Tuesday, October 02, 2012
In his earlier pick of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, Steven wrote, "There was a time when it was the duty of Americans to insert the wisecrack that could deflate delusions of grandeur." Preston Sturges practically spun an entire career out of that—short, perhaps even limited, but so fully realized that nearly every one of the dozen or so pictures he made are worth seeing. They crackle with energy and spitfire dialogue, which sometimes goes by so fast even the players seem to be having a hard time keeping up (and I have to think a lightbulb or two lit up over Robert Altman's head when he saw the way Sturges made use, perhaps inadvertently, of overlapping dialogue). The troupe of character actors Sturges regularly went to—William Demarest, Eddie Bracken, Jimmy Conlin, Al Bridge, Arthur Hoyt, Victor Potel, and many others—are so familiar it's a case of never-ending déjà vu, and they are absolute comedy pros.
My favorites include The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (Betty Hutton's great moment), Sullivan's Travels (in which a successful comedy director wants to make a very serious Grapes-of-Wrath-style picture called O Brother Where Art Thou?), Christmas in July, and Unfaithfully Yours, which came a bit later than the sweet spot of Sturges's early '40s surge. (The Great Moment is really the only one to skip.)
Far and away the best of the bunch to me is The Lady Eve. Barbara Stanwyck has never been sexier or more beguiling (which is saying something) and the chemistry between her and Henry Fonda is something to behold. In many ways, Fonda is already playing as far out of his type here as he would at the end of his career in Once Upon a Time in the West—to be sure, toward the opposite end of the spectrum of his range. Here he is a hopelessly awkward science-nerd naïf who is bewitched, even stupefied, by Stanwyck. His various difficulties in even speaking to her are comedy gold, and in one dinner scene he delivers a series of some of the best pratfalls I know.
I really love this one. There's so much that's so good here, and more that jumps out every time I see it. Watch for a scene between Fonda and Stanwyck with a horse that keeps benignly intruding. That's the one that had me actually laughing out loud (with surprise and delight, even) the last time I saw this. That scene is unfortunately not available on YouTube, so the clip I've got is the classic introduction of Stanwyck and her first, artfully engineered encounter with Fonda.
"Every Jane in the room is giving him the thermometer and he feels they're just a waste of time."
Phil #15: Pather Panchali / Aparajito / Apur Sansar (Satyajit Ray, 1955/56/59)
Steven #15: The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
Between Satyajit Ray, Carl Th. Dreyer, and Preston Sturges, we are clearly in thrall to the canon at this point. If anything, I'm the iconoclast (Phil played the role last week with To Sir, With Love). I actually had The Passion of Joan of Arc at #5 at one point, as mentioned earlier, so it's one I know and love too. There are not many movies like it or performances like Maria Falconetti's, but Steven's got that covered, just like Phil's got Ray's Apu trilogy covered. That's one (or three) that I came to more recently—I'd seen the first and third, many years apart and out of order, a long time ago. This summer I sat down with all three in order. They are really great, with a good deal of cohesion for a movie trilogy. It doesn't happen all that often. Looking forward to seeing them again.