Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Two for Christmas

Christmas is nigh, and in recognition of the holidays I list two favorite Christmas films: We're No Angels (Michael Curtiz, 1955) and Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen, 1940). Neither would likely come to mind first for most folks if asked their favorite holiday movie, but for me both capture the best spirit of the season beautifully well and feature great casts.

Humphrey Bogart escapes from Devils' Island in We're No Angels, accompanied by two friends and fellow cons: Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray. It's a silly, fairly unrealistic plot to be sure. But because the cast looks like it's having so much fun, and the characters are so charming, this is an easy film to enjoy. Ustinov is particularly good, looking ridiculous in a low cut shirt with tie and white collar. He delivers his lines with great facial expressions.

Three convicts eavesdrop on the Ducotets. 

Bogart is Joseph, an embezzler; Ustinov is Jules, a master safe-cracker; and Ray is Albert, a murderer, but despite their resumes they are completely harmless. A fourth companion, a poisonous viper named Adolph is carried around by Albert in a little box. We never see the reptile but his presence plays an important part in the story.

The criminals talk a tough game, and muscular Ray looks like someone who could easily turn menacing, but they have tender hearts. Intending to rob and perhaps throttle a local vendor and his family if needed, the trio alter their plans when they discover the family is financially challenged; and thanks to a greedy uncle, may be ousted from their post.

The cast is terrific and familiar. One of the film's best aspects is that some play against type. Leo G. Carroll, often professionally adept in his roles, is the benign but inept vendor, Felix Ducotel. Seeing how he operates his business, it's no wonder he's not making a profit. Too passive with customers and a terrible bookkeeper. Bogart and Ray didn't delve into comedy too often, but here both are funny. The exchanges between the three criminals is wonderful. French writer Albert Husson's stage play served as the basis for the witty screenplay. Here's a few samples:

Joseph: We came here to rob them and that's what we're gonna do - beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes. 

Joseph: I'm going to buy them their Christmas turkey.
Albert: "Buy"? Do you really mean "buy"?
Joseph: Yes, buy! In the Spirit of Christmas. The hard part's going to be stealing the money to pay for it. 
Jules: [on opening the petty cash box] You'll have to forgive me, it's been a while since I've done this [closes eyes]. And I'm used to doing it in the dark.
Basil Rathbone as the uncle is a despicably arrogant man and Scrooge figure, even down to his nightcap. He treats everyone with contempt.

What's in that box?

Christmas comes into play as the three cons interject themselves into the lives of the Ducotels, treating them like an adoptive family. Against their own best interests, they help the family through a few crisis, while taking it upon themselves to decorate the garden for the holiday and produce a delicious turkey dinner. Off screen they steal the bird, and some flowers and a tree from the grounds of the governor's residence. There's a funny scene where Bogart comes into the room with the turkey stuffed under his shirt, feathers flying.

Joan Bennett, 45 at time of shooting, looks lovely as Amelie Ducotel, the wife. Best known for two great Fritz Lange film noirs made tens years earlier (Scarlett Street and The Woman in the Window), Bennett also has a nice singing voice. Her rendition of Sentimental Moments is a highlight. Maybe the silliest aspect of the entire film is believing Amelie ended up with such a fuddy duddy as Felix.

In Remember the Night, Barbara Stanwyck is shoplifter Lee Leander. She gets a Christmas weekend reprieve from jail thanks to the kind intercession of a by-the-book New York City prosecutor, John Sargent (Fred MacMurray). Sargent reluctantly invites her on an across-the-country trip to visit his mother over the holiday. Naturally the two eventually strike up a romance, and the film follows their respective journeys: Lee's to finding a better life and understanding she has it within herself to be a good person; and John's to discovering there are better things in life than blind dedication to one's work.

This is a sweet film, sentimental and at times quite moving. It's fun to see what a cross country car trip looked like before freeways existed. Lots of unpaved roads and podunk towns where local lawmen display rubeness as clear as a badge. A humorous encounter with a county sheriff occurs and thanks to Lee's quick thinking, they manage to elude jail. Stanwyck's stop at her unloving mother's house is sad and crushing as her parent wants nothing to do with her. Sargent steps in for support and thus begins the mutual feelings between the two travelers. Intending to pick his prisoner up on the way back, John instead takes her along to his Indiana home.

Beulah Bondi (the homespun mom) and Elizabeth Patterson play elderly sisters, whose interaction is cute and affectionate. The son's annual visit is the highlight of their year. Both women are smitten by Lee, but once mother learns her background, she cautions Lee from getting involved with her upstanding son. Theirs is a delightful home, full of love and caring. The film portrays a different, more innocent time, certainly, where communities held barn dances, families gathered together to sing in parlors and small-town familiarity existed. The elderly sister lets Lee wear her wedding dress for the dance, helping fit into the corset as she reminisces about a long, lost love, and Stanwyck is touched by her kindness.

She's nearly overcome with emotion in another scene, the film's best. Sterling Holloway (the unmistakable voice of Disney's Winnie the Pooh and the snake Kaa from The Jungle Book) is handyman Willie Simms. His rendition of  A Perfect Day is sublime. Stanwyck plays the piano. She's happy for the first time in a long time and when she sees the love within this family, her empty life is all too clear.

A perfect day.
Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay, one of the last before he would move to the director's chair and find great success on his own. Like the scrips that followed, this one is funny and sweet. One year later Sturges would collaborate with Stanwyck for one of their best films: The Lady Eve.  

You have to like a cow scene, and this film has two, including a delightful milking attempt by the city-bound Stanwyck. The actress must have liked the doe-eyed animals because she shares the screen with another bovine five years later, in Christmas in Connecticut.

The film ends back in New York, Lee wanting to start anew by pleading guilty. She'll go to jail, but you know when she gets out, John will be waiting.

Merry Christmas.


  1. I enjoy both of these movies, and I agree with you, neither probably appear on most people's Christmas movie list. Both are completely delightful, though.

    Our family has never watched "We're No Angels" as part of our holiday viewing...until this year. We watched it on Monday of this week...loved it as always. I thought the chemistry between Bogart, Ray, and Ustinov was fantastic. The way they played off one another was great...and, as you mentioned, some of their expressions (especially Bogey and Ustinov) were priceless.

    "Remember the Night" is my 2nd favorite of the 4 Stanwyck/MacMurray pairings ("Double Indemnity" is my first fave.) They had great chemistry together in "Remember the Night."

    Merry Christmas to you!

  2. "Remember the Night" is one of my fave holiday movies. Some great lines... I love the scene were Stanwyck visits her mother - I think she is amazing in that scene.

  3. Thanks for stopping by Patti and Silver. Hope you had a great Christmas.

  4. Both these movies used to pop up on television regularly when I was young, but sort of disappeared over time. It's wonderful that TCM is around to revive the tradition. It is equally wonderful that you have written so glowingly and well about two films that deserve the praise.

  5. We're No Angels offers viewers some very funny one-liners. The film's pace might prove too slow for many viewers.

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