Remember the Night: Fred MacMurray’s Christmas Road Trip
Fred MacMurray as John “Jack” Sargent, smooth-talking New York prosecutor
New York to Indiana, Christmas 1938
Film: Remember the Night
Release Date: January 19, 1940
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Costume Designer: Edith Head
This year’s winter #CarWeek installment kicks off with a holly jolly hoosier holiday in Remember the Night, a 1940 romcom released at the outset of a decade that included many classics of Christmas cinema like The Shop Around the Corner (1940), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Holiday Inn (1942), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), 3 Godfathers (1948), and Holiday Affair (1949). Yet before all those classics came Remember the Night, arguably one of the earliest major movies to recognize how compellingly Christmas, both at its loneliest and most celebratory, could be effectively woven into a story.
“While it has remained for decades mysteriously under the radar, its tender romance and comedy are so skillfully blended—and its use of Christmas so poignant—that it stands among the very best holiday movies,” describes Jeremy Arnold in the TCM volume Christmas in the Movies.
Remember the Night centers around assistant district attorney Jack Sargent (Fred MacMurray) and Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck), the lovely shoplifter he was in the midst of prosecuting before requesting a holiday recess to avoid Christmas spirit swaying a jury’s sympathies in Lee’s favor. A miscommunication with a bondsman known as “Fat Mike” (Tom Kennedy) results in Lee being escorted from jail up to an astounded Jack’s apartment, just as he was preparing to leave to spend the holidays back home in Indiana.
Jack: Look, when court reconvenes, I’m going to try my best to put you in jail for a good long time. That’s my business, but you haven’t been convicted yet, so I don’t see why you shouldn’t enjoy Christmas like the rest of us. That’s why I had Mike get you out.
Lee: And bring me up here!
Jack: I did not ask him to bring you up here!
Lee: Then why did that gorilla bring me up here?
Jack: Because he’s got a mind like a… sewer!
Jack extends an olive branch by inviting Lee to join him at dinner, where he requests that the band play James F. Hanley and Ballard MacDonald’s 1917 standard “(Back Home Again in) Indiana”, resulting in his and Lee bonding over their shared home state. In the grand tradition of holiday romcoms, the moment of sentimentality leads to the surprising decision for Jack to volunteer to drive Lee to her mother’s home on his way to spend Christmas with the Sargents.
This was the first of four on-screen collaborations for MacMurray and Stanwyck, whose next pairing would be considerably more sinister in the quintessential film noir Double Indemnity, in which Stanwyck played a conniving murderess… a significantly badder “bad girl” than the small-time shoplifter Lee Leander.
Remember the Night was penned by Preston Sturges, one of the screenwriting masters from this golden age of screwball comedies, who added just enough farcical elements without underselling the romantic chemistry between Missy and Fred. The experience would be doubly influential for Sturges, who was so dismayed by producer-director Mitchell Leisen’s cuts that he never allowed his scripts to again be adapted by a director other than himself. On a more positive note, Sturges was so impressed with Barbara Stanwyck that he immediately began work on Ball of Fire, specifically as a vehicle for Missy’s comedic talents. Indeed, Stanwyck had characteristically impressed all of her colleagues, including Leisen, who credited the actress’s professionalism as the primary factor in his being able to complete the film eight days ahead of schedule and $50,000 under budget.
Sturges himself recognized why Remember the Night was such a success upon its release, quipping that “it had quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz, and just enough schmutz to make it box office.”
What’d He Wear?
After he’s introduced in a dark dressing gown, then a double-breasted suit for his day prosecuting Lee in court, Jack Sargent pulls on a dark sweater vest with his glen plaid suit, white OCBD shirt, and tie for what becomes his extended holiday road trip back home to Indiana with Lee.
Jack’s glen plaid wool suit is tailored in the elegant cut characteristic of the late 1930s and early ’40s, illustrating why this era has often been described as a golden age for menswear. The athletic silhouette flatters MacMurray’s 6’3″ frame, with broad shoulders and a full chest tapering to a suppressed waist.
The single-breasted jacket has wide peak lapels with long gorges, pointing each lapel at the padded shoulders (further emphasizing them) and rolling to a two-button stance positioned to button at MacMurray’s natural waist line. The ventless jacket also has four-button cuffs, straight flapped hip pockets with the addition of a flapped ticket pocket on the right side, and a welted breast pocket that Jack rakishly dresses with a dark silk kerchief that hangs out.
Signifying that Jack is no longer dressing for work, he wears a white cotton shirt with an elegantly rolled button-down collar. The style had been popularized around the turn-of-the-century by Brooks Brothers after the company president, John E. Brooks, observed English polo players fastening their collars to their shirts. Though the button-down shirt would eventually become generally accepted business dress in the United States after mid-century, they were still relatively sporty at this point and more typically reserved for more casual engagements. Due to the informality of the button-down collar, these shirts remain almost always paired with plain button cuffs, though a few style mavericks like Cary Grant favored the incongruous combination of button-down collars and French cuffs. Jack’s shirt is designed with the more standard button cuffs as well as a breast pocket.
Jack wears a dark foulard tie, patterned with small medium-colored diamonds framed in a lighter-colored border. He knots the tie with a neat four-in-hand and pulls it out just a tad to present more of the cloth over the neckline of his sweater.
Under his suit jacket, Jack wears a dark broken twill-woven sweater vest with a shallow V-neck that perfectly follows the line of his shirt collar and shows the top of his tie. This knitted layer softens his appearance from the ruthless prosecutor we had seen in court while also adding a comfortable and warm layer for the chilly road trip home.
The suit’s matching trousers are styled with double reverse pleats, adding a fashionable fullness to the leg that differed from the stovepipe styles of the roaring ’20s. Trousers of this era were styled to continue the athletic “hourglass” silhouette of the jackets, closely fitted around the waist and full through the legs.
Jack’s trousers were thus perfectly tailored to fit MacMurray, with no belt loops around the waistband though he does hold them up with a set of suspenders (braces). These narrow, dark-colored suspenders have a light bisecting bar stripe, rigged to dark leather V-shaped hooks that connect to buttons along the inside of the trouser waistband. The trousers have gently slanted “quarter top” side pockets, button-through back pockets, and turn-ups (cuffs).
The colors of Jack’s costume are likely all lost to history, but his oxford shoes appear to be a lighter leather than black, suggesting brown—which would befit the less formal look and context. His socks are a high-contrast argyle pattern, characterized by the intercrossing check over a large-scaled repeating diamond pattern.
Jack’s outer layer is a knee-length topcoat woven in a large-scaled herringbone, likely black and white due to the heavy contrast. The three-button coat has a wide ulster collar, slanted side pockets, and raglan sleeves that allow the coat to wear more comfortably over heavy layers like his suit jacket and sweater vest. The coat has a suppressed waist and a flared skirt with squared quarters.
Per the decorum of the era, Jack also regularly wears his hat, a dark felt fedora with a dramatically pinched crown, wide grosgrain band, and grosgrain-finished edges.
What to Imbibe
Jack’s much-abused valet Rufus (Fred “Snowflake” Toones) serves a pair of Scotch and soda highballs to Jack and Lee. It’s strange to think that such a simple combination would need to be “invented”, but Boston bartender Patrick Duffy—no, not that one—made just that claim, citing a request from an unnamed but famous English actor who approached his bar at the Adams House in 1894 and requested the simple concoction. Whether there’s any truth to Duffy’s claims or not, Scotch and soda was firmly entrenched by the start of the early 20th century among the venerated family of highballs, a highball being loosely defined as nothing more sophisticated than a mixture (in any proportion) of a boozy spirit and a non-alcoholic (and oft-carbonated) mixer, thus including gin and tonic, rum and Coke, and Seven and Seven among its definition.
Following dinner, Jack orders the pair “a couple of B&Bs”. Unlike their pre-dinner highballs, B&B was a relatively new addition to bar menus. This combination of brandy and French herbal liqueur Bénédictine had just been introduced in the 1930s in response to a growing customer preference for drier liqueurs and was sold pre-mixed by the company that manufactured Bénédictine.
Jack Sargent drives with Lee from New York to Indiana (and back) in a dark 1937 Chrysler Royal convertible. Like many marques of the era, Chrysler produced the Royal in a range of body styles, including convertibles that were produced in both two- and four-door varieties. Jack drives a two-door Royal convertible coupe which was likely the more practical choice for a bachelor like Jack, though he may have wished for the roominess of the four-door when he and Lee sought to catch forty weeks by the side of the road near rural Blairs Mills, Pennsylvania.
Chrysler revived the “Royal” nameplate from its use earlier in the decade, now designating their entry-level replacement for the Airstream, taking its place under the eight-cylinder Airflow and the luxurious Imperial. The Royal was powered in 1937 and 1938 by the 228.1 cubic-inch Chrysler Straight Six engine that produced 93 horsepower and which contemporary advertising described as achieving between 18 to 24 miles per gallon, which would have been quite an asset for Jack while crossing the Midwest with Lee. Chrysler continued to produce the Royal through the ’40s, ending after the 1950 model year.
1937 Chrysler Royal
Body Style: 2-door convertible
Layout: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RWD)
Engine: 228.1 cu. in. (3.7 L) Chrysler straight-six
Power: 93 hp (69 kW; 94 PS) @ 3600 RPM
Torque: 168 lb·ft (228 N·m) @ 1200 RPM
Transmission: 3-speed manual
Wheelbase: 116 inches (2946 mm)
Length: 198.8 inches (5050 mm)
Above specs sourced from CarFolio.
How to Get the Look
Fred MacMurray makes an early cases for sweater vests to soften a business suit, already dressed down with its less-formal button-down collar shirt and protruding pocket square. Granted, there’s probably little need to still dress up this much for a winter road trip stretching over 700 miles…
- Glen plaid wool tailored suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with wide peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets with right-side flapped ticket pocket, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Double reverse-pleated trousers with fitted waistband (with inner suspender buttons), gently slanted “quarter top” side pockets, button-through back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- White cotton shirt with button-down collar, breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Dark foulard tie with framed medium-colored diamond print
- Dark broken twill-weave V-neck sweater vest
- Dark (with light bisecting center stripe) cloth suspenders
- Brown leather oxford shoes
- Argyle socks
- Black-and-white herringbone wool 3-button raglan coat with wide ulster collar and slanted side pockets
- Dark felt fedora with dark grosgrain band and edges
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
My life is just one long round of whoopee.
“How to get the style”: you left out the dark silk handkerchief for the suit coat chest pocket!
Re: “How to get …”, you left out the dark silk handkerchief for his coat chest pocket.