We have a particular fondness for A Night to Remember, a Columbia-produced comedy-thriller from 1942. Don’t confuse it with the 1958 British film of the same name, which really is about a night to remember: the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. Columbia’s own Night is one of those titles, like It Happened One Night or Remember the Night, in which the night in question is never specified. The story takes place over several nights, as well as days; so just which night is meant? The film doesn’t say, but it ambles along so pleasantly that we’re not bothered by a lack of specifics. After all, does anyone ever worry who the Thin Man is?
Let’s state it up front: A Night to Remember is no unsung masterpiece. A biographer of one of its stars, Loretta Young, called it a “run-of-the-mill mystery story,” and it’s pretty much that. The slight plot has Loretta and her spouse, Brian Aherne, a mystery writer looking for inspiration, moving into a Greenwich Village basement apartment and finding a real mystery: a dead man in the adjoining garden. Their attempts to solve the crime involve them in a convoluted blackmail plot and a series of amusing incidents with scowling cops, screaming housekeepers, nervous tenants, recalcitrant doors, shrieks in the night, and a turtle (more on that later). The film does offer atmospherically noirish cinematography, some nice Village-y-style touches, such as ‘Polly’s Stable,’ an eatery where the wait staff dresses like jockeys, and the presence of several always-welcome character actors: Lee Patrick, Sidney Toler, Donald MacBride, Gale Sondergaard, James Burke. And Loretta looks lovely. She’s given a big Star-Entrance close-up right at the beginning, because she happens to be The Star, but she troups along even when a scene calls for her to be covered in coal dust. No doubt Loretta knew during filming that she wasn’t making a deathless work of art, but she pitches in like a pro and she’s fun to watch.
What the film does have is charm. Our trusty Encarta dictionary describes charm as “the power to delight or attract,” and that this film does. It’s the kind of movie that we like to slip into the DVD player on a weekend night when we’re at odds and ends and just want something to entertain and amuse. Such pleasures should not be discounted as trivial. As the film critic Stanley Kauffman once wrote, “It takes a lot of nerve to make a pleasant picture, one that’s not intended to excite or scare or stir us…one that’s just intended to be easy to watch.” The nerve is in the aim to amuse, which may seem like a minor goal; but can one live on strong meat alone? Contrasts are necessary; and while A Night to Remember may be a trifle, one definition of trifle is dessert. Which is what watching this film feels like—like dipping into something sweet and light, with no cloying aftertaste. We’ve seen the film a number of times, and it doesn’t stale. It’s not perfect; some of the comedy, especially with the police and the yelping maid, is heavy-handed, and the mystery lacks interest. But it has many droll touches, such as Aherne’s recurrent struggles to turn a doorknob that refuses to do so. His routine is even given its own musical motif, a skittering theme on the woodwinds that’s like a mosquito’s laugh; it wittily captures (and undercuts) the frustration of smart, capable people undone by the misbehavior of small, mundane objects. When, during one tussle, hefty James Burke strides up, motions Aherne aside, and turns the knob easily, the music switches briefly to Wagner, adding the right note of heroic mockery.
Much credit for the movie’s lighter-than-air effect goes to its two stars. Loretta is adorable without being sticky. That’s hard to do. The danger of adorableness is that it can overtop into cuteness, which might be tolerated in a child (e.g., Shirley Temple), but will only induce cringing when displayed by an adult. It’s a difficult balance; Audrey Hepburn and Margaret Sullavan could manage it, June Allyson and Betty Hutton could not. Loretta manages it by spicing her line readings with a dash of wry. In the restaurant scene, for example, Aherne, in a show of masculine bluster, declares his intent to question a brutish-looking suspicious character—right after he finishes his drink, of course. When, after downing his cocktail, he still hasn’t made a move, Loretta offers him hers: “All right honey,” she remarks in a voice that’s like a cooing pigeon crossed with Eve Arden, “c’mon back and sit down; you can sip this one.” The line, and especially her reading of it, is funny because it gives us a capsule of their marriage: the Wifey who adores her Hubby, but who knows when he needs a dose of Dutch courage. Like many practical wives, she understands him a bit better than he does himself.
But the real charmer in this film, for us, anyway, is Brian Aherne. Aherne was an actor in that now-extinct performance mode peculiar to British actors Between-the-Wars, of acting as if it required no effort or technique (the aura of ease is a key aspect of charm—in two words, Cary Grant). One of the great exemplars of this tradition was Rex Harrison, who never visibly cracked open a pore onscreen (nor onstage; we once saw him trip lightly through the role of Captain Shotover in Shaw’s lengthy and complex Heartbreak House; he was then in his seventies, but he performed like a man half his age). When done right, the sense created on stage or screen is, paradoxically, of profound weightlessness: the actor dominates scenes even when tossing away lines and stage business with seemingly no forethought. Everything looks as if thought up only at that very moment (though, as Harrison’s biographer, Alexander Walker, points out, the illusion of appearing as unharried as a butterfly requires hours of ass-busting work). Although such an effect is associated with comedy, it can work in drama, too. See Ronald Colman, another no-sweat-allowed actor, who yet could break your heart with just half a smile and a downward shift of the eyes (watch him in 1935’s A Tale of Two Cities and weep).
Aherne was friends with both Harrison and Colman and, curiously, shared more than charm with them. As he notes in one of his books, A Dreadful Man (the title refers not to the author but to George Sanders, Aherne’s friend and another perspiration-free-style actor), Aherne was up for film roles that later went to Colman (Lost Horizon, A Tale of Two Cities), and he played Henry Higgins in the national tour of My Fair Lady while Harrison was starring in it on Broadway. We can sum up Aherne’s own acting style in a quote from a letter in his book, from Benita Hume (Colman’s wife, then Sanders’), describing Aherne’s performance in a Coward play as “so humorous, so flighty and yet so attractive.” Those words could be applied to his A Night to Remember performance, which floats onscreen with the buoyancy of a sylph. Watch how he lasciviously waggles his eyebrows when catching sight of Patrick in a negligee, or pompously flexes a fencing sword before confronting a nocturnal intruder (“You’ve only had three lessons,” Loretta reminds him). You know the actor would have rehearsed these effects, but he makes them so look charmingly offhand, and yet so deliciously funny, that you find yourself recalling them with pleasure. When you think of how many films you see and then forget, remembering these small bits is a big accomplishment on an actor’s part. It’s one of the reasons why so many of us love these golden-age films. They come from an era when giving mere pleasure to audiences was thought important; and they still can give us so much recollected delight.
We have to note another, more personal pleasure we get from this film, due to its taking place in a basement apartment. We’ve lived in several basement apartments over the years, so watching this movie is a kind of cinematic Old Home Week for us. Although the film’s basement is Hollywood-glamorized, the set design (by Lionel Banks, Joseph Kish, and Robert Peterson) does bring out that singular aspect of basement living, of a closed-off space that’s open to the world. There’s a funny bit when passers-by gaze through the street-level window on Aherne and Young embracing in their living room, which goads the pair into increasing displays of passion until the viewers applaud. We also get nostalgic on seeing the low ceilings, flimsy doors, lack of light, and the peculiar architectural lay-out (here, pillars bisecting the space at odd points) that makes growing plants and arranging furniture such an interesting challenge. Ah, subterranean living! Once you leave it for the higher planes (or floors), you wonder how you ever survived it. Especially whenever we see that large turtle we mentioned earlier, called Old Hickory in the film, who lives in the garden but who comes creeping into the apartment at all hours to crawl over things, usually feet. That recalls our own basement visitors, who were even creepier. They were these large roach-like waterbugs, as big as small mice, who scuttled madly over floor and walls like mini-NASCAR racers. (Frankly, we’d have preferred a turtle.) The cats would chase these creatures as if they were mice, and even eat them (a source of protein, so they say). Sometimes we’d find a dead bug’s flattened husk in a cabinet or under furniture; and sometimes we’d find just a spiky-fringed leg, the unfinished remains of a feline repast. For some reason, finding these partially consumed corpses always seemed so much worse than finding a whole one …
But still, it’s nice to revisit old times and old apartments from the safety of celluloid. Especially when watching it in the company of someone as pleasant as Brian Aherne. Who, oddly, seems to have made something of a specialty of basement movies. Around the same time he made A Night to Remember, Aherne also made My Sister Eileen, another charming film whose main set is also a Greenwich Village basement apartment. Is there some strange synchronicity between Aherne and subterranean spaces? One of these days we just might host a mini-film festival of Aherne basement films—we think we’ll call it Classic-Era Hollywood Meets Underground Cinema (ok, that’s your cue to groan).
>>A Night to Remember will be shown on Turner Classic Movies as part of its Loretta Young Star-of-the-Month tribute, on Wednesday, January 23, 2013, at 12:45am. Set your DVRs.