Since the first silent films in the 1890s, thieves have been important characters in movies. There is just so much you can do with them. They can be main characters or bit parts; they can be villains or protagonists. They can be pickpockets, bank robbers, embezzlers, or jewel thieves. The “It Takes A Thief” Blogathon at Moon in Gemini is being held right now, and I am reviewing a movie which features a thief who is a main character, a protagonist, and a jewel thief. My picture of choice is Remember the Night from 1940. This sentimental gem with an original Preston Sturges screenplay and Mitchell Leisen’s production and direction was released by Paramount. It features a magnificent performance by Barbara Stanwyck as the girl crook, and it provides one of the best examples of the proper presentation of thieves under the Code.
Barbara Stanwyck plays a beautiful woman named Lee Leander who has been arrested for stealing an expensive bracelet from a major jewelry store. Her trial is a few days before Christmas. She is being prosecuted by a young assistant district attorney played by Fred MacMurray named Jack Sargent. He has a specialty for prosecuting women, since he treats them with kindness and delicacy. When her theatrical lawyer dramatically proposes the theory of hypnotism, Jack gets the case postponed until after Christmas so that the case can receive a psychologist’s input. He really does this to get a conviction, since he knows that juries feel more clement at Christmastime. Afterword, he feels bad that she is going to spend Christmas in jail, so he posts a bond for her bail and gets her out of prison. When the evil-minded bondsman leaves Lee at Jack’s apartment, Jack tries to convince her that he just felt sorry for her and that he really wants her to leave, since he is preparing to go out of town. He decides to take her to dinner first; while they eat, they learn that they are both Hoosiers. While he is returning to a loving home with a tender mother and aunt, she ran away from a home with a cold, widowed mother years ago. Jack offers to bring her to visit her mother on his way to see his own family. She uncertainly accepts, feeling touched by his kindness. They experience some humorous and alarming incidents during their journey, but they eventually reach her home town. The old house is dark and forbidding; a strange man, her mother’s new husband, opens the door. When Lee’s mother appears, she coldly lets them in, but she harshly asks her daughter what she wants. She says that she said good riddance to bad rubbish when she left, and she calls her a thief, since she stole her mission money years ago. Lee sobs that she didn’t steal it, as she has said many times; she only borrowed it, but she never paid her back since she couldn’t get a job after her mother called her a thief in front of the whole town. Jack saves her from the horrible situation by pretending that they had just intended this to be a brief stop during their journey. Lee miserably begs Jack to take her out of this town, and he says that she is coming home with him. The Sargent home is as different from Lee’s old house as it possibly could be. It is bright, warm, cozy, and filled with the love of Jack’s mother (Beulah Bondi), maiden aunt Emmy (Elizabeth Patterson), and their lazy house boy, Willie (Sterling Holloway). They are thrilled to entertain Lee during the holidays, and they make her feel very welcome. The two ladies think that Jack has plans of marrying her. The first evening, Jack tells his mother who Lee is, but she responds with nothing but compassion, saying that she probably didn’t get enough love as a child. The Sargents do everything they can to make Lee feel like part of the family, showing her real love for the first time in her life. They spend a wonderful, memorable week filled with fun and festivities. The visit culminates on their last night, New Year’s Eve. Aunt Emma dresses Lee in a beautiful dress from her youth, which is complete with all the feminine underpinnings. She is trying to help the lovely young lady lure her bashful nephew into a proposal. However, Mrs. Sargent, who knows the truth about Lee, is troubled to see her kissing her son at the stroke of midnight. That night, she visits her in her room and tells her how hard Jack worked to get where he is. She kindly tells her that she likes her very much, and she knows that she wouldn’t want anything to hurt Jack’s legal career now. Lee, understanding her meaning, sadly assures her that she wouldn’t do anything to hurt Jack or any of the Sargents. They leave the next day and drive through Canada to return to New York City. As soon as they are in Canada, Jack tells Lee that, since they are in another country now, he can’t make her return to New York for the trial. As they stand in front of partially frozen Niagara Falls at night, he tells her that he loves her and wants to marry her. She tells him to remember how hard he has worked, but he doesn’t care. He thinks that marrying him will make her honest, and that’s all that matters. However, she refuses to jump bail. Back in New York, they are facing the day of the trial. Jack is using harsher tactics than usual; in fact, he is being quite rough toward Lee. It is obvious that he is trying to throw the case by being mean to her. As he fires tough questions at her and her lawyer objects to them, Lee is overwhelmed by a sense of what she must do. She turns to the judge and, to Jack’s horror, says she wants to plead guilty. The judge accepts this and says that she will be sentenced on another day. After the case, Jack miserably goes to Lee in jail and tells her that she didn’t have to do that; he could have gotten her acquitted, and they could have gotten married. She tells him that it would have looked horrible to everyone for him to have married a criminal. She says that she knows she has to pay for her sins. She asks him to visit her, and he says that he wants the judge to marry them right now. She thanks him but says that they should wait. He’ll have plenty of time to think while she is in jail, and when she gets out, she will be able to start fresh. Then, if he still wants her, she will marry him. They embrace tenderly, and the picture fades out. The End.
Any film which qualifies for this blogathon has some relation to Section I of the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, Crimes Against the Law. This is the section which had to be observed to ensure that films with crime in them got the seal of approval from the Production Code Administration, headed by Joseph Breen. Let’s see how this film complies with each part of the Code’s principles about crime. The general principle listed under Section I is that crimes “shall never be presented in a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others for imitation.” Lee’s crime doesn’t throw sympathy against justice; you always think that she did the wrong thing. Her specific crime is discussed in article 2: “Methods of Crime should not be explicitly presented.” This is expanded in 2a: “Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc., should not be detailed in method.” I’m sure this is something which had to be considered in the making of this film. Lee is shown trying on a bracelet in a jewelry store, asking the clerk to see another piece in the case, and walking out of the store with the bracelet still on her wrist. She casually walks down the street, enters a pawn shop to sell the bracelet, and gets locked in while the police are called. Obviously, this is showing all the details of her crime; however, it is not a complicated or intelligently-devised crime which is above the level of the average crook. Anyone with the desire to steal a bracelet in 1940 could have attempted Lee’s crime without the example of this movie. When Lee and Jack have dinner together in New York, he is trying to figure out why she steals. She tells him that she has been caught and arrested multiple times for stealing. He says that she might be a kleptomaniac, but she says it’s been proven that she couldn’t be, since kleptomaniacs never sell the things they steal. He says there must be a reason, but she says that her mind, which has been hardened, just works differently. To show him, she presents the scenario to him that he is starving and penniless, and there are some loaves of bread at a market right in front of him. He says that he’d steal one if the clerk’s back was turned, and she says that that’s because he’s honest. She’d have a five-course meal at a gourmet restaurant and then say that she’d forgotten her purse. This is probably the only detailed outlining of a crime which might inspire others for imitation. Apparently, however, Mr. Breen decided that it was alright since it was merely included to show the difference in their moral values.
Later in the Code, in the part entitled Reasons Underlying the General Principles, the three general principles of the Code are more thoroughly described. The first principle is that a picture must not lower the audience’s moral standards. “Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.” This is done either by making evil appear attractive or alluring or by making goodness appear unattractive. This certainly is not done in Remember the Night. The honesty and goodness of Jack and his family are so much more appealing than the shady life which Lee has been living. The most important element in this film is explained in a note in this part of the Code. “Sympathy with a person who sins is not the same as sympathy with the sin or crime of which he is guilty. We may feel sorry for the plight of the murderer or even understand the circumstances which led him to his crime: we may not feel sympathy with the wrong which he has done.” This is the key to casting criminals as leading characters which are played by popular actors. It is inevitable that the audience will sympathize with the character. That is perfectly acceptable as long as we do not feel sympathy for his crime or sin. We certainly understand what lead Lee to robbery: she had an unkind, harsh mother who said that she was good for nothing just like her father. When she called her a thief for borrowing her money, she was proclaiming her fate. Lee ran away and became just what her mother said she was. However, it was important to show that every person who borrows money from his parent does not become a thief. This was done with a very telling parallel which was shown between that incident and an event in Jack’s life. When Jack tells his mother about Lee’s dishonesty, she recounts the time when he took her egg money as a boy then worked so hard to pay her back. He says that she made him understand, but she smiles and says, “No, son. It was love that made you understand.” That is why Lee became a thief. She didn’t have any love to make her understand the difference between right and wrong. However, she is still responsible for her crimes, and that is always very clear. The conclusive thought in that section, and one that pervades every part of the Code, is “That throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right.” That is arguably the most important part of the Code, and this film certainly meets that standard.
Some films make the criminal’s life look glamorous or exciting, but Remember the Night certainly does not. In the beginning of the film, Lee is very hard, cold, and callous. Barbara Stanwyck makes these qualities very evident in her portrayal. Her expression, her attitude, and even the tone of her voice show how unrepentant and calculating she is. She has the harsh demeanor she used in rough pre-Code roles like Lily in Baby Face. As the film progresses, her character begins to change. The change begins when she has dinner with Jack. As they dance to the band’s sweet strains of “My Indiana Home,” she starts to cry and hurries back to the table. Remembering her troubled youth makes Lee show the sensitive side of her nature. As they go on their trip, Lee says that she had forgotten she was even going to jail. She doesn’t seem like a criminal when she is away from that life. However, she still has some larceny in her, since she starts a waist-basket fire in a hick justice of the peace’s office; this was a close scrape with the part of the Code that said that arson couldn’t be shown explicitly by method. She really changes when she stays with Jack’s family. She needs the love of a concerned mother and aunt to reform her character. She shows how much she has changed when she heeds Mrs. Sargent’s concerns about her romance with her son. The trip to Indiana makes a completely new person of her. In the court scene at the end of the movie, she doesn’t even seem like the same character as the defendant in the opening court scene. Barbara Stanwyck’s brilliant acting makes this effective. Not only does she act more sensitive, she looks more attractive. Whereas her looks were harsher in the beginning, she now looks sweet and soft. No, the criminal’s life is not alluring in the case of Lee Leander.
The ending of the movie is not a completely happy one. It is definitely bittersweet. You know that Jack and Lee love each other, so they will surely get married when she is released from prison. You don’t know how long Lee’s sentence will be, but you know that she will serve it patiently because she knows that it’s what she has to do to be worthy of Jack. In Niagara Falls, the sweethearts are tempted by the wild, immoral impulse to not return to New York but to remain in Canada and get married. Even the viewer feels himself get caught up in that spirit just a little. The light on the beautiful ice and water of the falls against the dark night sky is accompanied by sweeping romantic music which sweeps you right toward the falls of impulse. If this film had been made after Mr. Breen had retired, Geoffrey Shurlock, his assistant who succeeded him as head of the PCA, would have let the audience and the characters go over the impulsive, emotional falls if the filmmakers had wanted them to. He would have allowed them to live happily ever after while she still had the stains of thievery on her soul. His favorite story to tell was the fable in which an Irishman and his bride watch the water pounding over Niagara Falls. The bride marvels at all the water, but her husband says, “And what’s there to prevent it?” This was Geoff Shurlock’s motto. He believed that this fable meant, “Don’t try to prevent something that is destined to occur.” He certainly didn’t try to prevent filmmakers from doing anything they pleased. Joe Breen, who also liked to tell that fable, interpreted its moral differently. He thought that it meant, “Don’t be surprised when something occurs if nothing is preventing it.” For instance, don’t be surprised if filmmakers run wild if no one is stopping them. The question of “What’s there to prevent it?” can be something you ask yourself. What can you do to prevent something from happening? Mr. Breen could prevent crime films from going from wonderfully moral pictures like this to the corrupting chaos which they were a couple decades later.
I digressed terribly in that last paragraph; I beg my readers’ forgiveness, but I wanted to include that anecdote about the self-regulators. Let me return to the point where the characters and the audience feel their emotions being swept toward the falls of impulse. That feeling is there for a very brief moment, but it ends quickly. One has the feeling from that point on that, although he wants the lovers to go away together right now, he knows they can’t and shouldn’t. Even if they could, he finds that he doesn’t really want them to. Why is this? The audience had to be definitely told, and Lee herself is the moral voice at the end of the picture. When she sobs that she just wants to plead guilty, the judge asks her why. She sadly replies, “Because I am guilty. And when you make a mistake, you’ve got to pay for it. Otherwise you never learn.” She is resigned to this fact before Jack and the audience are. As she tries to plead guilty, Jack keeps interrupting with requests for a five minute recess. His love has temporarily blinded him to the justice of the matter, but he eventually realizes that Lee is right. Their marriage shouldn’t begin with corruption. Once she is “all square,” they can begin their life together as decent people.
This movie is graced with a warm, tender, often humorous screenplay which is as believable and realistic as it is charming. It features great actors, who lend their talents and personalities to creating characters who are very deep and truly real. Beulah Bondi’s portrayal of Jack’s mother is a highlight of the film; she was based on one of Preston Sturges’s mothers-in-law, who was also named Mrs. Sargent. The scene in which Barbara Stanwyck plays the piano as Sterling Holloway sings “The End of a Perfect Day” in his high, charmingly unusual voice is particularly tender, homey, and memorable. This film is one of the finest classic Christmas films, but it is a joy to watch any time of the year. The spirit of love, forgiveness, and generosity which the Sargents show to Lee is truly in accord with the real Christmas spirit.
I would like to thank Debbie Vega, the hostess of this unique blogathon, for allowing me to participate. Be sure to read some of the other fascinating articles which are part of this event. I hope you have enjoyed reading about this magnificent example of a Code crime film. Crime is a dangerous topic which should not be handled lightly. Maybe there wouldn’t be shooting sprees in the United States if Hollywood was still this careful about how crime is portrayed.
Follow us to bring back the Code and save the arts in America!