Remember the Night is a real find, though I did not find it. Credit Turner Classic Movies with discovering this hidden gem, restoring it, and simultaneously broadcasting it often and singing its praises.
The Plot In Brief: John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) is an assistant district attorney tasked with prosecuting a shoplifter, Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) on Christmas Eve. Knowing that it is well nigh impossible to expect a guilty verdict on the holiday, Sargent asks for a postponement. The judge grants this, but remands Leander into the custody of Sargent himself. Sargent is forced, in one of those hard-to-believe movie clichés, to take the comely Leander home with him for the holidays! Guess what happens next?
The whole time I was watching this terrific little gem of a film, I found myself asking, “Why is It’s a Wonderful Life a lynchpin of popular culture and no one has ever heard of Remember the Night?” I believe my excessive rumination began when I noticed that both films a) occur at Christmas time and b) feature beloved character actress Beulah Bondi as the protagonists’ mothers.
But then I reconsidered. Clearly its ubiquity was not the sole reason It’s a Wonderful Life became a classic. I puzzled and puzzled until my puzzler was sore. While I’m a fan of Remember the Night, here are some reasons I believe It’s a Wonderful Life edged it out for holiday classic status.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life has a more specific, hiss-able villain. Even in a Christmas movie, audiences like a strong bad guy—like Oogie Boogie, Stripe the Gremlin, or Hans Gruber. It is hard to top old Lionel Barrymore in his wheelchair for pure, curmudgeonly malevolence. His Mr. Potter is the Grinch, Ebeneezer Scrooge, and a bad case of hemorrhoids all rolled up into one. The villain in Remember the Night is our inefficient legal system.
2. Jimmy Stewart is more beloved than Fred MacMurray. He just is.
4. Several children are featured prominently in It’s a Wonderful Life. Christmas is, after all, a children’s holiday. There is not a single child in Remember the Night.
5. Remember the Night features a stereotyped black character, Fred “Snowflake” Toons, playing MacMurray’s butler and “Man Friday,” Rufus. This type of portrayal is no longer politically correct. The relationship between the characters seems to one of mutual respect; there is a notable absence of scaredy-cat, eye-rolling nonsense, and the two characters seem genuinely to be friends. Still, this is the kind of thing that makes modern audiences queasy. Just as I was about to chalk up another point for It’s a Wonderful Life, I remembered the Baily’s sassy maid Annie (Lillian Randolph)—so I guess this one’s a tie?
6. It’s a Wonderful Life features the beloved sequence where young George Baily and his date Mary Hatch do the jitterbug at the high school dance as the gym floor opens, dumping them in the swimming pool. Remember the Night features a charming sequence where John Sargent and his date for the evening jitterbug at a barn dance. So I guess this one is a tie too!
8. The great Frank Capra directed It’s a Wonderful Life. Mitchell Leisen directed Remember the Night. Capra could take Leisen in a fair fight.
9. It’s a Wonderful Life features aggressive good cheer, peppiness, and All-American spunk. Remember the Night is more knowing, cynical, and laid back. Everything else being equal, spunk usually wins in these cases.
10. Remember the Night features zero angels.
While I’m giving the edge to It’s a Wonderful Life, in our current holiday time of good cheer, I believe we should all be happy that we have both movies. Babies, if you have never seen Remember the Night, give it a try—you will be glad you did. Happy Holidays!