Remember the Night (1940)
Remember the Night (1940)

Genre: Romantic Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 34 min.

Release Date: January 19th, 1940 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Mitchell Leisen Actors: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Beulah Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson, Sterling Holloway

 


 

“R

emember the Night” has been oddly obscure for a very long time; a forgotten gem somehow avoiding the public eye, despite starring two popular Golden Age icons, being a Christmas-themed movie, and having been written by celebrated filmmaker Preston Sturges. It’s the first film (of four) with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in the lead roles and the last to be penned by Sturges before he started directing his own scripts. It’s also one of the most moving, humorous, and unique films of 1940.

Startlingly naïve, moral, law-abiding, honest, and innocent district attorney John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) hasn’t lost a case yet. And with the perfect face for prosecuting women – a difficult task if not handled with care – he’s called in to administrate an easy conviction for the state. Anna Rose Malone (Barbara Stanwyck), sometimes known as Lee Leander or even Mary Smith when it’s convenient, is caught by a pawnbroker while shoplifting. It’s her third offense, though she’s aided by defense lawyer Francis O’Leary’s (Willard Robertson, reciting a noticeably Sturges monologue) grandstanding, excuses of schizophrenia and hypnotism, and the unmistakable leniencies of Christmastime. But even the judge grows impatient with the counsel’s wild stories, overly dramatic reenactments, and outrageous interactions with the jury. They prove to be no match for Sargent, who gets a desired continuance until after the New Year.

Feeling a little guilty and trying to do a simple good deed, John bails out the beautiful young thief, but the bondsman accidentally delivers her to the district attorney’s apartment. “I suppose you do this with all the lady prisoners?” she teases. When she finds out her placement was a mistake, she decides to stay, which interferes with John’s plans of visiting his mother’s farm for the holidays. He opts to get her the festive dinner he cheated her out of by removing her from the clinker and, since they’re both from Indiana, he offers to drop her at her mother’s place along the way. During the journey, the two begin to realize just how much they have in common.

Hilariously (as things often are in these borderline screwball stories), they get arrested for unintentionally trespassing after their car crashes through a fence (destruction of property) in the middle of the night. Matters sour when they take a little bit of milk from a nearby cow, which adds petty larceny to the charge. In the presence of an old rube judge, they resort to fleeing, becoming fugitives from justice. “It’s better than going to jail isn’t it?” Lee insists. But looming in the background is the idea that she must still pay for her more serious crimes. It’s a good thing she’s a young, saucy, and sexy Barbara Stanwyck, because she’s not a kleptomaniac or under the spell of shiny jewelry – she’s just an out-and-out crook. Though certainly not honest, she prides herself on being smarter than her juridical adversaries – until she inevitably grows a conscience.

“She probably didn’t get enough love as a child,” comments Mrs. Sargent (Beulah Bondi), who falls for Lee’s charms despite a largely troubled past. “Remember the Night” is a story of uncommon kindness to someone who may not deserve it but needs it just the same. The dialogue is sensational and, refreshingly, not entirely comedic. Heartrending drama makes an appearance as Lee copes with notion of not needing any of the loving familial comforts the Sargents exude – until she experiences it first hand as a completely new ideal. With an unusually bittersweet conclusion (censors may have had something to do with that), the film is pleasant, irresistible, and unforgettable, masterfully creating characters to care for, situations to smile over, and conflicts to tear up to.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10