'Remember The Night': Hold It Dear

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck made quite a pair in the 1940 Christmas-themed movie, airing tonight on TCM.
Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck made quite a pair in the 1940 Christmas-themed movie, airing tonight on TCM. (Paramount Pictures / Photofest)
By Peter Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2006

Is the miracle of "Miracle on 34th Street" that you can actually sit through it for the umpteenth time? Are you a "Wonderful Lifer" who's begun to root for Old Man Potter? Have you secretly hoped Ralphie would shoot someone's eye out with that BB gun? Relief is at hand, tonight at 8, when Turner Classic Movies shows the best Christmas movie you've never seen. "Remember the Night," a long-neglected gem from 1940, stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, the same couple who four years later would etch several lines of film history in "Double Indemnity." "Remember the Night" is not available on DVD, and unless you're keen to shell out upwards of $40 for a used VHS version, you'll want to tune in tonight for its first-ever airing on TCM.

The film's obscurity is all the more remarkable considering its illustrious pedigree. It was written by Preston Sturges, who, immediately after this project, started directing his own scripts and quickly became the preeminent maker of comedies in Hollywood. He burned out by the end of the 1940s, but his work -- especially his brainy, lickety-split dialogue -- remains a powerful influence on filmmakers to this day.

Unusually sweet for Sturges, the story in "Remember the Night" begins and ends in New York City, but its tender heart is found in rural Indiana, where MacMurray, playing a district attorney named Jack, always returns to visit his family at the holidays. This time, through circumstances that aren't as contrived as they sound, he brings along a woman named Lee (Stanwyck) -- a shoplifter whom Jack must prosecute after the Christmas recess.

Despite that premise, there's no mistaken-identity nonsense here, and a blessed absence of zaniness. The Hoosier hokum is minimal; nearly all the characters (two important exceptions below) are allowed their dignity and smarts. Sturges didn't like anyone else to direct his screenplays, but Mitchell Leisen takes a beautifully restrained approach -- few actors know how to underplay as MacMurray does here, and Stanwyck is a marvel throughout -- letting the story build gradually to a powerful conclusion that explores a genuine moral dilemma. All the while, Leisen maintains a tricky balance between gentle comedy and romantic drama. Sturges should have said nicer things about him.

Rarest of all, "Remember the Night" is a Yuletide tale for and about grown-ups. Sure it's idyllic Americana all the way, but not one adorable tot is ever shoved onstage to jerk tears or commit an act of cuteness. "It's a charming, delightful Christmas movie that has some depth to it," says Robert Osborne, TCM's nighttime host, who will introduce the film tonight. "Bless the moviemakers of that era, they weren't afraid to be sentimental on occasion." Important point, that: It's hard to imagine the family making a tradition of gathering around the plasma screen, year after year, to watch Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick trying to cut power to each other's houses in "Deck the Halls."

There are, however, a couple of sequences that may make you squirm, right near the beginning. A defense lawyer who is intended to be amusingly melodramatic is merely irritating. And Jack employs an African American butler who exhibits all the buffoonish mannerisms that the racist Hollywood of 65 years ago could devise. After the first 15 minutes, though, the film hits its stride and never falters again.

Why does no one remember "Remember the Night"? Partly, Osborne suggests, it's the abysmal title. (Sturges's suggestions were even worse, according to biographer James Curtis: "Beyond These Tears" and, bafflingly, "The Amazing Marriage." Nobody in this movie is married!) Although it performed "okay" at the box office, Osborne says, it earned no Oscar nominations. And, because he didn't direct it, it never entered the much-venerated Sturges canon.

Perhaps this film's time simply hasn't come. Yet.

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