Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Overlook: Remember the Night

by JB
What separates beloved, classic films from similar films that are consigned to the dustbin of history?

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 clich├ęs, to take the comely Leander home with him for the holidays! Guess what happens next?
Remember the Night is a cute, sweet little Christmas carol of a movie. The leads really sell their roles and, like most ‘40s movies, there is a deep bench of capable, charming supporting performances from the likes of Beulah Bondi, Sterling Holloway, Paul Guilfoyle, Tom Kennedy, and Fred “Snowflake” Toones. Remember the Night is so well-intentioned and warm, it is the film equivalent of milk and cookies.

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.
At first I considered that perhaps It’s a Wonderful Life’s three-decade long public domain status had cemented its popularity. The story goes that, due to a clerical error, the film’s copyright lapsed, plunging it into public domain legal limbo. Remember the era (era) when this classic was played literally day and night at the holidays because television stations could show it virtually for free? Ah, those were the days! Then, some wily lawyers (Are there any other kind?) figured out how to regain the film’s copyright: while the copyright on the film had lapsed, what about the score, the script, and the all-new restoration? Those aspects provided the basis for renewing the copyright! (Of course, stations could continue to broadcast it incessantly, but they would have to settle for a murky, dupey copy with no dialogue and no music. Hardly compelling cinema.)

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.
3. It’s a Wonderful Life’s premise of imagining “life without you” is more cosmic, awe-inspiring, and relatable than Remember the Night’s gentle road trip and hootenanny hijinks.

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!
7. It’s a close call, but It’s a Wonderful Life features a few more beloved Christmas tunes than Remember the Night.

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!

7 comments:

  1. Well, guess I have one more movie to try and squeeze in before Christmas. Thanks a lot!

    Also, I guess I missed a something, but what's this "era" joke a reference to? I remember listening to a podcast a while back and Patrick kept saying it.

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  2. This started a long time ago... Originally, Patrick and Doug were referencing The Howard Stern radio show. Whenever Stern and sidekick Artie Lange did an impression of Ted Kennedy, they would pepper their tirades with "err-a" to simulate his strong Boston accent. It stuck, so now on F This Movie, every mention of an era in time is inevitably followed with the Stern/Kennedy ERA. Thanks for reading the column!

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  3. Now the question is....Remember the Night or Christmas in Connecticut?

    Or just stick with The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (closing your eyes and covering your ears during the cat scene)?

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    1. Both. For the record, I am allergic to cats.

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    2. Still no reason to want to watch them come to harm.

      I don't wish all coconut to disappear from the Earth just because we don't "get along"... :-)

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  4. No, I meant both Night and Conneticut. I've never seen Ivers, much to my shame.

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    1. You should. Besides everything else it has going for it it's Kirk Douglas' first film.

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