Remember the Plight: The Reformation of Women in REMEMBER THE NIGHT

29 December 2013

Four years before their noir sensation Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray paired for Mitchell Leisen’s 1940 Christmas romance Remember the Night—not to be confused with A Night to Remember, as starring Stanwyck.  In Leisen’s holiday classic, Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is a shoplifter caught stealing jewelry on New York’s 5th Avenue.  Assistant District Attorney, John Sargeant (Fred MacMurray), gets called in to prosecute the case.  He quickly realizes the jury is likely to acquit Lee because, according to him, she is a woman and it is the holidays.  He requests a postponement, increasing the chances that, post-Christmas, a jury will find Lee guilty of her crime.  The postponement is granted, but, unable to stand knowing Lee is in jail awaiting her trial over the holiday, John posts Lee’s bond and agrees to drive her home to her family for Christmas.  Unfortunately, upon her arrival, John learns that Lee and her mother are not close; in fact, Lee’s mother has disowned Lee for her thievish ways.  John then decides to take Lee with him to his family’s home for the holiday.  Shocked by the kindness and generosity of these strangers, Lee begins to see the errors in her old ways, and she and John quickly fall for one another.  However, when Christmas comes and goes, Lee and John must return to New York and settle the charges against Lee, putting their relationship, as well as her freedom, on the line.

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Not a new topic, but the treatment of women in 1940’s American cinema is a seemingly inexhaustible issue.  Beginning in the 1970s, this subject came to the forefront of feminist film theory, largely because there are striking similarities regarding female representation between almost all American studio films of 40s.  Remember the Night is no exception.  The original screenplay is reported to focus more on Fred MacMurray’s character; however, during pre-production and filming a shift was made to focus the feature on Barbara Stanwyck’s character instead.  As a result of that shift, Lee Lander is a quintessential representation of how 1940’s cinema treats women, specifically how 1940’s cinema punishes women who do not follow the rules.

The opening scene of Remember the Night captures Lee shoplifting from a high-end, New York City department store.  Immediately, the audience knows Lee as a thief.  Moreover, before the audience hears Lee speak, viewers listen to the over-the-top, melodramatic defense, presented to the jury, by her ranting lawyer.  Her lawyer’s defense of her theft is preposterous, and his delivery has no credibility.  This sham of an attorney represents Lee, acting as her voice and mentality.  Although she has still not spoken herself, his embarrassing rambling about her character and defense of her illegal behavior not only confirms she is a thief, but also makes her a sham and liar by association.

Therefore, the film begins by establishing Lee as a rebellious woman who does not follow the rules.  As a result, the film’s purpose is defined: Remember the Night will be about reforming a woman who does not follow society’s policies; if she cannot be reformed, she must die, but if she can be reformed, she will have to face consequences for her unruly behavior.  In Lee’s case, the woman is reformable, perhaps in light of the holiday season the film is set during.  After her lawyers rant, John has the trial postponed, John posts Lee’s bond; the two travel out-of-town for Christmas, eventually landing in Indiana, where both Hoosiers are from.  Through her holiday with John and his family her ways are changed.  What John and his family offer Lee is a reset option, one only available through a bit of time-traveling, metaphorically speaking.

Since John takes Lee to her home-state of Indiana, Lee has the unexpected privilege to step back into the past; she is going back to a place and a time before her thieving ways began.  And, in keeping with that, John’s family, Mrs. Sargeant (Beulah Bondi) and Aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson), take her to a ball on Christmas.  The portion of Indiana the pair travels to is very simple, with wholesome, traditional roots and values.  Thus, their ball is also very traditional and old-world.  Lee only has pants to wear to the ball, another slightly definite move on her part.  And, as Aunt Emma points out, a woman cannot wear pants to a ball.  Instead, Aunt Emma gives Lee her dress, a wedding dress that this unmarried spinster never got to wear.  This exchange solidifies that Aunt Emma will never find love, and also that she is doing her part in reforming Lee into a conventional woman, who, when Lee completes her reformation, must marry and transform again into a wife.

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The ball is a climactic moment in the film because it is the moment when Lee and John’s love blooms; simultaneously, Lee’s unruly ways cease on Christmas night.  After the ball, John’s mother approaches Lee, acknowledging that John has fallen in love with her.  Mrs. Sargeant also tells Lee, indirectly, that John is a good man, and she would hate for him to throw away his career, success, and reputation for a troublesome woman.  This connects to Lee; she understands that John’s mother is telling her not to interfere in John’s life until her own checkered past is straightened up.

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The Lee from the beginning of the room, the one who stole jewelry in a department store, would not entertain Mrs. Sargeant’s request.  The old Lee was selfish, acting for herself above all else.  Lee’s acceptance of Mrs. Sargeant communicates to the audience that Lee wants to change and become a respected woman, one willing to sacrifice.  John and his family have changed her; however, Lee, who is still in Indiana, continues to be in her metaphorical time-travel, away from her everyday life.  The true test of Lee’s reformation will be upon her return home, when she has to face the theft charges from her department store jewelry heist.

Yet, en route back to Manhattan, an unforeseen wrench is thrown into Lee’s reformation; John tries to help Lee escape her charges, offering to flee with her to Canada, where they can start over, together.  Lee refuses even through John persists.  Eventually, they do return to Manhattan, where John attempts to throw the case against Lee, which would get her off trail.  But, as he tries to save her, Lee jumps up and pleads guilty to the charges against her, sealing her fate.  Clearly, Lee has been reformed; she made the selfless, expected, appropriate move for a respectable woman in her position.

However, reformation alone is not enough n 1940’s cinema; Lee must also receive consequences for her formerly wild ways.  Lee is sentenced to jail.  Reeling from the judge’s ruling, John begs Lee to marry him immediately, before the guards take her to jail.  This, too, is part of her punishment.  Lee says no, the only acceptable answer she can give her love, telling John that only after she is released from prison, if John still loves her, will she marry him.  Lee loses her freedom and her love for an undetermined amount of time, and that is the film’s conclusion.  Because Lee’s aunt gave Lee her wedding dress, one can speculate that John will wait for Lee and marry her when she gets out of jail; however, not knowing definitively is necessary for a 1940’s audience to feel Lee has been adequately reformed and punished for her unruly ways.

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Like all women who step outside the lines in 1940’s cinema, Lee does not earn love at the end of the film; she reforms enough to earn the potential for love.  If she completes her punishment, she has a chance to be with John, a harsh, but widely accepted, standard for the time.  In 1940’s cinema, women who stepped outside of their traditional role faced rigid consequences and, from time to time, death at the end of a film if the woman’s reckless behavior was unsalvageable.  Remember the Night, being a Christmas film, was never going to present an unsalvageable woman.  But, Remember the Night, even with its holiday theme, still presents a woman whose formerly unacceptable ways must be addressed with “time served” because, in 1940’s American cinema, that was the way unconventional women were represented on film, and thus the way audiences understood women’s role in society.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 29/12/2013.

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