Thursday, February 26, 2015

Lady Eve, The (1941)

Director: Preston Sturges


Henry Fonda had toiled for many years to earn the respect of being one of Hollywood’s finest dramatic actors, but here writer/director Preston Sturges places Fonda in a romantic comedy where his performance as the straight character combines well with comedic playfulness of his co-star Barbara Stanwyck. A film that can be a little out-of-left-field at first is a movie that grows on you after you finishing watching it and one you can grow even fonder of with each following viewing. It would prove to be one of Fonda’s lighter and finest performances, as well as being one of the most treasured romantic comedies of all time, adored by American audiences for generations.

The Lady Eve is a romantic comedy about a female con artist that falls in love with the wealthy young man she was out to swindle. The young, attractive con artist Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwych) zeros in on swindling the wealthy and absent minded Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), an heir to a brewery fortune who is more interested in snakes than women. While Jean sets Charles up to lose a great deal of money to her father and partner in crime (played by Charles Colburn) by leading Charles on, she too begins to fall in love with him. Jean calls of the grifting plan as the two become engaged to wed, but when Charles learns of her true self he calls of their wedding and leaves brokenhearted.

Jean, romantically despaired, concocts a new persona of “Lady Eve Sidwich,” an English lady personality she personifies with which she tricks Charles to fall in love with and marry only to break his heart by sharing vast stories of her wide amount of past lovers. Charles is more shaken by the actions of Lady Eve so much so that he sets out on a cruise to clear his mind where Jean once again runs into Charles, but this time as herself. As planned by Jean, Charles is happy and relieved to see her as he comes to know that he in fact loves her. They end by running off to her room to… express their love for each other.

The picture is highly creative, filled with some devilish wit, ingenious wordplay, and superlative performances by the two stars, wrapped in a screwball romantic comedy. We see Henry Fonda playing the most oblivious straight man opposite of a leading lady who changes her life from that of a con artist into a romantic. It is filled with humor as well as an underlined sex appeal all accentuated by creative writing for audiences to discover.

Long time screenwriter Preston Sturges was in period where he was becoming a director of his own scripts with the jumpstart help of his Academy Award winning script in 1940’s The Great McGinty which marked his directorial debut. Here Sturges adapted a short story by Monckton Hoffe for Paramount Pictures to produce, but a lengthy argument between writer and studio caused a lengthy stall in the getting the story to the screen. This might have proved to be a good thing as in the end Sturges would win out by getting the script his way, plus the chance to direct the feature, as well as allowing us to see the casting we eventually received in the film film.

Featuring Henry Fonda, coming off a successful year in Hollywood that saw him nominated for his work in the drama The Grapes of Wrath, and the versatile actress Barbara Stanwyck, The Lady Eve receive two very fine performances in a couple of complicated roles. Together they play well the conning, intelligent con of a woman and the naïve man from old money that is ripe for her to deceive him out of his fortune. Their interactions are amusing and, especially with the acting of Stanwyck, exciting as the two indicate the idea of lust and desire in each other in scenes that are brilliantly written into the script in a way that would pass through the Hays Code. It is difficult to think of any other actors of the period in these particular roles that would give these types of performances.

What allows this story to be as charming as is it is would be the aid of a series of character actors. Stanwyck’s character of Jean is made believable as a con artist with the help of Charles Coburn, who plays her grifting father, Melville Cooper, as their fellow partner, and Eric Blore as an English friend that aids in creating the “Lady Eve” character. To contrast Fonda’s doltish character, Charles, is his gruff, over-protective bodyguard played by William Demarest, who suspects everyone and trusts know one. They make wonderful opposites. These characters and their actors are essential to the overall story and works of Stanwyck and Fonda. Each one is memorable in their own rights and further the story perfectly when needed.

"...funniest and sexiest scene..." -Roger Ebert
What makes this picture so interesting it how it grows on you as you watch it. Fonda is not known for being in comedies, especially screwball comedies of this nature. Stanwyck is a deceiving woman in the film and someone you start off not liking, even though you are entertained by her. As the feature moves along there are moments these two truly shine as actors and other times where they make you burst out laughing. Critic Roger Ebert even credits one scene where Stanwyck is holding Fonda’s head to hers as they talk in one long three minute shot as one of the funniest and sexiest moments in film history. That is a three minute shot where they do not move, but only talk; putting everything of the verbal delivery and facial features of the actors. It is really amazing how true Ebert’s comments are with here. When you finish the picture you may be little torn if you just like the film or love it, but with thinking back of the overall movie certain moments coming rolling back in your mind and you begin to realize just how brilliant to picture really was. It grows on you is an enormous way.

"The Lady Eve dress"
In the same way The Lady Eve grew in favor with movie critics. In 1941 the film was only nominated for one Academy Award and that was for Monckton Hoffe and Best Story. As time passed the film would be honored in various ways. In 1994 it was named to the National Film Registry. In 2000 it was named to the top 100 comedies of all time according to the American Film Institute who in turn named it to their 2002 list of top love stories.

The Lady Eve in the 1940s began a fashion trend that effected many. Famed movie costume designer Edith Head was known for introducing various ideas of fashion within the productions she had worked on. Here in the wedding sequence she dressed Barbara Stanwyck in a silken wedding gown that would begin a trend led many brides to ask wedding gown designers to make them their own “Lady Eve dress.” It would be a fashion craze at weddings for several years.

Contemporary audiences view the feature as one of the finer performances of Henry Fonda’s career and continue to enjoy the picture for its vastly entertaining story. The Lady Eve also provides a glimpse into a time where Americans were shut off from Europe as Jean as her Lady Eve character creates a story of how she arrived to the United States by submarine, because at the time ocean liners were not making trips across the Atlantic due to the war overseas. In any case the film is a fine piece of American cinema that continues to be treasured as an all-time favorite romantic comedy.

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