Friday, December 23, 2016

Holy Night

"There is such an amazing tragic stillness about her. She never steps out of it, and she never puts it on. It is always there." -- Douglas Sirk
The most romantic and tender-hearted Christmas movie I know is Mitchell Leisen's Remember the Night (1940), a storybook comfort written by Preston Sturges in his directorial debut year of The Great McGinty and Christmas in July. A jewel thief (Barbara Stanwyck) is arrested days before Christmas with her trial ~ because of the holiday ~ postponed. Nowhere to go and without money, she is taken by her prosecutor (Assistant DA Fred MacMurray) back home to Indiana, where the girl is also from, to spend the holidays with his family and friends. Back in New York after New Year's, both now in love, he tries to throw the trial -- but she pleads guilty to prevent him from hurting his career. In between is an enchantment road movie, with two detours: a meet-up with a vicious farmer and a small-town hanging judge (whose chambers Stanwyck sets on fire); and a terrifying "reunion" between daughter and mother. Ultimate destination: hope and transcendence and elation.

Curiously hating what Leisen did with the script, but embracing Stanwyck and promising he would write her a great comedy, Sturges would give us the incomparable Lady Eve in '41. Compared with Eve, the Leisen movie is less smart and less funny (in fact, it isn't a comedy at all), less knowing and brilliant, less artful. Less a work of "genius." For me, however, Remember the Night is the higher and richer work. Perhaps because the culture has turned against what makes the movie great: kindness, forgiveness, redemption, quiet. All of the picture is set in the enthralled emotional key with which The Lady Eve ends; and in the scene where Hopsie (Henry Fonda) declares his love for Stanwyck in the moonlight: "I saw you here and at the same time further away and then still further away and then very small. . ."

Remember the Night (thanks in large part to the great Ted Teztlaff) is all moonlight, with an ending worthy of Dreyer.

At the movie's center is Stanwyck. Our current screen harridans, like the culture producing them, pimp for toughness and "independence" and smarts. Without a whiff of contradiction allowed. Stanwyck, the real deal, never moves without the light of ambivalence shining through. Her voice -- both flat and expressive, both nasal and husky; not the huskiness of booze, debauchery, or a come-on. But tears, fully wept. The voice of someone cried out. And what the guardians of Personhood don't have: a simple, straightforward sincerity; something immovable and deeply reserved; a tension between experience and innocence. It's what gives her her glow -- the agony of consciousness. Here she dwells in the enchantment. And is alienated from it. Yet there is a promise throughout, especially at the end, that she may break free altogether, to have at last a time purely for her own joy. And ours.