Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Rights And The Wrongs

Films seen over the holiday included my annual Christmas Eve viewing of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON on Christmas Day at the Vista with a good friend and then that night I checked out a few titles which TCM had been running recently. First was HOLIDAY AFFAIR, a pleasant enough little romantic comedy from 1949 with Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh. But it turned out that 1940’s REMEMBER THE NIGHT, which I had already seen a number of years ago, was the one worth checking out. Probably best remembered as one of the Mitchell Leisen films that drove the likes of Preston Sturges to directing out of unhappiness over how his scripts were shot (Billy Wilder was another), it was indeed the last Sturges script to be helmed by someone else before making his directorial debut with THE GREAT McGINTY. Its serious side overtakes the comic end by a certain point, which was probably Sturges’ intent as well and though it winds up not having as many laughs as it maybe should have had it’s ultimately a sweet and even a very emotional film.

Right before Christmas Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is arrested when she makes off with a bracelet from a jewelry shop and soon after tries to pawn it. After some fancy footwork by her lawyer, Assistant D.A. John Seargant (Fred MacMurray) manages to get the trial postponed until after the holidays, which means that she’ll have to spend the entire holiday break in jail. Feeling a little guilty, Seargant pulls some strings to have her sprung for the holiday break but a misunderstand results in her being dropped off at his place. After learning that not only does she have nowhere else to go but that she is also from the home state of Indiana that he is about to head out to, he offers to drop her off at the home where she hasn’t returned to in years. But things don’t quite go as planned and as they spend more time together they naturally begin to fall for each other.

Without actually reading the script, it’s all guesswork as to the changes Leisen may have made but it’s hard not to get the impression that either he doesn’t bring the finesse to the earlier comic scenes that Sturges later would in his own films or the director simply wasn’t as interested in these sections. As it is, there’s the feeling that he spent more time adjusting Barbara Stanwyck’s hat than he did working out bits of comic business such as in the early trial scene, which doesn’t feel as peppy as it should, resulting in its going on about twice as long as necessary. But once the two leads leave New York and head west for Indiana the movie begins to find its focus starting with the almost nightmarish sequence of Stanwyck visiting her childhood home, a place with a darkness to it in every conceivable way and is easily the best-directed scene in the film. Maybe that’s why once we venture forward to MacMurray’s own home and family the relationship between the two leads begins to take hold. A little of it is too broad and there’s no one great scene in the film but it does succeed as a simple story of people who have met after traveling different paths and considering who’s playing them it’s hard not to think of the whole thing as an interesting alternate universe to DOUBLE INDEMNITY. According to the Sturges biography Christmas in July, director Leisen wrote him saying he deserved much of the credit for the film, adding, “…I have always said a picture is only as good as the story and in my opinion, honors should be equally divided between us on this one.” In spite of this, Sturges seems to have been upset at certain cuts that were made and maybe even with the entire finished project as a whole. His self-titled autobiography doesn’t even spend a page on the subject, summing up his feelings by stating, “the picture had quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz to make it box office.” Granted, there is a certain lack of incident once we get to MacMurray’s hometown, but there really doesn’t need to be. All we need is to see the characters gradually falling for each other and it pays off in a long scene when they stop at Niagra Falls on the way back to the city to discuss the situation, truly letting all their feelings be known. It’s a romantic moment that Leisen truly succeeds in pulling off. It’s not as sharp as some of the best scripts that Sturges would ultimately direct but we still get such bits throughout as Stanwyck’s theory on “The Rights and The Wrongs” in the world. As far as Leisen goes, it’s not the true classic that MIDNIGHT is, but it’s a sweet film to watch over the Christmas holiday and the emotions that emerge in the final scenes feel genuinely earned.

Stanwyck, who Sturges would eventually direct in the true masterpiece THE LADY EVE, is a delight in the lead. She’s always likable, yet her street-smarts show through enough that you believe that she is still has a criminal past anyway. It should also be said how truly beautiful she is here. MacMurray, who Sturges would not direct in a future film, is likable and we fully believe how he’s fallen in love with Stanwyck so quickly but he never feels as interesting here as he would when he played the darker characters he would in his Billy Wilder films. Georgia Caine is truly believably cold as Stanwyck’s mother, making one scene go a long way. Beulah Bondi, from hundreds of films including playing Mrs. Bailey in the other Christmas perennial IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, plays MacMurray’s mother here and has some particularly good moments with Stanwyck. As for elements that haven’t aged all that well, there’s MacMurray’s butler Rufus played by “Snowflake” which, to put it mildly, is a bit of a problem in this day and age and for all I know is one of the main reasons the film hasn’t gotten more TV play over the years. Speaking of which, what is up with the crappy, dupey looking print that TCM showed? I could have sworn I’ve seen this film look better before (someone on the TCM message boards seems to think the same and speculates that the fire earlier this year out at Universal, which owns this title, may have had something to do with this).

But the whole film manages to succeed in giving just the sort of feel that maybe we want over the holidays, that maybe it really is possible to connect with someone and fall in love. Maybe that’s all it needs to do. I’m not sure if it’s the best of the scripts that Preston Sturges wrote before he moved on to directing them but it does contain some of the feel that his films would ultimately have, reminding us of the depth that can be found there when you get past the madcap zaniness. The characters he created were people that we find ourselves liking in spite of all the rights and wrongs that they’ve been responsible for in the past. It’s one of the many reasons why his creations are still worth studying today.


James said...

Currently reading a Sturges bio entitled MADCAP by Donald Spoto. Coincidentally, I just finished reading a small section on this very film, Mr. Peel. Sturges is a fascinating Hollywood character; his childhood and upbringing by his bohemian Mother is truly unbelievable. She was a best friend of Isadora Duncan and, if we are to believe Spoto's telling, designed AND gave Duncan the scarf that helped accidentally kill her while driving her car. The Film Forum in Manhattan is celebrating Sturges' career with a retrospective running from Dec 24 to early Jan 2009.

As always, your blog provides an interesting read, Mr. Peel.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I know I've got MADCAP around here, I really should dig it out. The Film Forum mention reminds me that I saw an amazing Sturges retrospect there a million years ago (or in 1990) and how key that was for me getting to see some of his films. Glad to hear they're showing a few of them again. As always thanks very much for reading and for commenting!