Entry from June 11, 2014

This summer I am once again presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of six movies. The general theme this year is Middle America and the Movies. The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the Hudson website for details or to register to attend. The series began on Tuesday, June 10th with a screening of Remember the Night of 1940, written by Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen. It stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, Along with Beulah Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson and Sterling Holloway. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.

Welcome to the Eighth Annual Summer Film Series, jointly sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute, which we thank for the use of these facilities. My name is James Bowman, and I am the film critic for The American Spectator, as well as a Resident Scholar at EPPC. I would ask you, before we start, to turn off your phones’ ringers and any other electronic noise-makers you may have. I’m going to say a few words about tonight’s movie before we see it, and afterwards, as those of you know who have been to the past years’ series, I invite you to stay around, if you can, for a brief discussion of what we have seen.

This year’s theme is Middle America and the Movies, and the first of the six films which we are to see is Remember the Night, starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, four years before they starred together in Double Indemnity of 1944, the classic Billy Wilder picture that we saw in our third series, in 2009, on "Crime and Punishment." This one is directed by Mitchell Leisen, who was a Michigan native and a well-known director in Hollywood for nearly 40 years, though he is all but forgotten now. Better known is the screenwriter, Preston Sturges, himself someone who would go on to become one of the great directors of the Golden Age of American movies. If he had directed his own script he would surely have done things differently, though not necessarily better.

He is also, probably, the one we ought to blame for several instances of egregious political incorrectness which require me to make, by way of preface to tonight’s screening, what certain highly sensitive and politically-trained academics these days are said to call "trigger warnings." Accordingly, I am grieved to report that this film includes an appalling racial stereotype by a black actor calling himself "Snowflake" (real name, Fred Toones) who got his start shining shoes on the lot of Republic Pictures and became one of the busiest character actors in Hollywood, appearing in over 200 films between 1928 and 1951. And then there is the hasty and gabbled repetition by Fred MacMurray of an old rhyme that, in his version, goes:

A woman, a dog and a hick’ry tree

The better you beat ‘em, the better they be.

Pretty clearly he is intending to make a joke here, but I don’t need to tell you that it is the kind of joke decent people no longer make. I hope you can find it in your hearts to overlook such examples of chronological ignorance for the sake of the many good things about Remember the Night.

The story, briefly, is one of an attractive woman shoplifter, played by Barbara Stanwyck, whose name is Anna Rose Malone but who is rather oddly known throughout the movie by her alias of Lee Leander. She is put on trial in New York just before Christmas. John Sargent, the assistant D.A. played by Fred MacMurray, knowing the difficulty of getting a conviction at Christmas-time, especially against a woman, contrives to get a continuance until after the new year. Feeling guilty that he has condemned Lee to spend Christmas in jail, he then bails her out, only to find her, through a series of improbable misadventures left in his charge as he is about to drive home to spend Christmas with his mother and aunt in Indiana. Even more implausibly, he decides to take her with him. I don’t think it can possibly count as a spoiler to tell you what is clearly signaled almost from the start, namely that the two are destined to fall in love.

As an example of "Middle America and the Movies," the first thing we ought to notice about this movie is that it is unabashedly a look at Middle America as seen from the coast, and in particular the East Coast. And, in even more particular, from Manhattan — though it is the Manhattan of 1940 and, therefore, it no longer exists, which I would like to think is not true, or not entirely true, of the movie’s sympathetic version of Middle America. At least the latter is not an idealized portrait. We are given three separate glimpses of the country west of the Hudson, two decidedly unflattering while the third is a mixture of good and not-so-good with a tilt of the balance to the former. Though the movie is about goodness and where goodness comes from, it is under no illusions that people, even midwesterners, can be easily classified as merely good or bad.

The first of the movie’s three different takes on the American heartland begins in the cow pasture of a Pennsylvania farmer, where the car containing the prosecutor and the thief crashes through a road-closed barrier and the couple are forced to spend their first night together uncomfortably dozing in the front seat. Then, when the shotgun wielding farmer puts them under citizen’s arrest, it shifts to the home office of a justice of the peace in a nearby small town. "Looks like business, Clyde," says the wife of this local magistrate as she sees our two heroes, covered by the farmer’s shotgun, being marched up to her house.

"With that new detour he gets them all the time," says the JP, who is presumably in cahoots with the farmer in fleecing passing motorists from elsewhere.

Here the D.A. and the shoplifter become minor law-breakers together, and we are encouraged to take their side against corrupt authority. We also admire the shoplifter’s clever trick to cover their escape — one which, we may suspect, she has found occasion to use before in perhaps less propitious circumstances. John Sargent doesn’t even know it’s a trick until later, when he disapproves. We are reminded of Lee’s earlier wondering observation: "You’re so sweet. You never think of anything that’s wrong." Though that doesn’t remain true for very much longer.

The movie’s second take on the heartland comes at the gloomy home of Lee Leander’s gloomy mother, played by Georgia Caine, a religious fanatic who long ago disowned her daughter for some childish misbehavior and thus (so, I think, we are meant to understand) launched her on her life of crime. It’s surely significant in a comedy that the first item in the mother’s bill of indictment against the daughter — after "she’s just like her father, she is" — is that she was "always laughing at serious things, she was." So, I can tell you, was Preston Sturges and the audiences that flocked to his movies.

Lee’s mother’s house looks a bit like Edward Hopper’s famous "House by the Railroad" of 1925, and we hear a train whistle as she and Sargent approach it. Hopper’s painting is said to have been the model for the Bates Motel in Hitchcock’s Psycho and, as it does there, its middle class Victorian domestic architecture turns it into a ready-made symbol for what at the time would have been called Victorian Puritanism — or the kind of stern moralism that had gone out of fashion at least two decades earlier. Hollywood at this time, as we’ll see even more clearly in King’s Row next week, was already coming under the influence of what the journalist and commentator Anthony Daniels calls "the hydraulic theory" of human sexuality, derived from popular Freudianism, namely that sexual "repression" is the worst thing in the world for human happiness and well-being and the source of many if not all of our social problems.

In Remember the Night, however, the authors’ attitude towards the Victorians was more nuanced, as we shall see. The house serves as the backdrop to John Sargent’s moment of revelation, when he sees in Lee’s bitter and loveless home, maybe more clearly than she does, the point at which their two experiences of Indiana and Middle America diverged and the germ of her criminal career. It also provides the occasion for him to show his sympathy for her not only in their first embrace, at this point a non-sexual one, but also by inviting her to spend Christmas at his own Indiana home, which is much more like the "vision fair I see" that "casts a spell o’er me" from the song, "My Indiana Home," which is the movie’s musical leitmotif.

The warm, loving home kept by Sargent’s mother, played by Beulah Bondi, and Aunt Emma, played by Elizabeth Patterson, thus becomes the movie’s third and most attractive scene of midwestern life and values. There we learn that there was in John Sargent’s younger days a parallel crime to that committed by Lee Leander in hers but that, unlike her, he was allowed by his female parent’s love and forbearance to atone for it. "You made me understand," says to her now, referring to the development of his mature moral sense.

"No, dear," she replies. "It was love that made you understand." So it is also natural for her to believe, when she is told of Lee’s rap sheet, that "she probably didn’t get enough love as a child" — something that the earlier stopover at the Hopper house has made us, too, predisposed to believe. As a general explanation for criminal behavior this would, of course, have seemed simplistic even at the time, though in the mouth of this Indiana farmer’s widow, about another Indiana farmer’s daughter, it seems to make perfect sense, as the film is so constructed to make it seem so. I think we should allow ourselves to accept that the warm welcome Lee receives and her experience of the gently comic goings on in and around the Sargent house at Christmas-time should work some kind of moral transformation in a woman who hasn’t had much love or luck in life. At any rate, it’s not the most implausible thing about this picture.

As in Fargo, which we also saw in the "Crime and Punishment" series five years ago, the transparent decency of the good characters here has the effect of isolating and overwhelming the badness of the bad. Also as in Fargo, the power of goodness appears to rise out of the country itself, or that slice of Middle America — there, Minnesota, here, Indiana — which the art of the film-makers has caused to be ever present before our eyes and thoughts as the backdrop to its human story. The "love" which is supposed to have a transforming effect on Lee is thus not merely that of Sargent’s mother and aunt, but that of a whole culture which has put the family at the center of life even if, in such cases as that of Lee’s mother, it doesn’t always work out that way. This almost imperceptible generalization from one family to a recognizable way of living also helps us to believe in the morally healing touch of Middle America itself on someone who really didn’t get enough love as a child.

That third idea of Middle America is meant to stand for the rest, it seems to me, but the first and second remain with us and remind us of the dark side — Remember the Night! — which was to become more prominent in later films. It’s a rather facile moral and psychological lesson for us, but rendered with humor and with such a light touch that we hardly notice the taste of the medicine going down. To me it is also interesting that this moral drama plays itself out at the same time as, but often in contrast to, the sexual dance between the two main characters. Just as the architecture of the Victorian house suggests an older, rather forbidding attitude to moral rectitude, so does the Victorian corset into which Lee Leander is painfully laced for the barn dance suggest a deliberately archaic, Victorian approach to relations between the sexes. Yet that, too, works a kind of magic, as both she and John Sargent have to put on the respective costumes of their grandparents in order to realize for the first time, and with the new year, that they are in love.

As one does in each of the next three movies in this year’s series, one has the impression here that the film-makers are looking back on a period thirty or forty years in the past as a touchstone or a model of what Americanness means in a time — as all times since have been — of rapid social and cultural change. The deliberately archaic context also has the effect, as their falling in love in New York presumably would not have done, of locking the two would-be lovers into a world where, in the words of the Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen song of a few years later, "Love and Marriage/Go together like a horse and carriage." Sargent’s suggestion after the dance that Lee come to his room for a smoke clearly stands for something else that New York women might do that Indiana women might not, and it is his mother’s reminder of what Sargent’s Indiana values of hard work and moral steadiness have done for him and, therefore, what he stands to lose by forgetting them, that persuades Lee not to go.

For her own chances of turning her life around depend on the same moral steadiness and are by this time beginning to seem real to her. We’ll see the more usual approach of the 1930s and 1940s to Victorian sexual customs in our next two movies, King’s Row and The Magnificent Ambersons, both of 1942 and both taking a less than benign view of the beliefs and customs of our ancestors. But here there almost seems to be the same kind of nostalgia for whalebone and silk hats that there is for the moonlight on the Wabash of "My Indiana Home." The Victorian parlor song sung by Sterling Holloway, "When you come to the end of a perfect day," which had been immensely popular thirty years earlier, adds a touch of Victorian sentimentalism to the movie’s Victorian moralism, but I confess I find it charming. The sense of the family as the vehicle not only for rearing children with love but also for an essential continuity between the generations is what I think the movie is getting at here, though you may not agree.

For we are also made aware that things have already changed a lot since father courted mother in the cornfields of Indiana. Moral ambiguity abounds here, as it does in the big city, which makes the romantic dénouement by no means the sure thing that the Hollywood comic idiom of the period would seem to predict. One of my favorite parts of the picture comes near the beginning when Lee is brought up to Sargent’s apartment by the bail bondsman Fat Mike, played by Tom Kennedy. Fat Mike, "because he’s got a mind like a sewer," as Sargent says, assumes that he must have expected a consideration for bailing out this pretty shoplifter, and so does she. The sparkling, Preston Sturges-penned dialogue between them as they sort out this misunderstanding is a delight. "One of these days," says Lee in persona as one of the brassy dames of so many contemporary films, "one of you boys is going to start one of these scenes differently and one of us girls is going to drop dead from surprise."

But of course the "scene" does start differently, and it leads them both to some place which is — in the real world, at any rate, then as now — much more surprising than Lee can imagine. The slightly odd use of the word "scene" can also be taken together with several references to acting and the theatre as self-conscious pointers to the artifice of the movie scene’s construction. After Sargent at first offers to lend Lee his apartment when he goes home to Indiana for the holidays, she observes that "it sounds like a play."

"It sounds like a flop," says Sargent.

But by calling attention at this point to its own implausibility, the script helps us to forget just how much it, too, sounds like a play. My favorite line comes here, too, when Lee realizes that Sargent genuinely expects nothing in return for his generosity to her — which, as he later admits, is partly owing to guilt at the trick he has played on her lawyer to effect a conviction. "Now,’ says Lee, "there’s nothing as dangerous as a square shooter. If all men were like you, there wouldn’t be any nice girls left." It’s a lovely paradox and also an indication that Lee, however improbably and whatever other wicked ways she has fallen into since coming to the big city, still considers herself — as does Sargent — to be a nice girl.

Of course the Hays office would have frowned on any suggestion that she could have been anything else, yet this is not the first or the last time in our experience of these old movies when we may suspect that the censor’s demands could, in some instances, have made them better than they would otherwise have been. Those of you who are able to make it to next week’s movie, King’s Row, will see an even clearer example of what I am talking about. Almost a decade before the Kinsey report, we can be pretty sure there was already a widespread awareness that the ostensible social and moral norms assumed by the censor were no longer normal, if they ever had been. But then and for some time yet to come the ordinary people for whom the movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age were intended, could still see the point of imposing a moral discipline on popular art, along with the expectation that sexual continence, in particular, should be treated as if it were still the norm — as it may even, once, actually have been. Long ago. In Indiana.

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