Remember the Night (1940, Mitchell Leisen)

Our second Barbara Stanwyck Christmas movie, and an improvement on Christmas in Connecticut. Moves along like a typical Hollywood holiday romance, but with some interesting twists from writer Preston Sturges (a few months before his directorial debut), which I’m surprised weren’t softened by rewrites. Even if the original script has actually been tamed down, you’ve still got romantic lead Barbara Stanwyck headed to prison at the end of the picture. It’s the morally upright ending, and I suppose the production code insists that she can’t get away with crime just because she’s in love.

Stanwyck is a thief, who steals because she wasn’t loved enough as a child and Fred MacMurray is the prosecuting attorney who schemes to delay her trial until after the holidays so the jury’s Christmastime sympathy doesn’t interfere with his case. But that leaves the sad, pretty girl in jail for Christmas, so Fred pays her bail for the week, but ends up with the girl in his apartment since the dirty-minded bailsman assumed that was Fred’s intent. And since she’s got no place to go, he takes her along home, getting in trouble with a rural farmer (John Wray) and getting frowned at by Stanwyck’s chilly mother (Georgia Caine, later a Sturges regular) at stops along the way. Inevitably they fall in love, then back at the trial she sees that he’s sneakily trying to get her acquitted so she pleads guilty, insisting that she serve her penance rather than turn them both into crooks.

Leisen is the filmmaker who frustrated Billy Wilder (Midnight) and Preston Sturges (Easy Living) into directing their own scripts. I still don’t have any problem with him. Maybe Sturges wanted a lighter touch or a snappier pace. Surely he could’ve done more with the comic cow-milking scene than Leisen did, but it’s a solid movie. Aha, from Wikipedia:

Director Mitchell Leisen, a rare director to come out of costume design and art direction, is reported to have shortened Sturges’ script considerably, both before and during shooting, something which generally annoyed Sturges. Leisen’s alterations to the script changed the focus of the film from MacMurray’s character to Stanwyck’s. Sturges summarized the film by saying “Love reformed her and corrupted him.”

Film Forum calls it a screwball comedy, but I don’t think you can just slap that term onto anything with Sturges’s name on it. In his 50’s, wholesome-looking MacMurray starred in three live-action Disney films, beloved to Katy but which I never watched. Must see him in The Egg and I with Claudette Colbert and There’s Always Tomorrow with Stanwyck sometime.

At Fred’s house: Sterling Holloway, a Disney voice actor, most notably as Winnie the Pooh. Not sure if that’s his voice singing the solemn “End of a Perfect Day” while Stanwyck plays piano, but it’s the most surprising moment in the movie:

MacMurray with the vaguely recognizable Beulah Bondi at left – mother in Track of the Cat, the wife’s tutor in Baron of Arizona, Stewart’s mom in It’s a Wonderful Life – and Elizabeth Patterson standing up – an aunt-type who also played aunts in Love Me Tonight, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, The Cat and the Canary and Hail the Conquering Hero.