Tuesday, 15 December 2015

12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS FILMS | Day 2: "Remember the Night" (1940)

Original release poster
Directed by Mitchell Leisen, Remember the Night (1940) tells the story of a young woman named Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) who is arrested for shoplifting just before Christmas. The district attorney assigned to prosecute her, Jack Sargent (Fred MacMurray), is upset that he must this case during the festive season, when a jury is more likely to be forgiving, and contrives to get the trial postponed until after the beginning of the new year. Then, feeling guilty because has condemned someone to a prison cell over the holidays, Jack arranges Lee's bail. Lee, however, is not especially grateful; she has no money and nowhere to spend Christmas. Learning that she is from Indiana, where he is about to drive to visit his family for the holidays, Jack offers to drop her off at her mother's house.

After a road trip filled with wrong turns and adventures with small-town justice, they finally arrive at her mother's farm. Lee finds that her embittered mother (Georgia Caine) has remarried and does not want anything to do with her daughter, who she considers a lost cause. Feeling sorry for Lee, Jack decides to take her to his family's home, where she is warmly received by his mother (Beulah Bondi), his aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson) and his cousin Willie (Sterling Holloway). In between popovers, singing around the piano and a New Year's Eve barn dance, Jack and Lee inevitably fall in love. Although Mrs. Sargent likes Lee, she feels that a relationship with her will jeopardize her son's career and asks her to give Jack up, which she agrees. On the drive back to New York, Jack tells Lee that he loves her and tries to persuade her to jump bail, but she refuses. When the trial arrives, Jack tries to throw the case by badgering Lee under cross-examination (a sure way to antagonize the jury), though she senses what he is up to and pleads guilty. As she is led away to her prison cell, Jack proposes to her and she promises that if he still feels that way after she is released, she will marry him.

Jack Sargent: I know what you were trying to do — save poor Woolie from the bad, bad woman. Your poor sap, don't you think I'm the best judge of what's good for me and what I want most in this world? When you were making your grand gesture, did you stop to think how much you were hurting me? Do you think I'm gonna stop loving you just because they lock you up with a bunch of hikers and hobbits for a few years?
 
Preston Sturges was one of the many writers of his generation to travel to Hollywood in the early 1930s. He had very little film experience and no particular attraction to the movies, but he was in love with "the idea of success in America — the promise of romance and fortune and fame." A boyhood spent living throughout Europe with his free-spirited mother had exposed Sturges to a great variety of lifestyles and cultures, which enhanced his creativity and ability to tell stories. His first hit as a writer was Strictly Dishonorable, a Broadway play about a girl who exchanged her boring American fiancé for a poetic Italian. Written a month before the stock market crash of October 1929, the play ran in New York for two years and made Sturgess one of the most acclaimed playwrights of the time. The success of Strictly Dishonorable attracted attention from Hollywood and within a year he as working as a writer for Universal, MGM and Columbia Pictures.

In 1936, Sturges signed a contract with Paramount, where he began his ascendence as one of the wittiest comedy writers in Hollywood. In late 1939, he wrote the first draft of what would became his masterpiece, The Lady Eve (1941), though Al Lewin, one of Paramount's most astute producers, encouraged him to put his comedy aside and concentrate on an original dramatic project, Beyond These Tears, the story of a district attorney who falls in love with the woman he is trying to send to prison. 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."
 
MacMurray and Stanwyck in a publicity still
By the time Sturges completed his script in the summer of 1939, Mitchell Leisen had been signed to helm the film. One of Paramount's leading directors, Leisen began his Hollywood career working as a costume designer and set decorator in several Cecil B. DeMille pictures, including Dynamite (1929), which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction. In 1933, he made the transition to director with the drama Cradle Song (1933) and quickly became known for the keen sense of asthestics he brought to his pictures. By the end of the decade, he was one of the most successful directors in Hollywood and was in great demand with actors.

Leisen personally chose Barbara Stanwyck to play Lee Leander; he felt the role had been written for her. Stanwyck loved Sturges's script and immediately accepted the job. Although Sturges and Stanwyck came from completely different backgrounds — he from a European bohemian aristocracy, she from a showgirl street life — she felt a great compatibility with him. She thought him enormously talented and his script one of the best she had ever read. For his part, Sturges was delighted that Stanwyck would play Lee. Most everyone who ever worked with Stanwyck admired her talent, good nature and professionalism, but Sturges went further to declare that she possessed "such a rare inner beauty that she would still be radiant in old age." During filming, Sturges told Stanwyck, so often cast in "weepies," that he would one day write her a great comic role. Just the following year, that role arrived in the form of The Lady Eve, his first truly great writing-directing effort and one of the greatest film on both their resumes.

Stanwyck, Leisen and MacMurray on the set
Before Leisen was assigned to the picture, Ray Milland and Franchot Tone had been suggested to Sturges for the part of Jack Sargent, but the role was eventually given to Fred MacMurray. Tall, lank and "painfully shy," MacMurray had previously been directed by Leisen in the comedies Hands Across the Table (1935) and Swing High, Swing Low (1937), both co-starring Carole Lombard. Although Leisen was perfectly happy with MacMurray's performance in the film, Sturges considered that the 32-year-old actor showed "neither the nimble wit nor commanding presence" he had imagined in his male protagonist. 

Filming began in July 1939 and proceeded smoothly, though Sturges was frequently on the set supervising Leisen's constant revisions of the script. Sturges felt that Leisen did not understand his humor and found him an "arrogant man, without a sense of pacing or a knack for comedy." Because of Leisen's obsessive concern with authenticity and the look of his pictures, the result of his years as a costume designer, Sturges felt the director was more interested in the sets than the material. While Leisen, who had also directed Easy Living, never rewrote a word of Sturges's dialogue, he did not faithfully follow the final script, often truncating long scenes during filming and deleting others in the editing process. This lack of control over his own screenplay infuriated Sturgess and intensified his determination to direct his own material. Within the same year, he made his directorial debut with The Great McGinty (1940), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck
Paramount felt the picture's original title, Beyond These Tears, had no relevant connection to Sturges's screenplay and was therefore wrong for the box-office. The studio decided that a contest might produce a better title and a synopsis of the script with the title Remember the Night was sent around. Suggested titles included The Fortunate Sinner, I Love a Thief, State Versus Love, Romance on Probation, Love Convicted and Out on Bond. Ultimately, it was decided that the title Remember the Night would do. According to Paramount executive A. M. Botsford, "The title doesn't do violence to the story and has attractive box office quality."

Remember the Night opened on January 19, 1940 to excellent critical reviews. The New York World-Telegram found it "glowing and heartwarming," while Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times described it as "memorable [...] blessed with an honest script, good directing and sound performance." Nugent added, "Perhaps this is a bit too early in the season to be talking of the best pictures of 1940; it is not too early to say that Paramount's nomination is worth considering." After the film's release, Leisen wrote Sturges: "Do you suppose it's possible for you to arrange an extension from my office so you could get in on some of these charming compliments I have been getting on the picture? As you know, I have always said a picture is only as good as the story and in my opinion, honors should be equally divided between us on this one." Although writing Remember the Night almost caused him "to commit hara-kiri several times," Sturges admitted that "as it turned out, the picture had quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz to make it box office."

Similarly to what happens in William Dieterle's I'll Be Seeing You, in Remember the Night the experience of Christmas has a transformative power over the two main characters in the story. Lee starts the film as a dishonest and cynical woman, but the sense of happiness she finds in the Sargent home during Christmas brings out her vulnerability and yearning for what she never had and she slowly begins to redeem herself. For his part, Jack is a smug, self-confirmed do-gooder who seems quick to judge Lee's actions, but during their road trip to Indiana he begins to drop his guard as well. As Sturges said, "love reformed her and corrupted him, which gave us the finely balanced moral that one man's meat is another man's poison."


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SOURCES:
A Life of Barbara Stanwyck, Volume 1: Steel-True, 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson (2013) | Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturgess by Diane Jacobs (1992) | Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges: His Life in His Words adapted and edited by Sandy Sturges (1990) | Three More Screenplays by Preston Sturgess edited and with an introduction by Andrew Horton (1998) | TCMDb (Articles)

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