Hello friends. It’s been almost two years since I last posted here. Inexcusable, I know. But now that my gig as the editor of UrbanFaith.com is winding down, I hope to have more time to share some thoughts here. And in the coming months, I’ll have a lot more to say about my new book project. So please stay tuned.
In the meantime, I thought I’d share briefly about a 1940 film that’s become one of my favorites for the holidays since I first discovered it three years ago. It’s called Remember the Night, and stars Fred MacMurray and the lovely Barbara Stanwyck. Written by playwright and screenwriter Preston Sturges, here’s how IMDB.com summarizes the film’s storyline:
Just before Christmas, Lee Leander (Stanwyck) is caught shoplifting. It is her third offense. She is prosecuted by assistant distric attorney John Sargent (MacMurray). He postpones the trial because it is hard to get a conviction at Christmas time. But he feels sorry for her and arranges for her bail, and ends up taking her home to his mother for Christmas. Surrounded by a loving family (in stark contrast to Lee’s own family background) they fall in love. This creates a new problem: how do they handle the upcoming trial?
I’m not sure what it is about this film that has caused me to look forward to it every Christmas season. The film isn’t as inspiring or humorous as a popular classic like It’s a Wonderful Life. And at times the pacing feels much too slow. Yet there’s something about the interaction of the two main characters and their respective transformations from self-centered individuals into giving, selfless people. It has that familiar Dickensian sort of moral arc that informs most great Christmas stories — from A Christmas Carol to Miracle on 34th Street to How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Then, of course, there’s the classic love story of an odd couple falling for each other and becoming better people for it.
But I think there’s also something sadly disturbing about the film that draws me to it each year. It has to do with the relationship between MacMurray’s character John Sargent and his African American valet Rufus (portrayed by actor Fred “Snowflake” Toones). Toones was a charactrer actor who made a career out of playing comedic supporting roles in dozens of films during the 1930s and ’40s. According to his IMDB page, Toones’s ”standard characterization was that of a middle-aged ‘colored’ man with a high-pitched voice and childlike demeanor.” Some have referred to this type of character as the “loyal Tom,” others as a “Sambo.” Whatever the label, it’s clear that the filmmakers of Remember the Night viewed Rufus’s servile status as both comic relief and a natural fact of life in the world of the main characters. (It’s interesting that, again according to IMDB, Toones actually ran the shoeshine stand at Republic Pictures, where he was under contract from 1936-1947.) In fact, some of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film are not the climatic moments showing the emotional evolution of Lee and John but the demeaning and truly racist manner in which John addresses Rufus. Yet it is not something that is dwelled upon in the film. As I said, it’s mostly taken for granted as the natural backdrop of the story.
This got me to thinking about both this movie and other pieces of pop culture that I’ve liked in the past that also feature questionable racial elements. Should I view these things as being offensive and reject them outright, throwing out the good with the bad? Or should I simply view them as a historical statement about the times in which they were made? In the case of Remember the Night, I’ve chosen the latter course. I confess that the film fascinates me in odd ways. I wonder about the interaction of the actors on the set in real life: Did Mr. Toones face actual racism from the cast and crew in addition to the insults that were piled upon his character in the movie? Did director Mitchell Leisen and Mr. MacMurray understand that John Sargent’s condescending tone toward Rufus was wrong, and were they hoping to demonstrate this injustice by their film’s portrayal of the white man-black man relationship in 1940? Or was this just the way it was, both in art and life, for this group of people?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I still plan to watch Remember the Night again this year and study the actors’ faces for clues. The movie will air tonight at 9:45 ET on Turner Classic Movies channel (TCM). If you have a chance, please watch it (or DVR it to watch later) and let me know what you think.