The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

When Preston Sturges’ movies are mediocre, it is invariably because they seem so steeped in the world and time period in which they were made. The Lady Eve stands as a stark contrast to this problem; it is one of the liveliest, most modern films of the classic Hollywood period that isn’t directed by Ernst Lubitsch. It is smashing, smart, dazzling, wonderful, an absolutely undeniable treat. And what makes this especially miraculous is that Sturges is essentially at sea as a visual stylist; unlike the work of, for instance, Billy Wilder, Mel Brooks, and many others who’ve withstood this criticism, Sturges honestly is almost purely verbal. But he is also a staunch and gracious humanist, and it is this that lends his best work its timeless, inscrutable beauty.

As a result of his weaknesses as a director, it’s inevitable that one concentrates on the script here, and indeed, it is a stunning piece of work, a subtle, witty, poetic masterpiece of economy, irony, and completely adult wisdom. If I began quoting the best lines, we’d be here all week; let it simply be said that the dialogue, interplay, and characterization are balletic in their perfection.

Moreover, the story is quite unusual and can even make a claim to being thoroughly original, in part as a result of its bizarre structure, divided very distinctly into two halves, much like Sturges’ even more celebrated followup, Sullivan’s Travels. The tale of naive rich biologist Henry Fonda, nailing the role of a perpetual child (he is so young in this film, infinitely younger than in The Grapes of Wrath, made the preceding year, or in Young Mr. Lincoln a year before that), seduced by card shark Barbara Stanwyck, seems to be leading to a romantic crescendo when it crashes and burns and makes a completely unexpected 180-degree turnaround into scandal and deception. Anyone whose eyes aren’t glued on the screen unfailingly from that point to the end is too cynical to even bother with movies.

The film was a blockbuster in its day, but it feels shockingly ahead of its time. It does not have a feminist message (as was common for similarly ferocious comedies of the day, like His Girl Friday), but it is equally radical in the sense that it is nonchalantly feminist; the heroine is the strongest character in the picture, and when the ending comes around, she does not have to be “put in her place,” even in a satirical fashion the way Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder would do it. Stanwyck, an actress with just about the highest level of intelligence and verve seen in Tinseltown at the time, doesn’t seem to have to reach even half an inch to become Jean Harrington, delightfully narrating the other occupants in the ship’s dining room MST3K-style while observing them through her compact, or for that matter, the role Jean takes later on. Her performance is staggering, exhausting, flawless, by the standards of any era, but unprecedented for a film of 1941, a time when gender roles were even more precisely defined in films than they are now. Meanwhile, Henry Fonda, one of the best Hollywood actors of all, is nearly unrecognizable as the desexualized “gee golly” son of a wealthy ale brewer. Neither performance is ever obvious or silly, neither character is ever stereotypical. Sturges’ scenarios, people, and words don’t feel like real life, they feel like the way real life plays out in our heads after we’re finished with it for the day; but unlike the wisecracking fast-talkers populating the screwball comedies, these feel like people with inner lives, sexualities, histories, desires, and the actors sense this element in Sturges (even more visible, if anything, in his earlier Christmas in July), and fully embody it.

A movie that’s a model to follow in so many ways, particularly in its unerring eye toward the universal nature of the problems of all of its characters, even the minor ones, would almost have to make a misstep or two. Surprisingly, the problems (aside from the aforementioned aesthetic value, or lack thereof) are mostly technical fallacies in the script. Sturges misses one extra punchline: he doesn’t bring back the snake or its food for the third act. And his ending, honestly, is too abrupt. I can live with the quick fade at the conclusion, but I have trouble swallowing Fonda’s sudden acceptance of crooked Stanwyck after cursing her for months. All the same, Stanwyck’s last line and the way she delivers it almost overcompensate for any last-minute gaffes.

So much else is in the film that bears mentioning: the usual army of superb Sturges character players shines. The slapstick, confined mostly to the last half-hour, is sublime, a convenient reminder of how heavenly this style of comedy is in the hand of a master. (And where the fuck else are you ever going to see Henry Fonda, of all people, tripping over a couch!?) Sequences plundered by directors from Roberto Benigni to Woody Allen to Blake Edwards are still fresher here than they ever would be again, thanks to Sturges’ peerless writing and delivery. The Lady Eve is an innovator in other respects as well; it features a fully animated title sequence, one of the earliest examples of such a stunt being employed. And on top of the comedy, the pathos, the dialogue, the love of mankind (suffused with sly class commentary on rich folk banging their tables when they don’t get what they want, a very different but harmonious take on one of the central conflicts of Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, it is one of the few Hollywood features of the ’40s that is genuinely erotic. Stanwyck’s oral fondling of a rose, her leaning and unabashedly sexual moaning on Fonda’s shoulder (with exposed midriff, no less) — it’s all enough to make you forget about mise en scene and screenplay structure for a little while. Stanwyck is actually depicted as a more sexual being in this film than in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, probably her second-best performance, a perfect contrast with the impotence of Fonda’s character.

I don’t like to make grand statements like “you don’t like cinema if you don’t like this film,” but I would be willing to wager that every review I will ever write here will be useless to you if you are not warmed and/or exhilarated by The Lady Eve. All you can do as the credits roll is take a deep breath and prepare for the return to reality.

***

[Originally posted in 2007, with some minor edits and additions.]

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