Barbara Stanwyck has Henry Fonda Bewitched and Bewildered.
One of writer/director Preston Sturges' best films, which is to say one of the best screwball comedies ever made. Period.
Facts of the Case
Barbara Stanwyck is Jean Harrington, a grifter who travels the world with her father (Charles Coburn), bilking the "sucker sapiens." While on a steamer, she meets Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), heir to the Pike's Pale ale fortune and snake-enthusiast returning from a year's expedition up the Amazon. Jean decides to charm Pike out of everything he's worth, but falls in love with him in the process, an obvious no-no in the world of card sharps. The two are swiftly engaged, though Jean has problems convincing her father it's on the up-and-up. Meanwhile, Pike's valet Muggsy (William Demarest) is on to the schemers and procures evidence of their seedy past from the ship's purser.
Hearts and engagement broken, the story picks up on dry land. At the horse track, the Harringtons meet fellow conniver Pearlie (Eric Blore), masquerading as wealthy Englishman Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith while swindling the folks in Bridgefield, Connecticut, home of the Pike's Pale Pikes. Recognizing an opportunity for revenge, Jean masquerades as Sir Alfred's niece, the Lady Eve Sedgewick, and makes her Connecticut social debut at a gala thrown by the Pikes. To the chagrin of his father (Eugene Pallette), Charles is sent reeling, literally, by Eve's presence and her remarkable resemblance to Jean Harrington. Jean exacts her revenge during the couple's honeymoon by going through a litany of Eve's previous lovers, but realizes once Charles has fled the scene she's still in love with the sap. How will she win him back?
There's a certain formalism to the screwball comedy genre that contributes significantly to my pleasure watching them. They're built on a web of fairly malleable conventions: smart, snappy dialogue; the peculiarities and liberties of the American upper class; plots of remarriage; snippets of slapstick; drunkenness; sexual frustration. The quality of any individual screwball comedy is determined largely by how creatively it works within the bounds of these conventions and, as in formalist poetry, which of the conventions it chooses to bend or break with entirely.
The Lady Eve is interesting because it ditches one of the most fundamental conventions of the genre: screwball comedies generally present us with romantic leads who are intellectual equals, well-matched opponents, a novelty back in the 1930s and '40s. It's clear from the earliest moments of The Lady Eve, however, that Fonda's Charles isn't in the same league as Stanwyck's Jean. The plot evolves from her machinations; he's only along for the ride. Don't get me wrong. Fonda's no dolt in the film. He's college-educated, a scientist, but a theme that runs through many of Sturges' films is the insufficiency of the knowledge found in books and at universities, its inferiority to the knowledge of experience. Charles Pike is a snake expert (the slithering, reptilian kind) who, in his naïveté, is completely taken in by the human snakes who surround him, most notably Jean Harrington. Pike's education and background of privilege have isolated him from the real world.
Now, don't misunderstand me. Sturges isn't anti-intellectual and he isn't a class warrior. He is both Charles and Jean, well-educated with a honed literary sensibility, but also aware of the finest nuances of the real world around him. His films tend to explore reconciliation between these disparate forms of his own knowledge. That's what makes them utterly brilliant, standing head-and-shoulders above the rest of a field distinguished for its urbane wit and earthy humor. But this is no college class and if Sturges' work could simply be understood through intellectual dissection, it'd be self-contradictory, so let's move on…
More important than any of the stuff I've just talked about is the fact that The Lady Eve is hilarious. He throws everything at you: chuckle-inducing wry humor, belly-laughs, pratfalls. The Lady Eve is high-brow and low-brow, sophisticated and silly. His dialogue is tight and crisp but natural in its rhythms. At the beginning of the film, Jean suggests her father ought to find an old lady to romance and swindle, to which he responds, "Don't be vulgar, Jean. Let us be crooked but never common." Sturges' plotting is clever and fine-tuned: he resists altering Stanwyck's appearance in the slightest when she makes the change from Jean to Eve, then explains Fonda's being fooled by having him say to Muggsy, "They look too much alike to be the same." Fonda falls on his can repeatedly and, as with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, something about seeing a star of that magnitude—known mostly for his grace and presence in dramas—taking pratfalls makes it all the funnier. All of it produces a density of comedic effect that manages to come off as natural, unforced.
And the performances…it's hard to imagine how you could go wrong with a cast headed by Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. The Lady Eve (along with Double Indemnity) is Stanwyck at her best. Need I really say more? Fonda's perfect (in her feature-length commentary, Marian Keane says she can't imagine anyone else, with the exception perhaps of Joel McCrea, playing the role. I can imagine McCrea playing Pike—he's got that everyman quality—but he could never have conveyed the baffled, flumoxed innocence that Fonda does so easily). The supporting players are top-notch. Sturges regulars William Demarest and Eric Blore are rock-solid as always (see their performances in Sullivan's Travels). Demarest, by the way, is probably best known to people of my generation as Uncle Charlie on My Three Sons (which starred Fred MacMurray, who was in Double Indemnity with…Barbara Stanwyck. I think one could probably play Six Degrees of William Demarest with classic film). Anyway, Demarest is never finer than he is as Muggsy in The Lady Eve, salty and gruff. Uncle Charlie? Forget about it. If that isn't enough, we've also got Eugene Pallette playing Fonda's father, a coarse, nouveau-riche business man dripping with dough and forced to deal with the proprieties of the old-money class. Okay, it's basically the same role he played in My Man Godfrey, but nobody could've done it better—Pallette owned that type.
So, how's the DVD? Criterion delivers again. The image is detailed throughout with solid blacks and whites, a good gray scale, and a sheen of grain that's not at all distracting, simply reminding one that, before going digital, The Lady Eve was a film. There are minor blemishes here and there—nothing unacceptable for a film past sixty years of age (removal of the reel-change markers would have been nice, but I watch so many older films that's pretty much stopped bothering me). The original mono soundtrack has been retained and it's amazingly free of any hiss, presenting clear dialogue throughout, which is absolutely essential to one's enjoyment of the film. This DVD presentation is worlds apart from any broadcast television version you might encounter.
Let me say a few words about some of the extras. If you have a scholarly interest in film, you'll love Marian Keane's commentary. If you've heard the one she recorded for Notorious: Criterion Collection, you know the sort of dense, scene-specific content she provides—and without being stuffy or dry. She knows her stuff.
I'm not generally one for production stills (I just don't like absorbing static, book-like content on my TV screen), but the stills here are exceptional. There's between 90 and 100 and they capture the warmth and fun of the production, everything from Sturges' predilection for funny hats to his hand-written audience laugh-tallies from pre-release screenings; from the variety of poster-art created to advertise the film to examples of the censor's notes on the script.
Perhaps my favorite extra, though, is the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of the film, starring Stanwyck and Ray Milland. Criterion's included these on a number of classics (My Man Godfrey and The Third Man to name two) and I just love them. It's a dead art, man. The radio drama includes all the original Lux soap commercials and, best of all, we're told the show will run a little short (45 minutes instead of the usual hour) because President Roosevelt will be addressing the nation. It's excellent.
We're all indebted once again to Criterion for archiving a truly great film in the best quality possible.
Maybe I'm wrong and Criterion's swindled me out of $35.99. If so, they've managed to do it while leaving a smile on my face. Case dismissed.
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