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The Lady Eve: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Coburn,
and Eugene Pallette

Written and directed by Preston Sturges

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

Thank God for Mitchell Leisen.

This pedestrian Paramount studio hack had a bad habit. If he didn't like or understand something in a script, he simply deleted the scenes. This cavalier attitude to film writers — not to mention narrative logic and character development — understandably exasperated some of the more valued screenwriters at Paramount. Among them were Preston Sturges and, later, Billy Wilder.

Sturges led the rebellion. He was so distraught over Leisen's blasé attitude over the words, scenes, and wit he had toiled over for the script that became Remember the Night that he threatened to quit the studio. Paramount production chief William LeBaron instantly allowed Sturges to direct his next script, and a great directorial career was born. At other times, Leisen mutilated Wilder-Brackett scripts such as Midnight and Hold Back the Dawn, and Wilder too, then, struck out on his own (did Leisen have something against horary film titles?). Still, if Leisen hadn't been such a thick-headed Philistine, the most important directors of the next 20 years would not have emerged.

That Preston Sturges is one of American cinema's greatest writer-directors, indeed arguably the greatest writer-director, has finally gained acceptance. This wasn't always so. There was a long time when Sturges's films, which were wildly popular in their day, languished in darkness. Then in the early '70s, when auteurism was slowly rescuing many directors from obscurity, Sturges came back into vogue, thanks in part to a special issue of the short-lived but elegant Los Angeles-based magazine Cinema dedicated to Sturges, leading to 24-hour Sturges marathons at UCLA and culminating in the publication by the University of California Press of his screenplays in three volumes (so far). Now many more people know that Sturges is a delight, and well worth all the attention.

*          *          *

Sturges was a writer-director, but people tend to remember the writer and forget the director. This is clearly because his scripts were so strong, and he worked within a studio support-system that emphasized a clean, clear style in service to the plot and stars. Sturges's narrative strategy was fairly simple. As he told his assistant director, Mel Epstein, as summarized by Diane Jacobs in her biography of Sturges, his scheme was "to write his protagonists into a box, where there seemed no hope for them. Then, as the goal of his 'hook' system, was to have one line trigger a response, the purpose of trapping his characters was to extricate them — ingeniously." Sturges the escape artist performed his tricks brilliantly in script after script, dancing his characters near the impossible precipice, as in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). The Lady Eve (1941), now on DVD via The Criterion Collection, is another feat of prestidigitation.

The Lady Eve 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 is 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?

*          *          *

The Lady Eve, with its temptress heroine (she starts out by dropping an apple on Pike's head), is the very definition of screwball, i.e., romantic comedies set in an upper class milieu with a strong measure of slapstick. It's very similar to Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby. And in a way, just as Hawks' Rio Bravo is a response to High Noon (and just as Sturges's Sullivan's Travels can be seen as a response to the social protest movies Mervyn LeRoy directed for Warner), The Lady Eve can be seen as a critique of Hawks' comedy (Hawks and Sturges were acquainted, and in the '50s, Hawks asked Sturges to write a script for him for a flat fee, a deal which Sturges turned down). The films have similar characters. Bringing Up Baby concerns a repressed, befuddled scientist (Cary Grant) who is bedazzled by an obstreperous woman (Katherine Hepburn). What might have irritated Sturges about Hawks' film is that the Hepburn character seems to come out of nowhere, a force of nature without a background or motivation. In The Lady Eve, Sturges is very careful to provide a suggested past and a present for his heroine Jean. The Lady Eve shares with Baby an inept hero, but that narrative tool was more consistent with Sturges's other movies, which offer an ongoing critique of American male values and character.

The Lady Eve, then, is Bringing Up Baby with motivation. It's all very light and funny, but after a concentrated viewing, the spectator is likely to ask, "What just happened?" For there is a mystery at the heart of the story. As with many movies of the period, something major goes unstated. Why is Jean so mad at Pike? That question forms the basis for the rather serious undercurrent of this highball comedy. Jean wants at first to steal from Pike. But does he lift something from her instead? As Jessie Royce Landis asks Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, "Just what exactly did he steal from you, my dear?" As this disc's audio commentary track suggests, possibly the same thing: her virginity. Jean is a person who has been in the racket so long, and in the company of her father and his (possibly gay lover) companion Gerald, that she has never given herself to anyone — and how can she, when, as Harry says, "A mug is a mug in everything." What the innocent dupe Pike did was somehow slip through her defenses. Thus invaded, she is enraged when he withdraws, even though (objectively speaking) he has some justification. Her revenge is an overreaction because the real cause of her ire is never stated.

There is another mystery in the film — how Pike (and to a certain degree, his assistant Mugsy) can fail to positively identify the Lady Eve as Jean. There is some contrived dialogue attempting to explain this puzzlement, but there really is no solution or plausibility to it. Yet one theoretical explanation suggests that, seduced by Pike, the virginal if street-savvy Jean is transformed, with all the surface-changing radiance and knowledge that losing one's virginity entails. She is no longer a girl — she is a woman.

*          *          *

Once again, as with Sullivan's Travels, Criterion offers an excellent Preston Sturges DVD with numerous helpful extras and a good transfer of the black-and-white full-frame film (1.33:1). Accompanying literature indicates that it's a new digital transfer created from a 35mm duplicate negative and 35mm sweetened magnetic track. Occasional graininess and flickering is visible, and the odd speck, but not annoyingly so. The single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL) also features Dolby Digital 1.0 audio and English subtitles.

Supplements are extensive, and actually support the film, unlike some of the material on the Sullivan's Travels disc, such as its erratic commentary track. Leading off is a commentary by Marian Keane, an academic who has co-authored a book about Stanley Cavell, a philosopher who has written extensively on screwball comedies. Keane is infectiously enthusiastic about The Lady Eve, praising Stanwyck's "guileless guile" in an early scene, and explores the film's undercurrents and thematic concerns without jargon.

Also on hand is a so-called "video introduction" by Peter Bogdanovich. The director has become something of an official emissary from Hollywood to the world of DVDs, possibly because he also occupies the position of "critic" in another lifetime and dines out on his acquaintance with such figures as Welles and Hawks. His eight-minute "introduction" 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 (which show that Sturges had a fondness for wearing funny hats), 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. More a Cary Grant than a Joel McCrea, Milland might have made a better choice for the film than Fonda, good as he is. 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.

The Lady Eve is rightly esteemed as one of the screen's best comedies. The Criterion Collection's DVD provides an opportunity to ponder its fascinating narrative cruxes and sexual subtexts as well.

— D. K. Holm

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