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The Lady Eve: The Criterion Collection

Preston Sturges's superb screwball comedy The Lady Eve (1941) tells a simple story that blends love, revenge, impersonation, card sharking, class differences, Biblical allusions, and beer. Charles Pike (Henry Fonda, in his only Sturges movie and one of his few good comedies), heir to the Pike's Pale Ale fortune, is right out of the jungle and onto the cruise ship S.S. Southern Queen, where he meets Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck, in one of her best performances). Jean is a globetrotting hustler who, in league with her father "Colonel" Harry Harrington (Charles Coburn), bilks mugs of their money at the card table. However, Jean's having a change of heart. She starts the hustle on Pike, but then falls for him. And then the bumbling, awkward young man is disillusioned about her when he learns from the purser that the Harringtons are indeed con artists, confirming what Pike's guardian and personal assistant Mugsy (William Demarest) suspects. Pike dumps her and breaks her heart. That's part one. In this perfectly bifurcated tale, part two, which begins almost exactly halfway through the running time, concerns Jean coming into Pike's life again, but this time as an elegant British socialite, the Lady Eve, Countess of Sidwich, the "niece" of another con artist, "Sir Alfred Glennan Keith," otherwise known as Pearlie (Sturges-regular Eric Blore). Her purpose? To revenge her hurt feelings on Charles by luring him into marriage and then shocking the puritanical lad with tales of her robust sexual past. Invading his social circle and winning over Pike's own family, including his father (Eugene Pallette), her plan works perfectly. But is she happy? Once again, as with Sullivan's Travels, Criterion offers an excellent DVD with numerous helpful extras and providing a good transfer of the black-and-white full frame film (1.33:1), with audio in Dolby Digital 1.0 and English subtitles. Supplements are extensive. Leading off is a commentary by scholar Marian Keane, , who is infectiously enthusiastic and explores the film's undercurrents and thematic concerns without jargon. Also on hand is a so-called "video introduction" by Peter Bogdanovich, which hits the high points of the film and of Sturges's career. Other supplements include the original theatrical trailer; a 92-screen gallery of production stills, photos from the set, advertising material, a page from the film's score, and even the report from a test screening (which counted up some like 280 laughs); and a 44-screen gallery focusing on Edith Head's costume designs, alternating drawings, photos, and reprinted remarks by Head about the clothes in Eve. One of the more intriguing supplements is the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of the movie, which aired in 1942. About 45 minutes long, the adaptation is interesting for the differences between the twice-as-long original, and for its cast changes, in which Ray Milland substitutes for Fonda. It's also amusing to hear the studio audience actually laughing at some of Sturges's ribald lines. Finally, there's an eight-page production notes insert with an essay by James Harvey, who has written books on movie romance. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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