Monday, April 12, 2010

Film #22: The Lady Eve (1941)

Director: Preston Sturges

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about a year ago)

20-Words-or-Fewer Plot Summary (no spoilers):

Wealthy ale heir is conned by lovely young grifter, who falls in love with him.

The Full Story (a complete summary, spoilers and all. Fair warning):

Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) a young ophiologist (that's snake scientist to we lay people) and heir to the vast fortunes of the Pike Ale company boards a cruise ship returning to the U.S. after a year-long research expedition in the Amazon. He is spotted and marked by Jean Harrington (Barbra Stanwyck) and her father, a pair of slick con artists. The savvy Jean uses her cunning and wiles to seduce Pike with the intention of suckering him out of some serious dough. In the process, however, she falls in love with him. She promises her father and herself to give up grifting and marry Charles, but before she can do so, Pike discovers their identities, dumps Jean and crushes her earnest desire to be with him.

The slick Harringtons on the left, with the mark, Pike, on the right.

Some months later, Jean, still seething from the rejection, sees a chance to get even with Pike. She poses as a young English aristocrat, Lady Eve Sidwich, and turns up at the Pike family mansion, once again conning Pike into believing that she's a different, though still infinitely charming, woman. Pike falls for her again and marries her. On the wedding night, just before the consummation, Jean tortures Pike with fictional tales of a wildly loose past with countless men. This time, it's Charles' turn to be crushed. He stops the train, mid-trip, and jumps off, swearing to never see his bride again.

Only after achieving her harsh revenge does Jean realize that she still loves Charles, and she seeks to make amends, still under the auspices of her assumed identity as Lady Eve. She is severely rebuffed by a still-disconsolate Charles, who then leaves for a new research journey into the jungles. On the ship, however, Jean tracks him down again, this time as herself. Charles sees her and, without realizing her past ruse as Lady Eve, instantly falls in love with her again. All is apparently forgiven and they fall into each other's arms.

Eve has truly captured her Adam, the one for whom she was made.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after 1 viewing, before any research):

When I first watched this film a year ago, my lingering impression was of a decent, though not great, film. Upon this second viewing, I was conflicted for the first half. For 45 minutes, the film is so damn good that I almost wondered why I came away with such a lukewarm impression the first time. The characters are fantastic, Fonda and Stanwyck are absolutely perfect in their roles, the intrigue of the con game is totally engaging, and the script is razor sharp. Stanwyck renews my opinion that she may have been the sexiest woman in American film, which is only augmented by Fonda's stern, semi-naive portrayal of the bookish Pike. Everything that unfolds in the first episode of the film is flawless.

In this scene, Stanwyck does nothing more than run her fingers through Fonda's hair and whisper to him. She was so sensual, though, that this is one of the most alluring scenes I've ever seen in film.

Then, the second half.

After Pike leaves Jean emotionally high and dry, things got really tedious really quickly, and I can sum up every problem with one hyphenated word: Screw-fucking-ball.

Once the action goes to the Pike mansion, it all got to be way too much like the corniest bits of The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story, and their ilk. Virtually gone is the sophisticated plot and thoughtful dialogue, only to be replaced by a torrent of sophomoric sight gags. Within about 15 minutes, you get to watch the high-brow (read that with oozing sarcasm, please) jokes of: a couch tripped over by Pike, curtains ripped down by Pike, a roast beef platter spilled on Pike, coffee spilled on Pike, Pike fall over in a train, and Pike slip in the mud. If it had been a Three Stooges film, I would have been into it. Based on the first half of The Lady Eve, though, I felt like I had been demoted from a trigonometry to a finger painting class.

On top of that, the ending is a touch implausible. After Pike has dumped "Lady Eve" and sees Jean on the second cruise ship, his instantly re-kindled love is a bit confounding. He had initially dumped her as a deceptive gold-digger, and there's really nothing that's changed from this standpoint. Yet he gives himself right back to her, giving us all a happy ending that seems almost slapped together.

While the latter half left me unsatisfied, I still have to say that the first half is so strong that I'm willing to forgive the lamer follow-up. In fact, I was even able to deal with the weaker portions due to the performances of Fonda and Stanwyck. I cannot express enough how much I like Barbra Stanwyck. Before starting this blog, I only knew her from Double Indemnity (soon to be reviewed as film #25), and grew to appreciate her far more in Baby Face (film #9). I'm willing to admit that there were probably more stunningly beautiful actresses of the day, but I'm yet to see one who had the natural wits, power, and smoky sensuality that she portrayed with seeming effortlessness.

Check out this symbolic still of when she's seducing Pike under the guide of "The Lady Eve", especially how close her mouth is to Pike's:
Along with this, Stanwyck constantly draws attention to her mouth, whether it be with her words or movements. There's a scene on the ship deck in which she uses a rose to gently and playfully caress her own lips. It's entracing.

Fonda is a slightly different story. I've seen a handful of his better-known movies and I think he's great, though limited. Whether he was playing the quiet hero Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath or the cold-blooded murderer Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West, he had the strength one would ascribe to a gnarled oak tree. It's rigid and tough as hell, but in the end it's wooden. His character in The Lady Eve doesn't dispel this image that I have of him, but it's perfectly acceptable for the character. Charles Pike is meant to be a stiff bookworm who's uncomfortable around women, and Fonda was the perfect man to play him. The juxtaposition of Pike and Harrington was amazingly effective.

This is a film that, for me, represents a movie-watching experience that all movie-watchers experience at some point - the disappointment of a great extended first act followed by inferior second and third acts. I'd gladly re-watch the first half , but couldn't make any promises about sitting through the rest.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research):

No fantastic shocks in doing the research. Of note is that the original TIME magazine review, obviously impressed, indicates that neither critics nor fans were yet tired of the slapstick gags littering screwball films. I guess I just have to suppose that, had I been born in 1920, I would be far less bored by these elements.

One thing that I'm almost ashamed to have overlooked was the figurative nature of all of the physical humor. All of the the spills that Fonda takes throughout the story are meant to represent the mythical "fall" of Adam. This may add a certain amount of depth to the fumbling, but it doesn't make it any less tiresome to me.

Also of note is that director Preston Sturgess is a major footnote in film history. Most casual fans of classic films know at least a few old directors: D.W. Griffith, John Ford, and so on. Sturgess, though, is far less known, in the grand scheme. This apparently is because he was something of a comet - he banged out 9 extremely successful films within four years, most notably The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels. Nearly all of these screwball tales were darlings of moviegoers and critics alike, a feat that not many directors accomplish. I can only assume that his relative lack of enduring fame is due to the screwball genre having faded so much once films evolved in certain ways.

That's a wrap. 22 shows down. 83 to go.

Coming Soon: Citizen Kane (1941):

This is it! The one that many argue is the greatest American film of all time, and the film that kicks off what may very well be the best 1-2-3 sequence of the list: Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Double Indemnity. Damn. On top of this, I absolutely love this movie and am greatly looking forward to watching it again, with my critic's hat on. Y'all come back now, y'hear?

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.