27 December 2013

Remember the Night

December is Barbara Stanwyck month at Film Forum, and I’m sorry to say I missed most of the screenings. Some of the films I’d seen numerous times before (Double Indemnity, Meet John Doe, Baby Face) so I decided to see ones that were new to me. One night I went to a triple feature of early Stanwyck films: one stinker, Mexicali Rose (1929); a so-so mystery, The Locked Door (1929); and a decent sob story directed by Frank Capra, Forbidden (1931). Then on Christmas day I spent the afternoon watching Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Mitchell Leisen’s Remember the Night (1940), written by the brilliant Preston Sturges.

The film opens with a woman nicking a bracelet from a jeweller and being caught shortly after trying to pawn it. She turns out to be Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman with a record and no permanent home. Later at trial, she’s represented by a blustery blowhard of an attorney whose antics annoy the prosecuting ADA John Sargeant (Fred MacMurray). Worried that the jury will take pity on a woman, especially at the holidays, John manages to get the trial postponed until after the new year. The only problem is Lee is broke and with no place to live. So John posts bail for her and
 proposes that since she's a fellow Hoosier, she can hitch a ride with him to Indiana where he'll drop her off at her mother's on his way home to his family (this would all happen, right?). Lee agrees even though she hasn't been back since she ran away years ago. 

After a detour finds them spending the night in a field, they’re woken in the morning by a nosey cow before getting “arrested” by the farmer whose land they’re trespassing on. With some quick thinking on Lee’s part they get away and arrive at her childhood home only to discover that her mother wants nothing to do with her. 

Feeling sorry for Lee, John takes her home with him where his family warmly greets her. Lee, grateful for such kindness, insists on helping with the washing and cooking, and finds herself enjoying the country life, including the square dance she attends with the family on New Year’s Eve. As to be expected, John and Lee fall in love but after his mother (Beulah Bondi), who knows about her past, tells Lee how hard John had to work to get where he is, she promises to leave him alone.

On their way back to New York by way of Canada (to avoid Pennsylvania where they’re “wanted”), they stop at Niagara Falls, and John suggests that Lee run but she refuses. Back in New York, she stands trial and John tries deliberately to lose the case. But Lee’s love for him makes her decide to finally do the right thing. 

There were some corny elements in the film (mainly plot devices) but it still managed to be a solid film. This was due in part to Sturges’ smart dialogue, particularly the lines given to Stanwyck’s character. 

John: You threw a lighted match into the wastebasket?

Lee: Well I wasn't aiming for the spittoon.

John: You know that's called arson?

Lee: No! I thought that was when you bit somebody!

Incidentally, this was the last of Preston Sturges' scripts to be directed by someone else. His next one, The Great McGinty, would mark his directorial debut.

And speaking of the actors, Stanwyck once again manages to play a dame (there’s no other word for it) like no one else. Few actresses were able to display that combination of street smarts and vulnerability like she could. She’s a bad girl with a heart of gold only there’s no cliché about her because Stanwyck makes her characters seem real.

As for Fred MacMurray, I’ve come to realize that he’s underrated most of the time and it’s only in the hands of a good director that you see how good he can be (watch Double Indemnity if you don’t believe me). Even though his character’s being ridiculous (as in no ADA would ever do what he does in a million years), MacMurray doesn’t invite scorn from the viewer but rather makes one believe that his character is simply doing the right thing. 

Also kudos to the great supporting cast including Beulah Bondi as John’s mother, Elizabeth Patterson as Aunt Emma, and Sterling Holloway as cousin Willie who supplies a lot of the comic relief (if he sounds familiar it's probably because he would later became the voice of Winnie the Pooh). And then there is Fred “Snowflake” Toones as John’s foolish black valet, Rufus. While not an uncommon role in films from the time it doesn’t make watching his scenes, which are are not even remotely funny, any easier. Unfortunately, a sour note in an otherwise sweet film.

Remember the Night plays at Film Forum through December 31, 2013. For more info, visit here

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...