March 15, 2013

Wife's Choice: THE LADY EVE Is A Saucy Minx

"You see, Hopsi, you don't know very much about girls.  The best ones aren't as good as you probably think they are and the bad ones aren't as bad.  Not nearly as bad."
This week, in an effort to spare me from more subtitles, Jamie selected the classic Preston Sturges film The Lady Eve, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.  I was grateful for the choice, as lately I've been feeling as if I'm watching a few too many films from the last few years and not enough older stuff.  The Lady Eve had the added benefit of being a movie that I literally knew nothing about.  The majority of the films I'll pick on my own are things that I at least have some sort of passing familiarity with, which is why I'm excited to let Jamie (and soon some others) pick movies I've never even heard of to broaden my horizons.  This was a great way to kickstart that effort.

The Lady Eve is a classic grifter story, one of my absolute favorite genres.  Fonda plays Charles Pike, the idealistic, head-in-the-clouds young heir to a wealthy ale magnate.  Pike's more interested in science than brewing and bottling, and we find him as he's hitching a ride back to the States after spending a year in the Amazonian jungle studying snakes.  Everyone on the boat knows who he is and every eligible young woman is hoping to catch his eye, including Jean Harrington, played by the incredibly charming Stanwyck.  But unlike the rest of girls, Jean isn't looking to fall in love.  She's looking to seduce Pike so that her partner Handsome Harry (Charles Coburn) can trick him out of his money at the card tables.  Of course Jean ends up falling for Pike in the process, but thanks to the efforts of Pike's trusty bodyguard Muggsy (William Demarest), he's alerted to the ruse and breaks it off with her before they disembark.  Despite getting away clean, Jean is emotionally wounded and wants to get back at Pike for hurting her.  So, with the help of a fellow con man, she appears at a dinner party at the Pike home as English socialite Lady Eve.  Having done nothing to change her appearance, Pike and Muggsy suspect she must be the same woman from the ship, but her new partner feeds them a story about twins secretly separated at birth.  After a few weeks, Pike is in love once again and the two are quickly married, but riding a train on their honeymoon, Eve/Jean rattles off a long list of past lovers and Pike gets so upset that he storms off the train in the middle of the night.  Harry wants her to demand a large divorce settlement, but she seems to regret her revenge and refuses money.  Pike gets back onto a cruise ship, presumably to head back into the jungle only to run into Jean playing herself again.  He immediately takes her in his arms and kisses her, deciding he doesn't care if it was her all along or not, so long as they're together.

I'd never seen a Preston Sturges movie before, but he's one of those guys that is often cited by other filmmakers as a major influence in their own careers and I can see why.  Sturges has a great way with words and his dialogue pops like that of Sorkin.  Stanwyck and Fonda have a number of moments that simply crackle with energy, including a great scene right after their initial meeting as he helps her pick out a pair of shoes as well as the seduction scene pictured above.  Stanwyck has a great monologue at the beginning where she's watching the other women on the ship as they try to approach Pike and she's hilariously narrating the entire thing.  It's the kind of speech any actress would absolutely kill for.

The whole scene is played out in the reflection of her compact mirror, shot in closeup with Jean watching the action over her shoulder.  It's the kind of shot that feels commonplace now but probably felt innovative in 1941. Regardless, it's remarkably well executed for the time.  Sturges has a sharp eye for visuals and the film often feels ahead of its time.  I was particularly surprised by Stanwyck's wardrobe in that initial meeting.  It feels almost shockingly revealing for the time, a low cut sweater exposing her midriff and a skirt with a high slit that Stanwyck makes a point to show off.  The grifting stuff works really well too, particularly a great card scene where Jean and Harry keep palming each others cards with Pike none the wiser.

Stanwyck and Fonda are both at the top of their games.  Muggsy often refers to Jean as a dame and that's exactly what she is; tough, smart, brash and capable, but also a little vulnerable and drop dead gorgeous.  She can run the tables on any man, yet it's easy to see why she falls for Fonda as the lovable Pike.  He's incredibly earnest and sweet, a man with absolutely no agenda who's unaffected by his own wealth and status.  He's also a tremendous klutz, constantly knocking into things, pratfalling left and right.  There's a great running gag at the dinner party where he keeps ruining his dinner jacket and changes only to similarly ruin the next.  I've never thought of Fonda as a physical comedian but he pulls it off with aplomb here.  William Demarest deserves mention as Muggsy, a great little comic relief role that often reminded me of Moe from the Three Stooges.  Demarest has one of those rubber faces and he just kills with the jokes, especially his Hitler impression and the last line of the film, which is pretty perfect.

My biggest gripe with the movie, well, I feel a little conflicted about it because I don't think it's really the movie's fault.  The story hinges on a few plot devices that seem quaintly old fashioned, specifically the rapidity of the couple's romance (both times) and their subsequent marriage as well as Pike walking out over her sexual history.  To be clear, it's not as if she's telling him sordid details about bizarre fetishes; his distress comes solely from the fact that she had multiple prior lovers.  Nowadays the expectation of marrying a chaste virgin is pretty unrealistic, but it still feels like an unfair double standard since Pike had no problem with Jean seducing him on the ship.  Besides, I don't exactly think we're supposed to believe Pike's a virgin.  It would be different if he was presented as a poor sap, but obviously we're supposed to find Pike just as lovable as Jean does.  At the time, their whirlwind romance was probably standard movie fare, whereas today we would it call it lazy writing.  But it hardly seems fair to judge Sturges by today's standards, so I'll give him a pass.

Overall I really dug this one, certainly a lot more than Jamie's last pick for me.  It's certainly got me more in the mood to dig up some old black and whites.  Those of you who know Jamie are welcome to give her suggestions.

She's got fifty more weeks to go.

(PS - Check out the trailer below for old-timey hilarity.)

Title: The Lady Eve
Director: Preston Sturges
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest
Year Of Release: 1941
Viewing Method: DVD - Criterion Collection

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