Saturday, December 26, 2009

Remember the Night (Paramount, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked for Christmas night was one with a holiday theme: Remember the Night, a movie that’s being ballyhooed big-time on Turner Classic Movies because they partnered with Universal Home Video to release it on DVD for the first time. (It was a Paramount production but, like virtually everything Paramount made between the start of the sound era and 1949, it is now held by Universal because MCA-TV bought the rights to the Paramount catalog in 1959 and later its parent company, MCA, bought Universal.) It was the first of four films co-starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray (she was billed ahead of him this time; in their next two films together, Double Indemnity and The Moonlighter, he’d be on top and she’d regain top billing in their last, There’s Always Tomorrow) and was directed by Mitchell Leisen from a script by Preston Sturges — his last script for another director before he became a director himself and launched a short-lived career with the hit political farce The Great McGinty.

Sturges was upset with the way Leisen rewrote the script and took out much of the badinage between the leads — Leisen didn’t think MacMurray could handle the sort of rapid-fire wit Sturges had written — but what remains is a typical Sturges genre-bender in which the first half of the movie is sting-in-the-tail screwball comedy, the second half is romantic melodrama and there’s an interlude in the film which is almost all-out noir. Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) opens the movie by shoplifting a bracelet from an expensive jeweler, then — in a move that would have qualified her for America’s Stupidest Criminals if such a show had existed in 1939 (when this film was made) — tries to pawn it just two blocks away. The sequence is shot with almost no dialogue and has some marvelous visual wit (just before the pawnbroker locks his shop, with her in it, and places her under citizen’s arrest, she narrowly misses apprehension by a cop who’s too busy donating to a Salvation Army Santa to notice her pass by even though the bracelet is clearly visible on her arm (she has a muff but hasn’t even taken the basic precaution of putting her arm far enough into it to conceal the stolen item!).

Assistant district attorney John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) pulls the job of prosecuting her — he’s assigned by his boss because he’s shown skill at convicting women defendants — while she hires a defense attorney named Francis X. O’Leary (Willard Robertson), a pompous windbag (Preston Sturges must have had a lot of fun writing his ridiculous courtroom speeches) who offers a diminished-capacity defense — and Sargent eagerly leaps at it, saying that as long as the defense is bringing up psychiatric issues he’d like to call a state psychiatrist as a witness, but he can’t do so until after the new year because the man is in Florida with his family for the holidays. Sargent’s strategy is to get the trial continued until after Christmas because he’s worried that if the case goes to the jury before the holiday, they’ll be moved by the holiday spirit and tempted to acquit. It works, but he’s conscience-stricken enough that when Lee is taken into custody — she’s run out of bail money (and the expression on Willard Robertson’s face when he realizes his client has far less money than he thought and there’s a good chance she’s not going to be able to pay him is priceless) — Sargent puts up her bail, whereupon she, thinking he’s done that because he wants to get in her pants, shows up at his apartment and is positively resentful that he’s turned her loose on the streets instead of letting her have the nice warm cell and three meals a day she was hoping for.

Sargent tells her she can’t stay since he’s going home to his family in Indiana for the holidays, and Lee tells him she too is from Indiana — so they end up driving there together and getting caught in a trap in a small town in Pennsylvania, where a series of detours puts them on a farm whose owner makes a citizen’s arrest of them for trespassing and petty theft (they tried to milk one of his cows). They flee — naturally Sturges’ interest in creating this scene is the irony that now Sargent is a fugitive from justice too, and they realize they’ll have to bypass Pennsylvania on their way back to New York and go through Canada instead — and the two of them finally arrive in Indiana, first at her family’s home and then at his. Their arrival at the home of Lee’s mother (Georgia Caine) is where Remember the Night takes its detour from screwball into noir; Leisen’s direction and Ted Tetzlaff’s cinematography go all dark and chiaroscuro and full of oblique angles, and the script also gets considerably darker as Lee’s mother denounces her as a hopeless criminal and turns her away.

When they finally get to the Sargents’ home, their reception couldn’t be more different: Sargent’s mom (Beulah Bondi) and her aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson) instantly assume Lee is Sargent’s girlfriend and couldn’t be nicer to her; mom even lends Lee her old wedding dress for a local dance (there’s a nifty gag showing it wrapped in a newspaper whose headline is “Teddy Refuses to Seek Third Term,” dating it to 1908 and also providing an ironic contrast to the opposite decision reached by the President Roosevelt who was in office when this film was made), and proximity works its magic and Sargent and Lee kiss in a heart-rendingly beautiful shot behind confetti screamers at the dance. The budding romance is tempered by the fate hanging over both their heads — when they get back to New York she’s supposed to go back on trial and he’s supposed to prosecute her — and at one point they stand outside the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and Sargent tells her they’re not in the U.S. and she’s free to escape. Sturges manages to write himself out of the corner he’s seemingly written himself into when the trial resumes and Sargent, breaking all his own rules on how to win a conviction against a woman, antagonizes the defendant, the judge and the jurors — and she turns the tables on him by pleading guilty, leaving her legal fate undetermined but with an understanding that, if he still wants her, she’ll marry him after she completes her sentence, whatever it is.

When I first heard TCM pushing this movie I was rather wishing they were promoting Remember Last Night? — James Whale’s brilliant offtake on The Thin Man that ramped up both the drinking and the obsessiveness (and one movie that desperately needs to be available on DVD) — but Remember the Night is also a quite good movie, maybe less so than it might have been with Sturges directing it and a more charismatic leading man (at times during the movie I found myself wishing Cary Grant would have done it, though at other times I thought MacMurray’s reserve might have been better for the role than Grant’s Bringing Up Baby neurotic rambunctiousness) but still a lot of fun and surprisingly rich and moving, with an ending that manages the delicate balance of satisfying the Production Code requirements while still making dramatic and emotional sense.