WEIRDLAND: Christmas in Weirdland: "Remember the Night"

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas in Weirdland: "Remember the Night"

"As long as we know in our hearts what Christmas ought to be, Christmas is." -Eric Sevareid

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in "Remember the Night" (1940) directed by Mitchell Leisen

From DeMille’s Irish postmistress at end of track to Clifford Odets’s worldweary “tramp from Newark,” Barbara, in her next picture, was to play a seen-it-all, light-fingered jewel thief on trial in New York for shoplifting a blindingly sparkling bracelet. Mitchell Leisen, one of Paramount’s leading directors, was assigned the picture. Each of Leisen’s fourteen pictures had been a box-office success.

Leisen was in great demand with actors. He was Paramount’s answer to George Cukor. Leisen wanted Barbara for the part of Lee Leander, jewel thief. He felt the part was written for her. Fred MacMurray was to be the hard-driving assistant district attorney prosecuting the case who, instead of sending her to jail, falls in love with her. Leisen thought MacMurray a goodlooking actor —with a beautifully built body and great legs, six feet four, tall and lanky —but MacMurray was quiet, genial, modest, and inexperienced. Though Preston Sturges came from the top and Barbara from the bottom —he from a European bohemian aristocracy and she from a showgirl street life— Barbara felt a great compatibility with Sturges. She thought him enormously talented and his script one of the best she’d ever read. “What’s on paper is on the screen,” she said. Sturges and Leisen were an interesting combination of sensibilities. Sturges wrote comedy with flashes of feeling and warmth; Leisen directed pictures that were warm with bursts of comedy.

The DA (Fred MacMurray) is getting ready to drive home to Wabash, Indiana, for the holidays to the family farm to see his mother and aunt. In the spirit of Christmas, he bails out the girl he’s about to prosecute so she won’t have to spend the holiday behind bars. The bondsman delivers her —with his compliments and a wink— to the DA’s apartment, the last thing he wants or expects (“What are you doing here?” he asks her. “I don’t know,” she says, “but I’ve got a rough idea”). Now he’s stuck with her; she’s been locked out of her hotel; she’s got nowhere to go, and she’s in his custody.

In the scene in which the family has gathered in the parlor around the Christmas tree, MacMurray plays the piano and sings “Swanee River,” and Barbara plays “A Perfect Day” on the piano as Willie (Sterling Holloway) sings. Leisen knew how to use visual business in a scene to create character, mood, story. His subtle eloquence and deftness was called the Leisen magic. Barbara teased MacMurray for being shy about filming love scenes. Barbara handled it by saying to the crew, “This is really going to be something, I am supposed to be kissed passionately by Fred.” She kidded Fred about it, as did the crew. When the day arrived, MacMurray gritted his teeth, determined to show them he wasn’t such a bad lover, and did the scene perfectly.

Barbara never looked more beautiful, more luminous, than she does in Remember the Night. In the end of Sturges’s script, “love reformed her and corrupted him, which gave us the finely balanced moral,” said Sturges, “that one man’s meat is another man’s poison, or caveat emptor.” In Remember the Night, Barbara is both classy and shopgirlish. Sturges was a loner, as Barbara had been before Bob Taylor came into her life. Barbara operates on many levels in 'Remember the Night': she is a believable crook; believably vulgar; believably sensitive and vulnerable; rebellious (in the scene with her mother, it is clear her defiance is bonded to her mother’s take on her). What Sturges gives Stanwyck is her longing for roots, her longing to go home for Christmas.

The combination of Barbara and MacMurray works: he is light and a good egg; she is breezy, grounded, larcenous, with a heart of gold and a yearning for home, like Sturges himself, who had such an uprooted childhood. “As it turned out,” said Sturges, “the picture had quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz to make it box office.” It was Leisen’s best picture to date and Barbara’s best performance. -"A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True (1907-1940)" by Victoria Wilson

They go out to eat and talk about their situation. “Sounds like a play, doesn’t it?” asks Lee, which is Sturges acknowledging the whole “movie pitch idea” of his basic screenplay, then mocking it when John replies, “Sounds like a flop.” In 'Remember the Night,' this exchange leads us directly into the most important scene in the film, where Lee tries to explain her concept of right and wrong to John. Mrs. Sargent, who knows the truth about her, gently warns Lee that she might spoil John’s career if they were to get married. Lee is standing in front of a mirror, and when Mrs. Sargent puts her hands on Lee’s shoulders, Stanwyck freezes, with her mouth wide open, one arm up holding a comb, a vision of complete Mouchette-style awkwardness. Mirrors always bring out Stanwyck’s deepest feelings. Leisen films the hushed parting between John and Lee with real tenderness, but the complexities of the early scenes get politely swept under the rug. In many ways, it was a kind of holiday movie for Stanwyck. She said that the atmosphere on a Capra set was “like a cathedral,” while on a Sturges set it was “a carnival.” -"Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman" (2012) by Dan Callahan

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