We continue our survey of the greatest movies from each decade.
Here’s Part One, in which we cover the era of silent movies.
We continue with the 1940′s, Hollywood’s last great era.
Remember the Night, 1940. The first trick in screenwriting is setting a consistent tone for the film. Audiences want to know just what kind of movie they’re watching. It is then the director’s and actor’s jobs to interpret and correctly modulate the screenplay’s tone.
But every once in a while, along comes a film that defies this conventional wisdom. Remember the Night is just such a film. It is best described as a romantic comedy-drama, a cinematic hybrid.
The plot is simple, elegant and irresistible. Lee Leander, played by Barbara Stanwyck, gets arrested during Christmas for shoplifting. Assistant District Attorney John Sargent, Fred MacMurray, is set to prosecute her. The trial is postponed and rather than let Stanwyck spend Christmas in the slammer, MacMurray offers to drive her home for the holidays. Complications ensue, and Stanwyck ends up with MacMurray’s family for Christmas.
It’s a great set-up. But the shifts in tone are startling. When MacMurray witnesses Stanwyck’s mother rejecting her daughter in the most cold-blooded terms, it’s absolutely heart breaking. And it has to be for it provides the perfect motivation for MacMurray’s rescue of this beautiful and tragic criminal. At the same time, the detour and car crash sequences, leavened with a nasty farmer and a crooked small town judge, are played very broadly and for yuks.
Preston Sturges wrote the script. This was his last film as screenwriter before moving into the director’s chair. It is worth noting that Sturges, a huge fan of silent comedy, especially Harold Lloyd, displayed the same penchant for slapstick in his very best films. Gags which, all too often, fall flat, for they seem to come out of another movie, and in a sense, they do. Think of Henry Fonda’s endless prat falls in The Lady Eve, or Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake falling in the swimming pool in Sullivan’s Travels. These awkward comedy sequences severely break tone in otherwise masterful films.
In any case, Sturges had a beautiful one-line capsule of Remember the Night, “Love reformed her and corrupted him.”
Naturally, this movie is a love story—Avrech’s rule: All great movies are love stories—but the resolution is a bit darker than the normal comedy.
MacMurray and Stanwyck are best known for their work in the film noir classic Double Indemnity, a masterpiece of plot, style and tone. But it is in this film that their chemistry was first ignited. MacMurray specialized in playing good-guy Joes. And Stanwyck was expert as the good-bad girl. On the set for the entire shoot—Mitchell Leisen directed—Preston Sturges got to know Stanwyck and recognized her potential as a comedic actress. He told her, “I’m going to write a screwball comedy for you.” And he did, The Lady Eve, just a year later, a film of which I will be writing in this series.
Remember the Night is a story of crime and punishment, forgiveness and redemption, a deeply touching love story, and a first-rate Christmas movie.
Let’s watch Stanwyck and MacMurray fall in love:
Most memorable quote, Stanwyck as Lee Leander: “One of these days one of you boys is going to start one of these scenes differently and one of us girls is going to drop dead from surprise.”
Remember the Night is available on DVD.
To be continued next week.