Friday, August 23, 2019

The Lady Eve (1941)

USA, 94 minutes
Director: Preston Sturges
Writers: Monckton Hoffe, Preston Sturges
Photography: Victor Milner
Music: Phil Boutelje, Charles Bradshaw, Gil Grau, Sigmund Krumgold, John Leipold, Leo Shuken
Editor: Stuart Gilmore
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, William Demarest, Eugene Pallette, Eric Blore, Melville Cooper, Martha O'Driscoll, Janet Beecher, Robert Greig, Luis Alberni, Jimmy Conlin

In many ways The Lady Eve comes on as a romantic comedy, with two big and beautiful stars in Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. But the instincts of director and cowriter Preston Sturges steer the movie more toward screwball and beyond. We may think of 1941 as a war year, but the Pearl Harbor attack did not occur until the end of the year. And the movies, in the isolationist meantime, were prolific and often seemed more intent on tearing up and rewriting templates. The Lady Eve is a romantic comedy in the same way Hellzapoppin'  is a musical and Citizen Kane is an experimental art film and/or biopic. More than anything, I suppose, The Lady Eve is a Sturges picture, offering up a full orchestra of vaudeville gags, character players, and pratfalls, themselves little symphonies of smashing plates, falling cutlery, and stammered apologies. Sturges never had much sense of cinema formally. But just like he was willing to try anything for a laugh he was also willing to try anything with the technology, as seen in a mirror-driven monologue here. Rampant experimentation appeared to be a regular feature of the movies in 1941. Even a relatively straightforward comedy like the W.C. Fields vehicle Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is full of surrealistic turns.

In the spirit of classic screwballs like My Man Godfrey and Bringing Up Baby, the leads here are as zany as everything else. Stanwyck, who in the first place could do anything, is about at the peak of her powers. Consider her 1941: Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, and You Belong to Me. She's Jean, a conniving con artist and card sharp traveling aboard a passenger ship as the daughter of her mentor, the self-titled Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn, excellent as always). She is self-assurance itself, speaking a mile a minute and flinging off sparks in all directions. "Every Jane in the room is giving him the thermometer," she says in the mirror monologue, sizing up her prey and the competition. Her target is the dweebish and independently wealthy Charles Poncefort Pike (Fonda), a scientist with an interest in snakes who is returning from an exploring expedition in the Amazon. She calls him Hopsie after he tells her it's a family nickname he hates. Working against his already stolid type, Abraham Lincoln Tom Joad Henry Fonda is especially good playing an absent-minded professor harried by a perpetual erection—a notable skill, not often seen in midcentury American movies or done well ever.

I love the pungent chemistry between Stanwyck and Fonda which is noticeable practically any time they are within two feet of one another. But I think I love more the Sturges parade of character players. They work as a kind of Greek chorus of the kooky, something that Sturges and not many others could manage then. There's William Demarest as Pike's minder Muggsy. He may be remembered best now (at least by baby boomers!) for playing Uncle Charley on My Three Sons but he gets one of the best lines in the whole movie right at the very end—and note that he's what Sturges chooses to end on. Demarest's glowering air of befuddled concern throughout keeps deflecting the action forward with great skill. Eugene Pallette as Pike's father brings his usual strange piercing foghorn voice and that's really all he ever had to do, though I also like a scene where he pitches a fit for his breakfast. Eric Blore, with his simpering debonair manner and gleaming bald pate, is a virtuoso of the hey-that-guy role, familiar from pictures such as Top Hat, Road to Zanibar, The Moon and Sixpence, and literally dozens more. Melville Cooper, Martha O'Driscoll, Janet Beecher, Robert Greig, and Luis Alberni are more comedy professionals piling on.

The story, as I say, is basic strokes of the get / lose / win-back romantic comedy storyline, but even there it can produce some comically surprising sharp edges. The breakup of Hopsie and Jean is predicated on her exposure as a flimflam artist, and when he dumps her she is furious, putting her entire life on hold to scheme revenge. She's so bitter: "I need him like the ax needs the turkey," she says in one of her fugue states when the subject of Pike comes up. She concocts a hilariously implausible way to get back at him, pretending to be another person entirely even though she obviously isn't. As usual, Pike can't think straight anytime she's close. Then the movie sort of gets to be a hurry-up job, rocketing through the final plot developments like highlights in a newsreel. But that's OK. Nothing else here makes that much sense, and I always appreciate the effort to bring a movie in at a reasonable running time. The Lady Eve remains the Preston Sturges movie to see if you only have time for one.

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