Friday, December 23, 2011

REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940)

A sentimental Christmas romantic comedy with a bit of an edge, written by Preston Sturges. A couple of days before Christmas, snappily dressed looker Barbara Stanwyck is on trial for shoplifting a bracelet. She's a career crook and DA Fred MacMurray knows it, but he also knows that at the holidays, a jury will always sympathize with a woman, so he gets a continuance until after the first of the year. She can't make bail so MacMurray arranges for it. She thinks he did it because he expects something in return, but he's just a nice guy about to head out to Indiana to visit his mom; when she frets that she has no place to go for Christmas and he finds out she's also from Indiana, he suggests she tag along. However, when her cruel mother turns her away, she goes with him and experiences an old-fashioned, totally functional, rural family Christmas; she begins to lose some of her hardness and falls for MacMurray. His big-hearted mother (Beulah Bondi) takes good care of Stanwyck, but is also smart enough to know that she could be bad news to her straight-shooting son, who worked hard to get where he is and might get derailed by a "bad girl," even one who is ready to reform. On the way back to the big city, he encourages her to skip bail in Canada, but she decides to keep her court date and face the music.

This is a movie full of tonal shifts. It starts with comical big-city courtroom shenanigans as a lawyer (Willard Robertson) gives an over-the-top speech to the jury claiming Stanwyck was hypnotized by the jewels and therefore not responsible. The trip to Indiana has some road-trip comedy I could do without, but it leads to an intense, almost noirish scene with the uncaring mother (think Beulah Bondi as the bad Pottersville Ma Bailey in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE). The Christmas sequence is touching without passing into sticky-sweetness, but the last 20 minutes turn a little too melodramatic for my taste. Of course, Bondi is fine, as are Elizabeth Patterson as MacMurray's spinster aunt and Sterling Holloway as the sweetly dopey farmhand (all pictured above with Stanwyck and MacMurray). I like MacMurray mocking Robertson's theatrical delivery to the jury with the line, "Quick, Watson, the needle!" I don't so much like Snowflake Toones' drawling valet stereotype. The first time I saw this film (when I was much younger) I was really pushing for Stanwyck to skip bail and resented what felt like a Code-imposed ending, but now it feels more organic to the story. A lovely Christmas movie and one which hasn’t become the victim of over-exposure (yet). [VHS; available on DVD]

3 comments:

Darth Dean said...

Decent film. Of course, I'm partial to Barbara Stanwyck.

Michael said...

As you should, Mr. Darth sir. Though oddly, I'm not a fan of the film that many critics love, The Lady Eve. I have the same problem with her there that I have with Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby: I find her character highly unlikable.

Darth Dean said...

I'm right with you. I'm not a Hepburn fan at all, though she's in a lot of films I like.