Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Lady Eve (Paramount, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran The Lady Eve, which I don’t think is one of Preston Sturges’ absolute best films (though one friend of mine said he thought it was his all-time favorite movie!), though that doesn’t stop it from being enormously entertaining and well worth watching. American Movie Classics commentator Nick Clooney (Rosemary’s brother and George’s father) called it “a screwball comedy,” which it really isn’t; though it has some moments of Sturges’ familiar lunacy, it’s more of a romantic comedy between Barbara Stanwyck as a professional gambler (working the steamships with her father, played with his usual drollery by Charles Coburn) and Henry Fonda as heir to an ale fortune (“Pike’s Pale, The Ale that Won for Yale”) whom she is trying to fleece. (It’s essentially the same premise as Bringing Up Baby — only instead of dinosaurs, Henry Fonda is into snakes — but the treatment is much less “screwball” and more romantic here.) The plot is nothing much — he finds out about her past and dumps her on board the boat, and she tries to avenge herself by disguising herself as an Englishwoman, seducing him into marrying her and then posing as a nymphomaniac so he’ll want to divorce her. There are some surprisingly erotic scenes for the time — notably the opening, in which she rubs her leg against his side while he’s changing her shoe; and the closing, in which Fonda confesses to his “English” wife that he can’t love her since he’s still in love with the gambler’s daughter, and she says, “But I’m married, too,” they close the bedroom door behind them — how did they ever get that past the Production Code people? — and then out comes William Demarest, as Fonda’s manservant and general protector, saying to himself — and us — “Positively the same dame!” I like Sturges better when he’s being wilder than this — i.e. Sullivan’s Travels, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and (especially) his thorough destruction of the Frank Capra myth, Hail the Conquering Hero — but The Lady Eve is a vividly entertaining film, surprisingly subtle (despite a few of the raucous slapstick scenes that were a Sturges trademark) and indicating that Sturges could put a convincing love story on the screen. — 5/31/95


Turner Classic Movies was running a tribute to Preston Sturges last night and showing six of his eight films as a director for Paramount (when he made The Great McGinty in 1940 it was such a hit, other writers also got chances to direct — and some, like John Huston and Billy Wilder, made it a permanent promotion while others, like Ben Hecht, weren’t able to) — they left out The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and what is probably Sturges’ most underrated film, The Great Moment (a biopic of Dr. William Thomas Green Morton, co-discoverer of anaesthesia, and at once a comedy, a soap opera and a dazzling series of flashbacks that made me wonder if Sturges, hearing Orson Welles acclaimed as a great innovator for having told Citizen Kane almost entirely in flashbacks, wanted to tap Hollywood’s on its collective shoulder and say, “Wait a minute! I wrote a film almost entirely in flashback, The Power and the Glory, eight years ago!” — it was so weird and off the beaten path Paramount held its release for two years after Sturges finished it and it bombed at the box office) — and Robert Osborne made a slighting comment about Sturges’ post-Paramount output (though it contains at least one of his masterpieces, Unfaithfully Yours) in his introduction to the film Charles and I watched last night, The Lady Eve. We’d seen it together years ago and I’d seen bits and pieces since (including the first 20 minutes or so the last time TCM revived it) and I’m not sure I would call it Sturges’ greatest film — he toned down the rambunctiousness of his usual style and made his trademark genre shifts less crashingly obvious this time around — but it’s certainly a wonderful movie and indicates that Sturges’ bag of tricks stretched to romantic comedy as well as slapstick and farce.

Though Sturges wrote the script as well as directing, the original inspiration was a story by another writer, Monckton Hoffe, and I hadn’t realized before just how much this movie owes to another comic masterpiece, Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, made three years earlier (and, ironically, a major flop while The Lady Eve was a major hit). The male leads in both are personally and sexually repressed scientists who get involved with, and ultimately fall for, aggressively worldly women — only this time around it’s a snake instead of a leopard and a broken heel instead of a torn dress that bring the leads together. The man is Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), who as the film begins is boarding an ocean liner to take him from a year-long expedition in the Amazon where he’s discovered a new species of snake, a sample of which he’s bringing back with him. He’s the son of brewer Horace Pike (Eugene Pallette), who’s made a fortune selling “Pike’s Pale, the Ale that Won for Yale” — a product so popular that everyone on the ocean liner is ordering it and the stewards have to explain rather plaintively that they’ve long since run out. The female lead is Jerry Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck, top-billed), a professional gambler who travels ocean liners with her father, “Colonel” Harry Harrington (a marvelously droll performance from Charles Coburn), looking for rich suckers to take at the card table — a character that hearkens back to at least two of Stanwyck’s previous films, Ladies of Leisure (in which she played a virtual prostitute picking men up on ocean liners) and Gambling Lady (she was a cardsharp who took over the family business when her dad, who taught her everything she knew, was killed).

The encounters between Charles Pike and the Harringtons on board the ocean are deliciously written and surprisingly soft and romantic for a Sturges movie (especially one which, according to the “trivia” page, he wrote while in Las Vegas waiting out the six weeks’ residency to obtain his third divorce), scored with instrumental versions of songs from old Paramount movies — “Isn’t It Romantic?,” “Lover,” “Moonlight and Shadows” — and at one point played so completely against the usual image of the actors involved that in one two-shot close-up of Stanwyck and Fonda, Sturges and cinematographer Victor Milner give him a surprising resemblance to Rudolph Valentino. The back-and-forth continues not only in their intimate romantic moments — not surprisingly, Jerry Harrington starts genuinely to fall for her “mark” — but at the card table as well, where the Harringtons let Charles win the first few hands and Jerry, in one engagingly preposterous sequence, tries to ensure that her dad will lose to Charles even though he’s energetically cheating so he can win. Harry Harrington ends up with a $32,000 check from Charles which he crumples up and supposedly throws away — only when Jerry learns that Charles knew who she was all along (courtesy of a purser who slipped him a photo of the Harringtons from a previous voyage with a dossier on the back), she immediately hates him, encourages her dad to cash the check (which, of course, he merely palmed) and concocts an elaborate revenge scheme that takes up the second half of the film. This involves posing as “Lady Eve Sidwich,” (alleged) niece of supposed British nobleman Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith (Eric Blore — quite a promotion from being Fred Astaire’s butler!), and getting herself to be the star guest at a huge dinner party being thrown by Horace Pike. In her “Lady Eve” guise she seduces Charles and gets him to marry her — according to another “trivia” entry on, the wedding dress Edith Head designed for Stanwyck to wear in this sequence became so popular real-life brides asked their couturiers to duplicate it.

Only they go off on their honeymoon by train, and as the journey progresses she makes up so many stories about all the men she’s supposedly had affairs with before that he ultimately gets disgusted and ends up leaving the train in mid-journey in a rainstorm — and as he exits he promptly takes a pratfall into a mud puddle. Through the entire movie Charles Pike has had a “keeper,” Muggsy (the marvelously acerbic William Demarest), hired by his dad to make sure no adventuress gets close enough to him to take him for a significant part of the Pike’s Pale fortune — and though Muggsy loses at cards himself to Gerald (Melville Cooper), Harry Harrington’s manservant, he takes his job seriously enough that he’s the only member of the dramatis personae who suspects that Lady Eve Sedwich and Jerry Harrington are the same person. Only when he tries to share his suspicions with Charles, Charles replies, “They look too much alike to be the same” — meaning that if Jerry had wanted to disguise herself as a different person she’d have changed her hair color instead of just its cut, and maybe worn tooth caps or something else more transparently obvious as a disguise. Charles noted one plot point that Sturges could have used to make The Lady Eve an even funnier movie than it is; throughout the first half Jerry Harrington is shown as petrified of snakes in general and of Charles’ specimen snake, Emma, in particular — and this would seem to be setting up a gag in the second half in which, in order to preserve her incognito, Jerry would have to put up with Emma’s presence without any outward show of fear. Instead, Emma simply wraps herself around the leg of one of the guests at Horace’s party at which Jerry’s “Lady Eve” persona is introduced — and is never seen again.

Nonetheless, despite that omission, The Lady Eve is a brilliant film, and for once Sturges is mingling romantic comedy, slapstick and farce instead of having them crash into each other (the running gag of having Charles’ elaborate dinner jackets drenched in food is especially delicious, and the topper is that Charles runs out of clean jackets, has to wear a white one, and then that gets ruined), and the ending is a delightful bit of censor-tweaking: Jerry reverts to her original persona, she and Charles disappear into a stateroom, and as he complains, “But I’m married,” she says, “So am I” — and just then Muggsy pops up outside with the last words of the film: “Positively the same dame!” Given how in 1941, the same year The Lady Eve was made, screenwriters at MGM had to rewrite the scripts of The Chocolate Soldier and Two-Faced Woman so that characters being seduced by heavily disguised partners had to know throughout the whole affair that the people trying to seduce them were really their lawfully wedded spouses, one wonders how Sturges got away with leaving it ambiguous not only for the characters but the audience as well whether Fonda’s character knew that Stanwyck 1.0 and Stanwyck 2.0 were the same person. The Lady Eve was made at a particularly happy juncture for the careers of both Stanwyck and Sturges — later in 1941 he would make Sullivan’s Travels while her films that year included two other masterpieces, Meet John Doe and Ball of Fire — and it was also a considerably better role than most of the dull so-called “comedies” Fox, his home studio, was giving Henry Fonda in between major movies like The Grapes of Wrath and The Return of Frank James. — 7/1/12