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CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD

'Remember the Night' is a charming holiday confection

Screening at the Aero: 'The More the Merrier,' 'If You Could Only Cook.'

December 23, 2009
  • Beulah Bondi, left, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Elizabeth Patterson star in "Remember the Night," about two people who live in New York and head home to Indiana for the holidays.
Beulah Bondi, left, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Elizabeth Patterson… (TCM and Universal Studios…)

Yes, Virginia, there are many Christmas movies out in the cinematic universe other than the old faithfuls "It's a Wonderful Life," "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Story," "A Christmas Carol" and "Home Alone."

"Remember the Night," one of the best Christmas movies you've probably never heard of, has finally arrived on DVD (available at www.tcm.com) and airs at 5 p.m. Thursday on Turner Classic Movies.

And like so many holiday films, including "Miracle on 34th Street," which was released in May 1947, the romantic comedy-drama "Remember the Night" came out in January 1940, a full 11 months before the holidays. And truth be told, any holiday movie worth its salt has enough pathos, humanity, humor and life lessons that it can be enjoyed any time of the year.

"Remember the Night" was written by the great Preston Sturges, who was one of Hollywood's top screenwriters at that time. It was also the last screenplay he wrote before he began directing his own screenplays in 1940 with "The Great McGinty" and "Christmas in July." Mitchell Leisen ("Midnight," "Hold Back the Dawn") directed "Remember the Night."

The film also marks the first pairing of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, who would burn up the screen as two murderous lovers in Billy Wilder's 1944 superb film noir, "Double Indemnity." The two also appeared in the 1956 Douglas Sirk sudser, "There's Always Tomorrow."

In this film, MacMurray plays John Sargent, an assistant district attorney in New York City; Stanwyck is Lee Leander, a woman who never got any breaks in life on trial right before the court's Christmas recess for shoplifting an expensive bracelet from a jewelry shop and then trying to pawn it.

Though he's prosecuting her, John feels sorry for Lee and bails her out from jail over the Christmas holidays. John is about to drive to his family's farm in Indiana for the holiday when Lee informs him she's also a Hoosier. Out of the goodness of his heart, he decides to drive her to her mother's house.

But when her mother treats her with contempt he takes her home, where Lee is welcomed with open arms by his warmhearted mother (Beulah Bondi) and aunt (Elizabeth Patterson). Over the next week, John and Lee fall in love, but what will happen when they return to New York?

Sturges described his script this way: "Love reformed her and corrupted him."

Though Leisen had directed another one of his scripts, 1937's "Easy Living," Sturges was not thrilled with the director's changes and cuts in his script of "Remember."

However, Leisen biographer David Chierichetti reported that Leisen fashioned the script to fit the personalties of his two great stars:

"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."

MacMurray and Stanwyck make an enchanting romantic couple. Stanwyck could do anything as an actress and she beautifully makes the transition from a tough cookie to a softly vulnerable woman who realizes she must pay her debt to society. The sorely underrated MacMurray deftly demonstrates his romantic leading man chops as John.

Racist portrayals of African Americans were de rigueur at the time and there lies the film's only flaw: John has a black male servant who seems to have the IQ of a tree stump. Thankfully, those scenes mar only the film's early reels.

Sturges spent time on the set, where he got to know Stanwyck. And the following year, he wrote and directed her in the seminal romantic comedy "The Lady Eve."

Elsewhere

The American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre has the perfect antidote for the holiday blues -- its annual screwball comedy festival begins Saturday with two terrific Jean Arthur farces.

The fun starts with George Stevens' 1943 classic "The More the Merrier," starring Arthur in her only Oscar-nominated performance as a woman living in Washington, D.C., during World War II, who sublets her apartment to a retired millionaire (Charles Coburn in his Oscar-winning turn). He sublets his half to a hunky soldier (Joel McCrea). Rounding out the double bill is 1935's comedy "If You Could Only Cook," which also stars Herbert Marshall.

Sunday's offerings are 1939's "The Women," George Cukor's stylish adaptation of Clare Boothe Luce's Broadway hit starring Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford and Joan Fontaine, among others, and 1935's delightful "The Good Fairy," directed by William Wyler and starring his then-wife, the exquisite Margaret Sullavan as a cinema usherette.

Sturges penned the witty screenplay. www.aerotheatre.com

susan.king@latimes.com

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