We kick off The July Five 2015 with five days devoted to director Preston Sturges. Sturges is a director with deft comedic timing, a flair for dialogue and banter, and an adroit mix of social commentary and narrative. It is this latter element that can turn off audiences looking for more straightforward comedy or snazzy one-liners (a la Ernst Lubitsch). Starting off with The Lady Eve will probably prove my point, and make me a lot of enemies. Often considered one of Sturges’ most iconic works, The Lady Eve tells a sophisticated story about the legitimacy of aristocracy, the various ways we desire being fooled, as well as the double standards of romantic “ideals.”
Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father Harry (Charles Coburn) are card sharps traveling on a cruise from South America. Their eye is on ale scion/snake expert Charles (Henry Fonda). Charles and Jean quickly fall in love, but when Charles finds out Jean’s game, she’ll have to change her tactics to get revenge.
Now, it might be unfair of me to review this film considering Stanwyck’s getting her own July Five tribute in a few weeks, but can you ever have enough Babs Stanwyck in your life? Sturges wrote The Lady Eve during a trip to Reno (the old “going to Reno” to get a divorce routine) with Barbara Stanwyck in mind and she inhabits Jean Harrington like a second skin. A master of saucy dialogue, Sturges writes some incredible lines that Stanwyck infuses with enough sexiness to leave Henry Fonda in a puddle – “see anything you like?” I haven’t watched sexual chemistry this erotic since Sturges’ Palm Beach Story (1942). Sturges gets actors who can convey sexuality through light, nigh imperceptible touches, and when Jean takes Charles back to her stateroom, all it takes is a flip of her leg and a canoodle to leave the audience, and Charles, in a lather. (Speaking of gams, sorry Betty Grable, but I’m going with Stanwyck here, especially in those Edith Head gowns.)
Like a few other Sturges vehicles, the director enjoys placing women in some semblance of control, but that’s brought to the nth degree here. Charles is a naive young man, more content spending time with snakes than women. During the ship’s dinnertime he’s caught reading “Are Snakes Necessary,” a sly wink at the book “Is Sex Necessary” by James Thurber and E.B. White. Stanwyck plays on his suppressed amorousness, placing Charles in isolated moments where anything can happen. It’s not surprising, at all, that Charles would fall for Jean’s charms. Keep in mind, there’s a reason a snake presenting an apple plays during the opening credits. Jean as Eve represents original sin and the fall of man, literally embodied in Charles’ continued sequence of slips and faceplants throughout.
The first con, introducing Jean and Charles and presenting their burgeoning romance, explores the facets of romantic ideals. Jean wants a man “to take me by surprise.” “Like a burglar,” Charles replies. This is a coy scene, emphasizing women’s desire for a man who, were he to use the tactics Jean places a romantic metaphor upon, would be deemed unsavory. During the second con, when Charles meets Jean again, this time under the guise of Lady Eve Sidwich, she is the aristocratic princess who pleases his father, has a melodramatic history – courtesy of her fake “uncle” – forcing Charles to protect her to prevent scandal, and thus make him the hero. By the end, both characters shirk their respective ideals in order to realize true happiness with each other.
There’s also poking at the role of inherited wealth and social status. Produced knee-deep during WWII, Sturges pokes fun at how unreliable, and, ultimately, unnecessary aristocracy is. With the right person vouching for her, Jean easily gains entry into Charles’ world, even fooling Charles with a prince and the pauper storyline explaining how Jean is just a woman who looks like Eve. Charles’ naivety plays into the wealthy screwball mentality of those with money being a bit dim, and it’s evident neither Charles nor his father wishes to lose face in front of their potential new connection. In fact, there’s a reason Charles Coburn’s Colonel declares him and Jean are “crooked, but never common.” They have a code of ethics that, like the aristocracy themselves, is acceptable, elevating their social status and putting them on equal footing with the hoi polloi. Jean knows she doesn’t have to do much to sell her story, because she has the right looks and connections, and Stanwyck varies her performance just enough that it almost feels like she’s created a new character. In fact, there’s a continuous game of one-upsmanship throughout the movie, whether it’s Jean transition from crime to legitimacy, from Jean to Eve, or Charles being Jean’s dupe to duping her through his rejection, leaving the audience on their toes.
It’s obvious that Stanwyck and Fonda are the high points, but I adored Charles Coburn as Jean’s father. There are far too few scenes between him and his movie daughter. A simple moment of Coburn counting cards on Jean’s bed showcases their tender relationship. Eugene Pallette is also hilarious as the temperamental Mr. Pike. His breakfast table temper tantrum is delightful, and there’s a brief snippet of him singing “Three Jolly Coachmen,” the same song Cecil Kellaway sings in I Married a Witch (1942), produced, though uncredited, by Sturges!
I mentioned making some enemies with this film and that’s because, for all the great inspiration The Lady Eve gave me, I wasn’t bound up in the comedy or romance. I took note of Sturges’ social commentary which was more powerful than the actors acting it out. Fonda and Stanwyck were great working with Sturges’ dialogue and the themes within, but this is a movie that seems more in service of the subsequent criticism written about it. In a manner of speaking, this isn’t something I’d find myself immediately popping into my DVD player on a whim. Critically, it is a solid film with phenomenal performances that’ll leave you thinking amongst the slapstick. It’s certainly a film I’d recommend, but it’s far from one of my favorites like I’d anticipated.
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