Classic movie lovers know Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck (complete with blonde wig) as Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson, the adulterous murderous duo in the noir classic Double Indemnity (1944), but four years before they became the duplicitous pair of nasty doings, the stars made a little remembered Christmas film ironically called Remember the Night. Each brought their own brand of star power and persona to their roles in the Preston Sturges written flick, MacMurray as a strong and low key hero caught up in the whirlwind that is Stanwyck in a jam.
Set on Christmas Eve in New York City, MacMurray plays a prosecuting attorney who feels sorry for shoplifting Stanwyck (and what a piece she nabs!) after he requests a continuance for her case, causing her to be faced with jail time over the holiday. Softhearted Fred (who I'm sure noticed Barbara's gams in court) works it out with a bail bondsman to get the comely crook out until after the new year. Mistaking the attorney's intentions, the bondsman ~ accurately called 'Fat Mike' ~ gets Stanwyck out of jail and hauls her over to MacMurray's digs. Having been up this street before, the hard boiled dame plays along but the attorney on his way to his mother's farm for Christmas, is flustered and bumbling (as MacMurray does so well). Realizing Fred isn't the wolf she assumed, Babs wants to stay with him and with no where else to go, tags along with him to experience the down home, warm spirit of the season she'd never known before.
Made at Paramount Studio and directed by Mitchell Leisen, the film has alot going for it creatively. Leisen, one of the studio's top directors during this period, had a background in set and art direction and his attention to detail always showed in his films. The leisurely pace of some of the scenes allows for the viewer to linger over the scenario and take it all in to its full effect without being rushed. A fine example is the exchange between Stanwyck's Lee and MacMurray's Aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson) while dressing for a holiday barn dance. There isn't alot of dialogue between the two actors as Patterson helps Stanwyck into a corset and reminisces over her lost love of more than a quarter of a century, but the feeling is there and the pathos and sentiment is powerfully felt. One scene to which the pace is an extreme detriment in this blogger's eyes at least, is one played out by Stanwyck's defense attorney. His tirade of comic courtroom defense seems to go on as endlessly as a wedding toast given by the groom's boorish and long winded second cousin, once removed! This performance aside, the film is both charming and touching.
One noteworthy outcome of Remember the Night is the emergence of Preston Sturges as a writer/director. Upset that his script for the film was cut and jumbled about by director Leisen, he was determined to go out on his own to direct his own scripts. When Paramount gave him the chance later the same year, he did just that with The Great McGinty, winning an Oscar for his screenplay and establishing himself as a top talent in Hollywood. He was so impressed with Barbara Stanwyck that he told her that he would write a screwball comedy just for her and the following year did so with The Lady Eve. Leisen was also impressed with the ultra professional Miss Stanwyck and in one account claimed by the director, Stanwyck stayed tied up in all the tight fitting garb for the corset scene for over an hour just in case she was needed before her performance was required.
Along with Patterson's Aunt Emma, Beulah Bondi adds a homespun touch as MacMurray's loving and supportive mother. Always the eternal maternal (unless she played the eternal spinster, of course), Bondi is lighthearted and lays the groundwork for her portrayal of Ma Bailey in Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Sterling Holloway is a bit irritating as Willie, the lazy/hyperactive (depending on the circumstances) farm hand to the elder femmes, but taken into context, Bondi and Patterson help him carry his scenes to completion. MacMurray and Stanwyck, two personal favorites, make the film glide with charm, both of the humorous and sentimental variety. Among the numerous holiday films, both modern and classic, on exhibition this season, my hope is that Remember the Night is added to the must see repertoire of classic movie fans.