I think Christmas is almost a “device” in this movie. It isn’t a “Christmas” movie, although Christmas certainly helps. Rethink it as MacMurry taking Stanwyck home for the Fourth of July parade and picnic. I think it almost works, although there is nothing like the atmosphere that Christmas conjures up.
I saw this secular Christmas-themed film (at AFI Silver) with my parents, who are also fans of Double Indemnity, which also stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. This film was made 4 years prior to that film noir. Once again, the theme is redemption- a thief who realizes what she’d been missing in her childhood, falls in love (with a man and his family), then faces the consequences of her crime. (Don’t you think Benedict Cumberbatch resembles a young MacMurray? )
Remember the Night (1940)
Lee Leander: Now there’s nothing as dangerous as a square shooter. If all men were like you, there wouldn’t be any nice girls left.
On the night before Christmas Eve, up-and-coming ADA John Sargeant (MacMurray), decides to bail out Lee Leander (Stanwyck), the thief (with tree strikes) whose case was postponed for the holidays. The bail bondsman takes her over to John’s apartment, much to his confusion/shock. John, being a decent guy (see above quote), decides to take Lee out for dinner. They run into the judge who presided over their trial- oops!
John wonders how a normal person like her can turn to crime, and she tells him her way of thinking. They get to know each other a bit- turns out their both from small towns in Indiana. Every Christmas, John drives home for the holidays, and he offers to take Lea along with him. Lee’s tough gal façade fades, and she becomes very emotional. She doesn’t even know if her mother is alive, since she’s “never” been back home after coming to NYC.
There are some funny/wacky scenes in small-town Pennsylvania, after they (unknowingly) trespass on a very angry/gun-toting farmer’s land. They end up at the justice of the peace’s office, but John is not very adept at lying, but Lee is an old hand. Lee creates a little fire in a small wastebasket, enabling them to get away. John is shocked, yet also impressed, by her quick thinking.
When they reach Lee’s hometown, her mother (remarried) wants nothing to do with her. It’s a dark, well-done scene- not what you’d see in the cloying/unrealistic Hallmark holiday movies of recent times. While Lee tries to explain her side to her mother, Jack is quietly/calmly supportive.
The scene at Lee’s childhood home when Jack takes her back home to her mother’s house is such a chilling scene… Listening to her mother’s “good riddance” speech and Lee’s comments in the yard afterward… it’s just such a creepy, lonesome moment, filled with utter rejection…
But when he asks Barbara’s mother her name and she responds “The name doesn’t concern you.” His delivery of “It certainly does not” gives me the chills. It just says so much of his character.
There’s a moment when John is playing the piano and his family is gathered around when Lee looks around her in wonder. Barbara Stanwyck did a brilliantly subtle job of expressing the thought “What would it have been like to have grown up in a home like this?” in that brief moment.
Jack’s family includes his level-headed mother Mrs. Sargeant (played by Beulah Bondi, Ma Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life), doting Aunt Emma, and (comic relief) farm boy, Willy. They rush about getting everything perfect for John’s arrival. (John explained earlier that he grew up quite humble, but in the past few years, he’s been able to provide well for his family.) Lee is happily surprised by their lovely farmhouse and friendly demeanor. They gather about the piano (John plays some) and sing songs.
Being the honest man, John admits to his mother that Lee is a thief with no family to go to, not his special lady. His mother is still sympathetic toward Lee. The next morning, they even give Lee a few presents!
Over the next few days, Aunt Emma sees that Lee and John are falling in love. At the barn dance, she beams with happiness as she watches the couple dance and kiss. Mrs. Sargeant is worried, so she has a serious (yet gently worded) talk with Lee the night before they leave for NYC. She explains exactly how hard John worked to get to where he is at this point in his life. Lee says she’d never ruin his life, but admits that she’s in love with her son.
On the way back, they take a road through Canada, and end up in Niagara Falls. They admit their love for each other. John tells Lee that she can get away now, if she wants. She refuses, because she wants to face up to her sentence. John feels guilty, since the jury was about to acquit her before the holiday recess.
Back in the courtroom, Jack begins to treat Lee in such a harsh manner, garnering her sympathy from the jury. After a few questions, Lee realizes what he’s doing, and begs the judge to allow her to plead guilty. In the final scene, before Lee is taken away by the prison matron, John explains that her sentence probably won’t be too long. Lee’s ready to face anything (now that she’s loved).
Iconic American director Frank Capra called her “the greatest emotional actress the screen has yet known.” Barbara Stanwyck was Brooklyn-raised, not conventionally pretty (to many producers), but very confident in her skin (onscreen). She was very accessible, yet enigmatic, at the same time. Her appeal came from within- those sharp eyes and unmistakably husky voice. Stanwyck was not stuck to the prototypical “good girl” roles (early in her career, nude photos surfaced, though she denied it was her in those images).
AFI Silver recently had a Stanwyck film retrospective. One weekend, Victoria Wilson (author of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940) gave introductions to the films and had Q&As afterward. She also signed books for classic movie fans. Wilson, a former book editor, took 15 years to write the biography, though she conducted “decades of research.”
The Purchase Price (1932)
Joan Gordon (AKA Francine La Rue): I’ve been up and down Broadway since I was fifteen years old. I’m fed up with hoofing in shows. I’m sick of night clubs, hustlers, bootleggers, chislers [scam artists], and smart guys. I’ve heard all the questions and I know all the answers. And I’ve kept myself… fairly respectable through it all. The whole atmosphere of this street gives me a high-powered headache. I’ve got a chance to breathe something else, and boy, I’m grabbing it.
Joan (Stanwyck, just aged 25) seems to lead a glamorous life, wearing fancy gowns and singing at a posh nightclub. Too bad her dapper, small-time hood boyfriend Eddie (Lyle Talbot) is already married. One night, she decides to give it all up. Joan takes a new name and begins working at a lounge in Montreal, Canada. Though he acted like the break-up was no big deal, Eddie has two men tail Joan! Then her busybody maid gives her an idea- going as a “picture-bride” (akin to a mail-order bride) for a lonely farmer in North Dakota. Eddie will never find her there, right? The maid already sent in Joan’s picture, thinking that the farmer would prefer it to hers. Joan gives the maid $100 and gets on the train to her new home.
When Joan gets to small-town North Dakota in late Fall, she discovers that her new husband Jim (George Brent) is very handsome, yet quite serious. They get married in town in a brief, yet funny, ceremony. They drive (horse cart, not car) many miles to his wheat farm. But after she rejects him on the wedding night, Jim becomes very cold toward her. He sleeps in one corner of the living room; she takes the bedroom.
There is a role reversal- she has to win him over! This is very rare for early Hollywood, Wilson noted. Joan cooks, cleans, and entertains their wild neighbors without complaint. A wealthy/divorced landowner hits on her several times, making things even more tense with Jim. Her husband has money problems, Joan learns after a few weeks; they could lose the house/farm. Jim suggests she go back to Montreal, but Joan refuses. She wants this marriage to work, because she now loves her husband. One wintry/dangerous day, Joan helps another farmer’s family after a baby is born, showing how capable Joan has become as a farmer’s wife.
One night, Eddie shows up, seeking refuge from a terrible snowstorm. Jim overhears them talking, and realizes that they have a past. He is furious at Joan, shouting “I thought you were decent!” Joan tells Eddie they are done, but he isn’t convinced, deciding to stay in town for a while. Joan tells Jim about her relationship with Eddie, then breaks down in tears.
Jim goes to the bank, hoping to get an extension on his mortgage ($800). Boldly, Joan goes to the saloon to talk to Eddie, and gets the money from him. Jim and Eddie get into a fistfight (no stuntmen used back then), while Joan takes the money over to the banker. Jim soon receives a letter stating he has the extension until next season.
Joan and Jim work side by side to plant and harvest their crop, but are still living like roommates. Their wheat turns out very well, invoking jealousy from that landowner. One night, fire consumes most of their crop, though Jim and Joan try to stop it. (Stanwyck did that herself, and her ankles got singed. Her stand-in didn’t look right in the scene). Joan collapses due to the smoke, and Jim finally realizes that he loves her, too!
This is a small film, but you can already see the star potential in Stanwyck (her teeth weren’t yet fixed), especially in the emotional scenes. (Not unlike Brando, Stanwyck is unafraid of revealing messy emotions, even if it looks unattractive.) Joan redeems herself with her hard work and (unselfish) love for her husband, a stranger at the start of the film. But what about the lack of romance? This viewer has a good take on it:
I think she sees and appreciates the authenticity of, and the genuine goodness in, Jim, and that those qualities (not to mention he’s very handsome!) are what she falls in love with. Also, feeling bad that she shut down his decidedly awkward, abrupt, unpolished wedding night advances, but realizing it isn’t his fault that he so totally lacks finesse with women… and that he’d meant no offensiveness, she is eager to make things right with him, and falls in love with him in the process. -IMDB comment