Remember the Night (1940): Barbara Stanwyck's Forgotten Christmas Classic

This is my third year reviewing Christmas themed movies on The Lair, and I’ll be honest it’s a struggle to find more obscure and genre driven entries to share with you folks. I have managed to pull together a few gems, and the first one I’d like to share comes from the classic era of film. I would never have imagined that I would be introducing a Christmas movie crossed with a Film Noir and a Screwball comedy, Especially since it starred one of the classic screen couples of the Noir era, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, four years before they starred as the  tragic center of Double Indemnity. The film also came from the pen of writer (and future director) Preston Sturges who managed all these elements into the screenplay for Remember the Night.

A lady is being fitted with a rather ornate, gem-inlaid bracelet, admires it, and asks to see another bracelet in a lower case. When the clerk looks back at his customer, she is long gone. It’s Christmas Eve and Manhattan, and after hurrying away from Meyer and Company, petty thief Lee Leander (Stanwyck) tries to make a quick buck selling the bracelet to a jeweler and ends up in jail. Across town, Assistant District Attorney John Sargent is getting ready for his drive home to Indiana when he receives a call from the D.A. demanding he come in to prosecute the case against Lee Leander. With no other choice, he tries the case, but has it continued until after the Christmas holidays sending Lee to jail if she can’t make bail. When it turns out she can’t, the prosecutor’s conscience starts to bother him and he pays the bond himself.  The bail bondsman has other more prurient ideas of what John wants with the thief and drops her off at John’s apartment. Lee tells him that she has nowhere else to go, and when it turns out she’s a fellow Hoosier, he agrees to give her a ride to see her mother. When that turns out to be a disaster, the prosecutor takes his defendant home for the holidays with his own family.

I don’t think I have to say it, but just in case anyone wonders, yes, then they fall in love.  Remember the Night is sweet and sappy and more than a bit dated (MacMurray’s character is questioned about transporting an unmarried woman across state lines), but as far as forgotten Christmas classics, this is now one of my absolute favorites. Much of that has to do with Preston Sturges. While he is best known for the screwball comedies he wrote and/or directed, there’s always a lot of heart in his movies, like if Frank Capra had a zany side, but Remember the Night is more than comedy. It also well balances moody Noir pieces where the star-crossed lovers have to deal with the reality of each other’s lives. Surges summed up the film by saying that, “Love reformed her and corrupted him.”, and that is a fair estimate. While the societal norms are extremely different, the movie is a classic example of an uptown/downtown romance, but as Sturges’ story unfolds, he sneaks in some deeper layers to keep his audience riveted.

The real revelation here for me was Barbara Stanwyck. When I think of Ms. Stanwyck, films like 100 Guns, Stella Dallas, Lady of Burlesque, or even her work on The Big Valley come to mind. In nearly every performance I’ve ever seen, she plays a strong, determined, and very independent woman. Remember the Night is the first occasion I have had to see Stanwyck play vulnerable. As the film begins, Lee Leander seems like she would be a jaded, callus grifter, but as we learn she was a troubled youth who got little to no love or affection from her parents. Though it is caught up in a trite, semi-stock redemptive tale, Stanwyck perfectly plays the bad girl (who desperately wants to be good but doesn’t know how) to perfection. Plus, for my money, she never looked prettier. Sure, she was more sexually alluring in some of her films, but the mix of Brooklyn-esque bravado with an Indiana innocence made Stanwyck a stunning leading lady.

I have less glowing things to say about MacMurray though he is enjoyable. The pair certainly doesn’t have the onscreen spark in their first pairing that they would in Double Indemnity, but they do eventually play out the emotional connection convincingly. MacMurray’s character, the focus of Sturges’ script before director Mitchell Leisen (Death Takes a Holiday, The Broadcast of 1937) retooled the film, comes off rather plain and milquetoast, but he handles the comedic parts of the film very well. The standout scene for both of the leads comes when they attempt to milk a cow together. Not only is the scene very funny in the context of the movie, but some of the star’s real personalities show through as they try to handle the large animal. The other notable performance in the film is Beulah Bondi as MacMurray’s doting mother. Not only is she very good, but she also appeared in a more well known Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, as Ms. Bailey.

I’ve not talked much about the last half of Remember the Night which is the portion that contains the actual celebration of Christmas, but I found it quite charming. Now most people would boggle at the family exchanging but one gift each, but I feel certain that in post-depression America, long before the opulence and excess of the holiday had taken hold, this was often likely the norm in rural households (if they had gifts to give at all). The focus of their celebration was the meeting of family and friends separated by long distances over the year. You know, family values back when such a notion was more than merely a political catechism. What I’m trying to say is this. In some parts, Remember the Night may seem like a syrupy story of redemption wrapped up in festive holiday trimmings and perhaps even cornpone, but when you get down to brass tacks, it’s no more heavy handed than Frank Capra’s Christmas classic. Plus if someone can find another Noir Screwball Christmas Comedy, then that would be a real Christmas miracle.

I hope you folks enjoyed this first festive review of Remember the Night. I’ve got plenty more of them lined up for the month. So come on back and enjoy some more new holiday reviews with me or you can check out all the archived Christmas classics in the Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas vault!

Bugg Rating

In tribute to Remember the Night's plot here's The Youngsters with one of my favorite holiday tunes, Christmas in Jail.


  1. Hi! The Lighting Bug...
    I stopped by your lair to let you, and your readers, know that this film along with another film entitled Mr.Soft-Touch will be screened at the Castro Theatre on December 15, 2010...Here goes the link...
    Oh! this isn't a plug, but I'am just pointing out a coincidence.

    Unfortunately, I have watched neither film yet...(with yet being the operative word.)
    The Bugg said,"Check out some reviews!..."

    Ok! Ok! I just did!
    Nice review of a film that I must watch since TCM plan to air this film that was rarely aired on television too.

    ..."Why are you all the way down here reading this?"
    Ha! Ha!...Because readers, are nosy!
    DeeDee ;-D

  2. Lighting Bug...
    I did a few things...I just clicked "Larry the Cannibal" Lamb, I also sent your post over there to Twitter and Facebook.

    By the way, I hope that you take a look at the very dark 1944 film noir entitled "Christmas Holiday" Starring Gene Kelly and Deanna Durban too!


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