Thursday, December 5, 2013

Barbara Goes to Court

The final film in the AFI Silver tribute to Barbara Stanwyck was Remember the Night (1940), certainly an appropriate film for the holiday season.  It's a few days before Christmas.  John [Jack] Sargent (Fred MacMurray), a New York City Assistant District Attorney has been requested by his boss to delay his vacation for one day, in order to prosecute a shoplifter.  It doesn't sound like it should be all that hard, but the DA knows that it is difficult to convict a woman, and Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is very much a woman.  Rather than deal with the holiday spirit of the jurors, John forces a delay to the trial, then feels guilty when he realizes Lee will have to spend the holidays in jail. He bails her out, then discovers she has no where to go. As she was brought up in Indiana, only a few miles away from Jack's family home, and her mother still resides there, Jack proposes he bring her with him for a visit to her family.  So, off they go, each intending to spend the holidays with his or her mother.

In the past, we've complained about films that don't seem to know if they are comedy, tragedy, or romance.  Remember the Night has a little bit of each, yet holds its course beautifully. The film starts in an almost comedic tone, building the humor until our couple is arrested for trespassing in a pasture (and theft.  Jack decided to milk a cow for a cup of milk).  However, once Jack and Lee reach Indiana, the mood of the film begins to change.  Our encounter with Lee's mother (Georgia Caine) and her cold husband, who will not even tell Jack his name, quickly reveals WHY Lee's life went wrong.  The mother, who's love and regard Lee still craves, despises her daughter, who is "just like her father."  Lee was forced out of her home as a young teen; she is still not welcome there, so Jack brings her to his family to spend the holiday.

The film now counterpoints the dark, almost evil tone of Lee's childhood home with that of Jack.  Like Lee's mother, Mrs. Sargent (Beulah Bondi) is a widow.  She raised John alone, but with love and encouragement.  We discover that there is much about the young lives of Jack and Lee that are similar:  like Lee, Jack once "borrowed" the egg money, but Jack's mother talked to him about it.  Lee's mother condemned her as a life-long thief.  It is that one difference - the attitude of the mothers towards their children that have shaped their adult lives.

Of course, this is a stellar cast.  Stanwyck is amazing as Lee.  Watch the scene where she absorbs the love in the Sargent house.  Her eyes display her amazement at the family's love and intimacy, and yearning for a similar memory.   MacMurray is quite convincing as Jack - one is even willing to overlook the fact that it is illegal for Lee to leave the state while out on bail, thanks to the honesty of MacMurray's portrayal.  And then there is the always magnificent Beulah Bondi.  Her character is all warmth and understanding - even when she has to do something unpleasant, her kindness shines through.  Will she accept Lee in the end? One suspects she will, and that one day in the near future Lee and Jack will be back home again in Indiana to stay.   A quick nod is also due to Sterling Holloway (Willie), who it turns out has a lovely singing voice.  Certainly, his quirky voice and appearance have always typecast him, but Willie is a character you look forward to visiting.

To supplement your enjoyment of this film, here is a posting from the Movie Morlocks blog, which talks a bit about the film's author, Preston Sturges.  As I mentioned, this film is full of the spirit of Christmas, but with a bit of humor thrown in.  With Christmas coming, why not give it a look?  In the meantime, here is a clip for your enjoyment:

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