Mitchell’s Leisen’s Remember the Night (1940) is most commonly discussed as the last film Preston Sturges wrote before becoming a director. It is often paired with another film directed by Leisen, Hold Back the Dawn (1941), that represented Billy Wilder’s last script before taking over the directorial reins. Both Sturges and Wilder were unkind when commenting upon Leisen’s capabilities as a director, in particular his predilection for a more intimate, detail-focused, uncynical, somewhat fussy mode of filmmaking. Wilder took this further than Sturges – who also wrote the wonderful Easy Living for the director in 1937 – by name-calling Leisen a “window dresser”1, lampooning his earlier career as an art director and costume designer for Cecil B. DeMille (though Leisen’s contributions are writ large on DeMille’s work and Wilder’s comments arguably homophobic). Both bristled against the cuts made by Leisen – and the studio, Paramount – to what they saw as the more audacious elements of their scripts. Andrew Sarris confirmed Leisen’s small-scale, but still valuable talents, in his highly influential assessment of the director as “an expert diamond cutter” often working with “lumpy coal”2 Sarris places Leisen in the category of the “Lightly Likable” and between the much less storied figures, Zoltan Korda and Mervyn LeRoy!3. With such high-powered talent not in your corner, it’s understandable that David Thomson could later claim Leisen as a “neglected figure, and a minor master”4. But although Thomson’s sympathetic, often-astute evaluation is very welcome, it still positions Leisen as something less than a front-rank filmmaker. It also betrays the legacy of Leisen’s apparent over-emphasis on décor, mood and the detail of gesture and performance. But since when have such elements not been central to what we most value in the cinema?

Leisen’s work is certainly uneven, and does lose an overall quality by the mid-1940s, but his best films – such as Hands Across the Table (1935), Swing High, Swing Low (1937), Easy Living, Midnight (1939), Remember the Night, Hold Back the Dawn, To Each His Own (1946) – stand up magnificently against the equivalent films of Leo McCarey, George Cukor, George Stevens and, yes, Sturges and Wilder. Leisen is a truly outstanding director of actors – just look at how he uses the contrastive talents and methods of Fred MacMurray (whom he worked with nine times) and Barbara Stanwyck to stage and develop the romance in this film – but Remember the Night also fully illustrates his knack for creating an enchanted, sustained mood, sensibility or atmosphere. In this regard, his collaboration with Sturges offers a fascinating contrast of styles. Leisen was able to adapt Remember the Night’s wordy but brilliant script to the actors he had at his disposal, slowing the shifts of gear and genre that would go on to grant Sturges’ films an extraordinary sense of velocity, uncertainty and invention. Sturges, of course, was a truly protean figure, an inventor of forms who burned very brightly for only a short period of time. Leisen is a more nuanced, uncluttered, long-haul filmmaker working within the conventions, forms and sensibilities of mainstream Hollywood cinema.

Remember the Night was filmed between July and September 1939, and it certainly stands as one of the most romantic and sentimental of Sturges’ scripts. It also relies upon an outrageous conceit to get its enchanted narrative going. A petty but professional thief (Lee Leander, played Barbara Stanwyck) is arrested after stealing a bracelet and is placed on trial in the days leading up to Christmas. The prosecuting lawyer (Fred MacMurray’s John Sargent), worried that the jury will be sympathetic to a young woman just before the holiday, gains a recess as a result of the wonderfully absurd argument put forward by the defence involving hypnotism and schizophrenia. Ultimately, taking pity on the prospect of Lee spending her Christmas in jail after all, John arranges for a bondsman to finance her bail. Misunderstanding his motivations – though, in the end, understanding them perfectly – he delivers Lee to John’s apartment for the holiday celebrations. Inevitable and already evident complications arise. The narrative then sees John taking Lee with him as he undertakes a long cross-country drive from New York City to his home town in Indiana, a location conveniently, but pointedly, only 50 miles or so – but light years in terms of the reception they receive at each – from where Lee also grew up.

This leisurely framework provides plenty of time and space for the two characters to fall in love, be exposed to the wholesome small-town life nurtured by John’s mother and aunt, and to find shared ground in their movement across a continuum from experience to innocence, worldliness to unworldliness. As Adrian Martin has astutely claimed, “as always in Sturges, such an adventure of the heart puts everything in question: the characters’ social roles, their moral and ethical values, their sense of who they are and what is now possible for them”5. That is, indeed, all there in Sturges’ wonderful script, but what Leisen’s direction adds is a consistency and clear development of tone and style, a much less populated and frantic social world, as well as a true generosity of spirit. What you will mostly recollect about Remember the Night are the intimate, warm moments, and the preponderance of glowing two-shots and close-knit shot-reverse shots between Lee and John, Stanwyck and MacMurray.

As the great James Harvey has argued, “not a single cliché is neglected or overlooked” in Remember the Night6. As a result, the film should be more commonly put forward as one of the great feel-good Christmas movies. But there is much else going on here as well. Harvey moves on to describe the grander scheme of the film’s world building:

But in all the formulas that Sturges invokes and that Leisen skillfully and lovingly fills out… we are moving not just through evocations of the past but through the furniture of the American mind. To Sturges’ [and Leisen’s] audiences – and even to audiences today – these images were the token of a vanished or imagined innocence. And Lee Leander is no more immune to their power than the audience is.7

This emphasis on “the furniture of the American mind”, as well as the detail of lived experience and memory, suggests that Leisen’s preoccupation with décor and “window dressing” may have more profound implications than Wilder’s blunt dismissal suggests. There are also wonderful details of setting, object and gesture that plot the movement and various detours of Lee and John back in time, to a world populated by the kinds of eccentric characterisations, scratchy costumes and quirky, overstuffed mise-en-scène we find across Sturges’ cinema. As Harvey suggests, there is a gestalt power in the combination of the overly familiar and sentimental with a deeper feeling for connection, longing and emotion.

Remember the Night is also notable for the first pairing of Stanwyck and MacMurray, a fascinating combination of sympathetic but contrastive acting styles. The two actors would go on to star together in a further three films, two of which are exemplary works of their genres and directors: Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow (1956). There is a fascinating essay yet to be written about how their pairing develops and even sours across these films, from a sense of future life and surprising connection in Remember the Night to the heartbreaking memory of paths not taken and of future “death” in There’s Always Tomorrow. The casting of MacMurray and Stanwyck in Remember the Night had a significant impact on the film Leisen ended up making. At this stage, Stanwyck was not known for her comic abilities, and Leisen’s direction hinges on her capacity to communicate the development and dawning realisation of her character, the vulnerability beneath her brittle surface. Much of the joy of the film is dependent on the extraordinary quality of Stanwyck’s reactions to character, event and situation. A key reason for editing out many of the longer speeches in Sturges’ script was that they didn’t match MacMurray’s underplayed acting style. I remember John Flaus commenting that he thought MacMurray was central to the “invention” of modern screen acting, and there is much in his subtly undemonstrative performance here to support that contention. But this also leads to a shift of focus onto Stanwyck’s character. Shot over a mere 34 days and significantly under budget, Remember the Night is a film situated firmly within the classical Hollywood style. But it is a work on an intimate, even idiosyncratic scale, which finds a happy medium or “place” between the frenetic, chaotic and sometimes sentimental or darkly comic sensibility of Sturges and the delicate humanist warmth of Leisen

Remember the Night (1940 USA 94 mins)

Prod Co: Paramount Pictures Prod, Dir: Mitchell Leisen Scr: Preston Sturges Phot: Ted Tetzlaff Ed: Doane Harrison Art Dir: Roland Anderson, Hans Dreier Mus: Frederick Hollander 

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Beulah Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson, Sterling Holloway, Willard Robertson


  1. Wilder quoted in Farran Smith Nehme, “Remember the Night (1940)”, Self-Styled Siren (21 December 2006): http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com/2006/12/remember-night-1940.html
  2. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), p. 183.
  3. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), p. 183. Sarris places Leisen in the category of the “Lightly Likable” and between the much less storied figures, Zoltan Korda and Mervyn LeRoy!
  4. David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 4th ed. (London: Little, Brown), p. 512.
  5. Adrian Martin, “Remember the Night”, Film Critic: Adrian Martin (June-September 1990): http://www.filmcritic.com.au/reviews/r/remember_the_night.html.
  6. James Harvey, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), p. 564
  7. Harvey, p. 564

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).

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