Saturday, December 12, 2020

Stanwyck and MacMurray Team for a Lovely Yuletide Night

      One of the most iconic onscreen pairings during the 1940’s started out the decade in a gem of a holiday-themed comedy/drama that has slowly risen in status, primarily due to showings on TCM, without ever gaining a warranted spot among the top Christmas movies of all time. Made a few years before their teaming as possibly Film Noir’s most ill-fated lovers in 1944’s Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray first demonstrated their easily chemistry and perfectly-meshed performing styles in ace director Mitchell Leisen’s Remember the Night. Crafted from a terrific Preston Sturges screenplay, made just before the multi-talented legend started his own directing career and cranked out a slew of unrivaled classics in short order, the film manages to maintain a believable and compelling mixture and comedic and dramatic elements during its 94 minutes, while never forcing its hand by pushing for easy sentiment or laughs. Every light and moving moment appears earned, thanks to the aforementioned stars, director, screenwriter, and a wonderful supporting cast. 

       Prior to helming Night, director Leisen honed his craft for years, first as an art director for Cecil B. DeMille before amassing an adept 1930’s directorial output (Death Takes a Holiday, Hands Across the Table, the wonderful Easy Living), which culminated in one of the best of the 1930’s comedies, or comedies period, the peerless Midnight, made just prior to this Night. It’s interesting to compare the way Leisen appears to carefully compose scenes in a classy, intelligent manner even when events become more frenetic to how Sturges might have handled the material, particularly the zanier aspects of the storyline. There’s a charm in how Leisen is able to confidently and smoothly switch from a stark dramatic scene (such as Lee Leander’s (Stanwyck) meeting with her mother, played with unforgettable placid grimness by Georgia Caine) to an endeavor involving the haphazard milking of a cow, without losing focus and throwing the film’s overall tone off. Sturges, although varying in his approach from Leisen’s calmer methods, later proved he could also blend heavy and light dramatics (see: Sullivan’s Travels) and his screenplay work on Night artfully introduces each character and shift in the story’s dynamics in a manner that presages Sturges own phenomenal output as a writer/director.  

                It’s intriguing to see Stanwyck and MacMurray paired as characters running counter to the iconic and underhanded Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson of Indemnity. In Night, Stanwyck’s Lee may possess some criminal intent at the outset (when Lee’s a shoplifter) but, coming out of the depression, the idea Lee steals to survive is a mindset many viewers of the time could relate to. For a modern audience, there’s still no problem identifying with Lee and her plight, because Stanwyck has such a natural, direct approach to acting (her work is probably the least dated now of any of her 1930’s and 40’s contemporaries) one connects with, understands and believes her characters’ motives, and wants to ride to glory with her, whether literally in a Western such The Furies or Forty Guns or here wherein she plays an endearingly flawed-yet-charming heroine without a trace of artifice. Stanwyck always managed to handle the nuances of a role with such adeptness she was able to switch from drama to comedy to romance in a scene with the apparent ease she displays in Night, but don’t try this at home- it’s a tricky proposition, and few if any could convey these multi-facets in a character as dexterously as Stanwyck does. I was going to write “as the prime Stanwyck does,” but when wasn’t she in her prime? Over 40 years after Night, Stanwyck remained absolutely riveting in The Thorn Birds, scoring one final major and widely-seen success to add to a career full of terrific work. 

As for MacMurray, he brings a relaxed, matter-of-fact demeanor to his playing of John Sargent, the lawyer who through a host of unlikely circumstances becomes involved with Lee over the Christmas holidays. MacMurray’s easygoing, extremely likable “regular Joe” personality aligns ideally with Stanwyck’s acting style, and you root for Lee and John to end up in each other’s arms where they so clearly belong. After John falls for Lee during their holiday excursion back to his old homestead, which includes a doting-but-practical mother (played by Beulah Bondi, naturally) MacMurray has a great moment late in the film wherein Lee nobly states she’s going to give John up due to her shady past, to which he affably proffers an “oh yeah, sure” type of response and reaction, as if John knows they’re made for each other and there’s no reason to waste time debating it; it’s a throw-away moment, but also deeply romantic and touching. MacMurray would continue to thrive in the light comedy vein wherein he first found success opposite Carole Lombard in the 1930’s, with 1945’s memorable Murder, He Says and his 1960’s heyday as one of Baby-Boomers’ ideal television and big-screen fathers via My Three Sons and a host of Disney films still to come, with a couple of satisfying forays into less virtuous roles via Indemnity and as the chief heel in The Apartment granting the dependable star a chance to shine against type in two all-time classics. Night captures MacMurray at his early-career best, with hints of the dramatic shadings that would come to greater fruition once Billy Wilder got a hold of him nicely offsetting the general levity MacMurray brings to his role.

The festive atmosphere kicks into high gear once Lee and John visit his mother and Aunt Emma (the always spot-on Elizabeth Patterson, whose byplay with Bondi as the two veterans amusingly spar over Emma's lack of cooking finesse provides some solid laughs) at the rural locale of John’s youth. Bondi is right at home as a folksy-yet-sage matriarch, who is both supportive and concerned regarding the burgeoning romance between John and Lee- she has a great moment with Stanwyck discussing the dynamics of Lee’s unorthodox relationship with John and what the future holds for them. Leisen expertly conveys a sense of time and place as the household prepares for Christmas events, such as stringing popcorn for the tree while singing songs together in the cozy living room, a scene so effective in creating holiday ambiance it brings to mind audience’s similar experiences. Completing the makeshift family, Sterling Holloway also scores as Willie, the lackadaisical, wistful handyman on the premises and, in one of the film’s highlights, he beautifully vocalizes with accompaniment on piano by Stanwyck in the aforementioned ideal holiday setting, while the others join in. Hearing Holloway’s normally hollow, high voice suddenly become impressively melodic and moving is both surprising and hard to forget.

 The richly entertaining blend of comedy drama, romance and holiday cheer Leisen and company provide in the class production Night represents makes one wonder at the various  circumstances at work in one film evolving into a perennial holiday favorite, while other films possibly more worthy of recognition fall by the wayside. Fortunately, the fact “film is forever” allows for a previously less-recognized jewel such as Night to eventually gain a wider audience as a top Christmas film, 80 years after its initial release in the case of Night. I became aware of the movie via the fine 2014 Blu-ray from the TCM Vault Collection (with an introduction by the late, great Robert Osborne), and the film is currently available on Blu-ray, DVD and via streaming. If you’re in the holiday mood to see two top stars of yesteryear shine in an artfully-crafted concoction supremely guided by an ace director and writer, reward yourself by spending some time with this seasonal Night.


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