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A heartwarming Christmas-time movie which skillfully blends touching drama with zany comedy, Remember the Night (1940) is a good example of the studio system functioning like a well-oiled machine. It has a witty, incisive screenplay by the great Preston Sturges, stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in their first film together and is produced and directed by Mitchell Leisen, who had just made the masterful romantic comedy Midnight (1939). It even works in three songs: "Easy Living," "Back Home in Indiana," and "The End of a Perfect Day."
Sturges's story revolves around an Assistant District Attorney (MacMurray) falling in love with the shoplifter he is prosecuting (Stanwyck). Feeling sorry that she will have to spend Christmas in jail awaiting trial, he bails her out and takes her to her childhood home in Indiana. But when he sees how cold and unwelcoming Stanwyck's mother is, he takes her to his own mother's home, also in Indiana, where Stanwyck is bowled over by the love and affection she encounters. Hanging over both their heads is the realization that they still have to return to the city to resolve the trial. Will MacMurray purposefully blow the case? Will she let him?
Sturges himself summarized his script this way: "Love reformed her and corrupted him." The finished movie, he said, "had quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz to make it box office."
Sturges's wife at the time, Louise, later recalled the period when her husband was writing this picture: "His work habits were brutal. He worked so hard at night that it was time to stop only when Gillette [his secretary] turned a gentle shade of green from hunger and exhaustion and started to fall off the chair. Preston could do this for days at a time, for although he was extremely lazy, he was also extremely ambitious and he knew that eventually he'd have to turn something out."
Directing a Sturges script for the second time (after Easy Living, 1937) was Mitchell Leisen, who trimmed many scenes throughout the screenplay before shooting and deleted a few more after shooting. This was something which generally irritated Sturges, and was the very reason he was determined to direct his own work - which he indeed began doing shortly after this production.
That said, Leisen was certainly talented and intelligent enough not to make the trims haphazardly. Leisen biographer David Chierichetti has written that Leisen adapted the script to the personas and abilities of his two stars: "Tailoring the script to fit the personalities of MacMurray and Stanwyck drastically changed Sturges's original concept of the characters. Reading the script, one gets the impression that it is the attorney who dominated the story. Sturges gave him many lengthy and clever speeches which made him assume almost heroic stature. Leisen felt that this was a bit theatrical, and the wordiness of the dialogue demanded a certain articulate quality on the part of the actor that MacMurray simply didn't have. Cutting MacMurray's lines down to the minimum, Leisen played up the feeling of gentle strength MacMurray could project so well. It was a far cry from Sturges's dashing hero."
Leisen brought Remember the Night in 8 days ahead of schedule and $50,000 under budget. He attributed this not to his script pruning but to Barbara Stanwyck's professionalism. "[She] was the greatest," he said. "She never blew one line through the whole picture. She set that kind of pace and everybody worked harder, trying to outdo her."
He continued, "Barbara had a bad back, and when we were shooting the barn dance sequence, the corset she had to wear under the old-fashioned dress was very painful for her. I'd say, 'Look, you've got two hours until your next scene, why don't you just take it off and relax?' and she'd say, 'Oh, no, you might need me,' and she sat on the set the whole time. She was always right at my elbow when I needed her. We never once had to wait for her to finish with the hairdresser or the make-up man."
Sturges hung out on the set and got to know Stanwyck. The actress later joked, "As long as you didn't open your mouth, but let him do the talking, everything was fine." The wheels were already turning in Sturges about working with Stanwyck again. She would recall: "One day he said to me, 'Someday I'm going to write a real screwball comedy for you.' Remember the Night was a delightful comedy, swell for me and Fred MacMurray, but hardly a screwball, and I replied that nobody would ever think of writing anything like that for me - a murderess, sure. But he said, 'You just wait.'" A year later Sturges was directing Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941), his first truly great writing-directing effort and one of the best movies on both their resumes.
Remember the Night opened in early January, 1940, and was well-received. Frank Nugent declared in The New York Times, "It is a memorable film, in title and in quality, blessed with an honest script, good direction and sound performances...a drama stated in the simplest human terms of comedy and sentiment, tenderness and generosity... warm, pleasant and unusually entertaining."
Stanwyck and MacMurray would team up on-screen three more times, for Double Indemnity (1944), The Moonlighter (1953) and There's Always Tomorrow (1956).
Producer: Mitchell Leisen, Albert Lewis
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Screenplay: Preston Sturges
Cinematography: Ted Tetzlaff
Film Editing: Doane Harrison
Art Direction: Roland Anderson, Hans Dreier
Music: Frederick Hollander
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Lee Leander), Fred MacMurray (John Sargent), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Sargent), Elizabeth Patterson (Aunt Emma), Willard Robertson (Francis X. O'Leary), Sterling Holloway (Willie).
by Jeremy Arnold
David Chierichetti, Hollywood Director
Axel Madsen, Stanwyck