Jette's very good column the other day called Remember the Night one of the seven Christmas movies you haven't ever seen. Jette caught it on TV once and hadn't watched it since. This 1940 romantic comedy is another one of those films that reminds you why you'd better not ditch your VHS player yet. If you want to see this (and, oh, you will want to see this, if you're a Preston Sturges fan), you have three options: one is to buy a grey-market DVD, something anyone with a search engine and a credit card can do. Another is to get one of the few VHS copies available off Amazon for $50 (excuse me, $49.99). The last, and cheapest, is to live in an urban area with a good specialty video store--such as Silver Screen in the Berkeley area suburb of El Cerrito.

If the last is the case, it's worth checking today to see if someone hasn't rented it out yet. Remember the Night is an unknown classic of the holiday, stressing romance, comedy and -- most important on Christmas -- hope and rebirth. The American cinema's most versatile actress, Barbara Stanwyck plays a character study for screenwriter Sturges' later The Lady Eve. Here she's a larcenous woman who turns out to be essentially no worse than the people around her.
The law: cobwebs for the rich and chains of steel for the poor, as the philosopher Proudhon put it. In a minute and a half long opening sequence, a black velvet-gloved forearm slinks across a department store jewelry counter. It acquires an expensive diamond bracelet, and slips away into the Christmas holiday crunch as the salesman hollers for the cops. Following the thief, the camera swivels up to see a 5th Avenue street sign. It dissolves into "3rd Avenue": New York's pawnshop district. We watch from this high angle, as the lady we're following goes inside a pawnshop to fence the bracelet. The door shuts behind her. She's caught, and arrested.

The justice is speedier than we're used to today, since she's in court with a jury even before Christmas. The accused presents a problem for the District Attorney. Though she's a third time offender, it's hard to convict a pretty woman at Christmas time. You need an especially trustworthy face to do the job. MacMurray's assistant DA John Sargent is just right for the job. He has a luxuriously tailored double-breasted suit, and that air of Midwestern solidness that Walt Disney played up in one kid movie after another in the 1960s.

O'Leary (Willard Robertson), the lady shoplifter's lawyer, considers himself the new Clarence Darrow. And he weaves a spellbinding tale of temporary insanity. This is one of the best and least-known screwball comedy courtroom scenes. According to the lawyer, the diamonds in the bracelet dazzled the girl with its sinister flashing colors and forced her to steal it: a clear case of "hypnoleptic catalepsy." (Robertson, a little known character actor, was a real life lawyer before he changed careers.) Our first sight of the face of the accused, Lee Leander (Stanwyck) is a grin of flabbergasted amusement, as she listens into this tale. Working the jury as well as the defendant, the lawyer warms to the task. He starts to do all the voices for the melodrama -- not just poor deluded girl but stern evil pawnbroker.

The jury buys it. Sargent plays a trick of his own: he gets a continuance until January 3, when the prosecution can get a psychiatrist to analyze this story. Feeling a slight bit of guilt about sending Lee to jail for Christmas, he sportingly decides to bail her out. Lee first believes she's going to be paying for her freedom in flesh. Once Lee finds out that's not the case, she decides to hang around for dinner: "I'll stay, but I won't be forced." She and Sargent bond in a supper club (must be the Rogers and Hart music), and then the prosecutor decides to drive Lee back to Indiana with him, where he's headed for the holidays. See, it turns out Lee is from a town just 50 miles away from where he grew up.

Then follows a taste -- but not too much -- of the great adventure that was cross-country driving in the days before the Pennsylvania Turnpike. They spend the night in a pasture, and a cow eats her hat. (Good riddance to the first of many Edith Head bonnets Stanwyck would wear; this one looks like a black felt pita) The two are citizen's-arrested for trespassing by an ornery farmer, and marched before a Justice of the Peace. After a quick escape they arrive at Lee's mother's place.

It's kind of a horror story: Ted Tetzlaff's powers as cinematographer are at his finest filming this dark-as-a-cavern farmhouse, an image of the ignorance and bitter darkness some self-described churchly people dwell in. Then, a fast pivot to rural light comedy, and the solemn portrait of a cross-eyed grampa at Sargent's boyhood home.. Waiting for him and their unexpected guest is Sargent's mom, maiden aunt, and shiftless farmhand (the odd-duck Sterling Holloway). The lyrical full swing of the film's holiday celebration begins. Lee is exposed to those moments (as Frederick Exley put it) when you suspect that maybe Norman Rockwell wasn't a raving lunatic after all.

MacMurray is Stanwyck's perfect partner, here, as in Double Indemnity, and Douglas Sirk's All I Desire; somewhere out there also is their least known team up, the obscure 3-D movie The Moonlighters. Celebrating Stanwycks' 100th birthday this year, the New Yorker's Anthony Lane dug up a MacMurray quote, from an interview in 1986. In addition to what happens in Remember the Night, he was rough with Stanwyck, he said: "once I shot her, once I left her for another woman, and once I sent her over a waterfall." I suppose Lane thought the rest of the quote was too sweet: "The one thing all these pictures had in common was that I fell in love with Barbara Stanwyck -- and I did, too."

Well, he wasn't the first one, but MacMurray was one of the few male stars who could stand up to her. He was an actor changed and catalyzed in Stanwyck's presence. Generally, a breezy aging college boy, a suaver, taller version of Dick Powell, Stanwyck made MacMurray the man he was in his best movies. I suppose everyone has their fantasy film, the the one they'd love to imagine being made: for me it's Stanwyck and MacMurray in Farewell My Lovely, the second Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler.

Lee is one more stop on Stanwyck's career-long walk on the shadow-line. Her characters were caught, between the comedy of a woman who knows the world is rigged, and the tragedy of a person who'll always be a fugitive from the moral, settled world. Both are transformed nicely; Sargent gets a taste of how the criminals live, and Lee learns to trust. It ends in a variation of the lovers on the run film noir plot. The two drive back to New York via Canada. Their last stop is at the half-frozen Niagara Falls. The two of them, black silhouettes in front of the mammoth wall of ice, are escapees from every law...including the law of the Production Code.

Director Mitchell Leisen was coming off his romance Midnight, considered one of the most sublime of romantic comedies; Remember the Night has very similar sophistication, with that mix of high and low comedy that makes one keep coming back to this particular era in the movies. One could grouse about the racist way the black actor Fred "Snowflake" Toones is treated, in his role as Rufus, Sargent's servant. He's used even worse by the Ale and Quail Club in The Palm Beach Story, for that matter. According to Diane Jacob's Sturges bio Christmas in July, there were early notes on the Remember the Night script by the film's first producer Al Lewin, and these included complaints about the black stereotyping. Facing such complaints was all part of an assignment that Sturges claimed made him want to "commit hari-kari." In Sturges own memoirs, he disparaged Remember the Night, as "schmaltz." I think he's wrong, and I'm certain reappraisal will follow a serious rerelease.