Remembering ‘Remember the Night’: A Christmas movie classic with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray

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Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray sizzled as the duplicitous lovers in Billy Wilder’s exceptional 1944 film noir “Double Indemnity.” But that classic based on James M. Cain’s novel wasn’t their first pairing. Four years earlier, they played very different lovers in “Remember the Night,” which was penned by the brilliant Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen. The exquisite holiday film, ironically released in January of 1940, has become a Christmas favorite thanks to TCM, streaming services and DVDs.

MacMurray stars as Jack, a young New York City assistant district attorney. Stanwyck’s Lee has seen her share of bad breaks is on trial before Christmas for shoplifting a bracelet at a jewelry store. MacMurray decides to bail her out of jail for the holidays and ends up taking her back to his Indiana family farm where she is warmly welcomed by his mother and aunt.  His mother (Beulah Bondi) initially encourages a romance between the pair. And the two end up falling in love. But after learning about Stanwyck’s criminal past and present, she asks Lee to let her son go, fearing he’ll destroy his career. What will they do once they return to New York?

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“Remember the Night” is a road movie, comedy and poignant romantic drama; all of these genres blend together perfectly. And there are many memorable scenes. Your heart will break when Jack drops Lee off at her mother’s house — she is also from Indiana — where her embittered mother spurns her and you’ll get more than misty when Jack’s mother tells Lee to give up her son.

Stanwyck is marvelous as Lee, but she’s matched every step of the way by MacMurray who had been in movies for just five years. Often underrated, he proves in “Remember the Night” how strong he was as a leading man: handsome, gentle, funny and sweet. And Bondi, one of the top character actresses of the era, radiates love and concern for her son.

The New York Times was rapturous over “Remember the Night”:  “It is a memorable film, in title and in quality, blessed with an honest script, good direction and sound performance… Mr. MacMurray, who generally has impressed us as being a nice young man, has given the prosecutor’s role something more this time; sincerity, a belief in his work, an unexpected dignity. Miss Stanwyck has played the girl with grave understanding and charm, rounding out the character rather than stamping it out by stencil, advancing it by easy degrees to and past the transitional stage.”

Sturges once said of the film: “Love reformed her and corrupted him,” adding the completed film had “quite a lot of schmaltz, a good deal of schmerz and just enough schmutz to make it box office.”

“Remember the Night” was the second time Leisen had directed a Sturges script. They had teamed up for the marvelous 1937 screwball comedy “Easy Living.” But Sturges wasn’t happy with what Leisen did to this script. According to Jeremy Arnold on TCM.com, Sturges was angered that he had “trimmed many scenes throughout the screenplay before shooting and deleted a few more after shooting. ” He wanted to direct this own material and Paramount obliged. In 1940 he wrote and directed “The Great McGinty,” for which he won the Oscar for his screenplay, and “Christmas in July”.

Leisen biographer David Chierichetti said the filmmaker tailored the script to the actors which “drastically changed Sturges’ original concept of the characters. Reading the script, one gets the impression that it is the attorney who dominated the story. Sturges gave him many lengthy and clever speeches which made him assume almost heroic stature. Cutting MacMurray’s lines down to a minimum, Leisen played up the feeling of a gentle strength MacMurray could project so well.”

A frequent visitor on the set of “Remember the Night” was Sturges who got to know Stanwyck well promising the actress he was going to write her a screwball comedy. By year’s end, the two were in production on the great screwball romantic farce “The Lady Eve,” which opened in 1941.

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