Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Barbara Stanwyck No. 1: THE LADY EVE Tomorrow on TCM

Turner Classic Movies is celebrating Barbara Stanwyck this month, and tomorrow night you have a chance to catch two of her best and most charming movies.

The first one, beginning at 10:30 pm Central time, is The Lady Eve, a 1941 romantic comedy from director/screenwriter Preston Sturges. Sturges was one of the Big 7*, the group of directors who made film comedy of the 30s and 40s so fabulous, and he was a step ahead since he did his own scripts. A definite wordsmith, Sturges specialized in movies with a) crazy characters, b) an amazing ensemble of character actors, and c) madcap situations that could get a little risque. So Trudy Cockenlocker, the girl in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek who got hit on the head during a USO dance and doesn't remember who she slept with to create the bun in her oven, is par for the Sturges' course.

Barbara Stanwyck's Jean Harrington is a con woman traveling over the Atlantic on a posh ocean liner with her cardsharp dad, played by the irascible and adorable Charles Coburn, one of those character actors I was telling you about. When sweet, dopey and rich Charles Poncefort Pike, played by Henry Fonda, gets on board their ship, every girl there tries to attract his attention. He is, after all, the heir to a beer fortune, even though he's more interested in snakes than Pike's Pale Ale. But Jean is smarter than most, and she knows exactly how to tempt Hopsie, as she begins to call him. Soon after she's got him hooked, she begins to fall for him, too, even though he has a cynical bodyguard, played by William Demarest, best known as grumpy Uncle Charley on the TV show My Three Sons, who has her number, and dear old dad, the cardsharp, is just dying to take Hopsie for all he's worth. Dad pulls his games, he and Jean are revealed as well-known shipboard swindlers, and all is lost between Jean and Hopsie.

Ah, but that's when the plot takes a detour. Because Jean is really angry that Hopsie dumped her, she takes on a new identity as Lady Eve Sidwich, a classier, more cultivated sort of woman. And then she cozies up to the Pike family at home, intending to pull the wool over the poor, deluded guy's eyes once again for revenge. Even though Uncle Charley, er, Muggsy, the right-hand man, insists she's "the same dame," Hopsie falls for it, hook, line and sinker.

Two more of my favorite character actors show up during this part of the plot, with the sly Eric Blore as a fellow con man who helps "Eve" get close to the Pikes, including gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette as the Pale Ale patriarch.

Everybody is wonderful, especially Stanwyck, who positively sparkles as naughty Jean/Eve, and Fonda, who comes off quite attractive even though his Hopsie is also completely befuddled. That's not an easy combo! The two show great chemistry as they navigate their way through all kinds of fizzy and sizzling little moments, and Stanwyck sells Sturges' crazy story with cheeky conviction.

The Lady Eve is outrageous, unbelievable, and yet so good-natured about all of it, you are perfectly willing to leap over that threshold of disbelief and root for Hopsie to fall prey to Jean's schemes so the two of them can be together.

There's just something about The Lady Eve.

*The other six were Frank Capra, George Cukor, Howard Hawks, Mitchell Leisen, Ernst Lubitsch and Leo McCarey, according to a film class I took long ago. If you go find It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story, Holiday, tomorrow night's Ball of Fire, Bringing Up Baby, Midnight, Easy Living, Trouble in Paradise, The Awful Truth and Sullivan's Travels, you will have a very nice overview of the best film comedies of the 30s and 40s, and they were each directed by one of those seven guys.


  1. I actually never saw that list of 7 before. Very interesting, and it makes sense as a grouping -- they did seem to cover most of the classic comedies of the period. And (my father, a director, always said) let's not forget the writers, who made all the funny goings-on possible. Sturges wrote for other director before he got to direct his own work (some of the Leisen titles, for instance).

    "The Lady Eve" is marvelous, and it's also rather surprising and unusual when one first sees it. The way it breaks into two, for instance (just at the point where one starts to wonder what the title has to do with anything). And the way her "disguise" as Eve doesn't amount to anything: she looks exactly the same, and any difference in accent is barely perceptible. All part of the unique atmosphere.

  2. Leisen is definitely the one who stands out. But he was the director of record for Easy Living, even if Preston Sturges' script is really what makes it. Plus Midnight is lovely. We also saw one in class with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray where he was a "sand hog." Fred MacMurray's roles in the films of that period are such a surprise to anyone who grew up on My Three Sons and Flubber.

    As for The Lady Eve... I love that she is so in charge from the get-go and she's just so darn charming it seems like that's the way it should be. I don't like Rosalind Russell, and I think that's why. She lacks the charm to make her steamrollng work.

  3. Oh, I never meant to diminish the role of Leisen! He was a master director like the others on the list. In fact he's the one whose work I know best, as my father had (as a freebie from the Directors' Guild) a book about Leisen's life and work, based on oral history interviews with him and anybody they could find who worked with him. I hear that some historians rank him lower because he began as a designer (for De Mille in silents) and continued to design his leading ladies' wardrobe in some cases. But... everybody has to start somewhere, and he certainly had a distinctive directorial touch in his best work, like "Easy Living" and "Midnight." (He was also good with drama later on, and if his movies began to decline in the 1940s, like the dreadful adaptation of "Lady in the Dark," he was hardly the only one with that kind of career arc.)

    I just wanted to salute those who came up with the comedic situations and lines, too.

    The "sandhog" one is "No Time For Love" (1943). I was interested to see in its wikipedia entry that the poster heavily featured a bare-chested Fred MacMurray. (Did that become a "thing" in the wake of Clark Gable's famous uncovering, also vis-a-vis Colbert?) Colbert & MacMurray again starred for Leisen in 1944, as a young couple paired together in wartime by others, due to a wacky mixup. It's recorded in the book that Fred said to Claudette on the set, "The only problem with this picture is that you and I are too damned old for it." Her reaction is not recorded.

  4. I think it's more to do with the fact that he didn't have an It Happened One Night or Philadelphia Story or Awful Truth or Sullivan's Travels. Easy Living seems much more like a Preston Sturges movie than a Mitchell Leisen movie. Although I suppose Death Takes a Holiday could've pushed him farther.

  5. Remember the Night, another one that Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay for and Leisen directed, with Fred and Babs as a prosecutor and a shoplifter at Christmastime, is on tonight, too. I haven't seen that one, so I guess I'd better fill in this blank on my resume!

  6. Oh, I remember that one from the book. He doesn't want she should rot in the clink over Christmas, so he gets her sprung for a week and takes her home to Ma with him, or something like that. And.... really? I suppose I should fill in the blank too.

    The dramas I was thinking of for Leisen came later: "Hold Back the Dawn" (1961, Charles Boyer, Olivia DeHavilland, Paulette Goddard) about hopeful immigrants held up indefinitely at the Mexican border. And especially that classic weepie "To Each His Own" (1946), which won Olivia DeH her Oscar, as the unwed mom who, years later, runs into her very own son.

    But yes, there's "Death Takes a Holiday" early on, which I see made it onto DVD. And there's much talk about "Swing High, Swing Low," which casts Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard as musicians whose romance/marriage is doomed because he drinks, or can't hold a job, or something, and apparently the fadeout is pretty ambiguous, like... maybe he'll make it back to health, maybe not. It's made it onto DVD, but from all reports it's so miserably transferred as to be almost unwatchable.