farmer hauls them before the local judge for trespassing and destruction of property, and when they flee justice and become fugitives, MacMurray gets a taste of what life has been like for Stanwyck -- always ducking, living by her wits, and even enjoying the taste of rebellion
This still, silent, powerful acting is reprised when she is taken to her room. After Miss Bondi has left her alone, Stanwyck leans over her suitcase on the bed and sinks her chin into her shoulder, looking all around the room pensively, curiously, with almost a note of humor we think, until we see there are tears in her eyes.
Fred, being a square shooter, tells his mother what kind of person Stanwyck really is, and Beulah Bondi, the forgiving type, makes being extra nice to Barbara her new project. This includes gift giving the next morning around the tree. Stanwyck is part of the family by the end of the week.
I love how Sterling Holloway leaps into the arms of a very tall girl to get his kiss.
Mother Bondi sees the attraction between her boy and the petty thief houseguest, whose romance is egged on by her Cupid-playing sister. She tries to gently put a stop to what might be the end of her good boy’s career if he gets tangled up with a bad girl.
One the ride home they drive through Canada.
I know they joked about not wanting to drive through Pennsylvania again because that’s where they took it on the lam from the farmer with the shotgun and the judge, but really? That’s a heck of a detour to make. Through a much colder country. Lake-effect snow. With the car windows rolled down.
Nice shot of them by icy Niagara Falls though. We talked about Niagara Falls in the movies in this previous post. And a lovely ambiguous remark by Stanwyck when MacMurray, who wants to marry her says he’ll take her to Niagara Falls on their honeymoon.
“But we’re there now, Darling.”
Fade to black. Quick, before the censors find out what she means.
Of course, another reason for Canada is that Fred suggests since they are out of the US, she could jump bail and he practically invites her to become a fugitive. She wants to go back and face the music. Then when the trial resumes, he tries to throw it, but she won’t let him to that, either. She pleads guilty.
We don’t know what her sentence is going to be, but they’re both pretty sure they won’t be seeing each other for a while. We’re also pretty sure Fred will wait for her.
Christmas is a lovely illusion, and is probably best appreciated when we let it be. Reality is for January.
Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Beulah Bondi, and Sterling Holloway reprised their roles in the Lux Radio Theater presentation of this movie March 25, 1940. Have a listen here at the Internet Archive, now in public domain, or download it free to your computer. Scroll down to “Remember the Night”.
Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, and may the peace of the season be yours.