Saturday, November 19, 2011

Positively The Same Dame

It was late. I’m not sure how late it was by that point. Hell, even when she called it was already ridiculously late and, sure, I didn’t need to pick up the phone but I just wanted to. Maybe I was a little drunk. So we launched into another one of our endless talks. And then suddenly out of nowhere she asked me who my favorite screwball actress was. Somehow the conversation had gotten to this point and I wasn’t even sure how. I’m still not sure how but there probably is no reason that would make any sense. Jean Arthur and Claudette Colbert were surely mentioned by both of us and I’m positive that I brought up Carole Lombard who I sort of worship because of TO BE OR NOT TO BE but to be honest the first one that came to mind for me was, of course, Barbara Stanwyck. And mainly because of one particular movie. Now, I love Barbara Stanwyck, for all sorts of reasons. Watching as she climbs the social ladder in BABY FACE, how mind-bogglingly sexy she is with that Drum Boogie Killer Diller in BALL OF FIRE, the hauntingly beautiful Christmas-set REMEMBER THE NIGHT, the neat late period noir CRIME OF PASSION and of course DOUBLE INDEMNITY which is just about the most perfect film ever made. But maybe when put up against all of these Preston Sturges’ THE LADY EVE seems just about right. Oddly, it’s a case of a film that I absolutely love but for no particular reason I haven’t actually seen it that many times, not as much as a few others by Sturges and certainly nothing compared to the countless films I’ve watched on an eternal loop over the years. Maybe it’s just such a jewel that I don’t need to overexpose myself to it, that it’s all right to simply remember the special feeling it gives me that few others do, making me think for a few minutes that everything might be right in the world. I think it’s possible that if somebody asked me to recommend a classic film they had never seen I might make it THE LADY EVE. But I’ll go even further than that—if I was told that I was going to die in a few hours and there was time for just one more film I think my choice might be THE LADY EVE. What else would allow me to depart this world with such a feeling of joy and happiness?

The first time I ever saw the film was all by myself way back in college somewhere in the school’s AV facility, with maybe little knowledge of who Preston Sturges was beyond the name ‘Preston Sturges’. By ten minutes in I was totally in love. In love with this film, with this plotting, with this dialogue, in love with all that black & white, with the way Henry Fonda had no idea how to respond to Barbara Stanwyck as “Isn’t It Romantic” drifts through the background, in love with Barbara Stanwyck. From then on there was no turning back from seeing every film of his I could, learning about Preston Sturges’ life and films, all the other names reading about him would lead to. The timing was also particularly fortunate that it led me to attend some of a truly awe-inspiring complete Sturges retrospective held at the Film Forum in New York the following year, the sort that I imagine wouldn’t be possible to do today (if only I could find the schedule online, but we are talking about 1990 here, after all). Was there any way to possibly explain all this to the particular woman I was talking to on the phone at three in the morning? Probably not. When it comes to the lady eves who I’ve known in the real world rarely do I ever have the sparkle of all that Sturges dialogue on the tip of my tongue and they all seem to vanish way too often. That’s just the way it goes.

Snake expert Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), heir to the Pike’s Pale (“The Ale That Won for Yale”) family fortune is returning via cruise ship from a year up the Amazon. Sitting in his chair at dinner with his nose buried in the book “Are Snakes Necessary?”, Charles ignores all the women who are trying to get his attention but little does he know that con artist and card shark Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), traveling with her father the Colonel (Charles Coburn), already has her eye on Charles and wastes no time getting him to fall for her. But it doesn’t take long for Jean to fall for Charles as well, insisting to her companions that they’re not going to play him for a sucker. Their romance progresses and she decides to come clean but before she can Charles’ trusty and overly suspicious valet Muggsy (William Demearest) learns the truth about the Harringtons. Her cover blown, Pike heartbroken, when they’re back on the mainland Jean who “needs him like the axe needs the turkey” comes up with a plan to get back at him the only way she knows how involving a new identity known as The Lady Eve.

It’s easy to dream when you watch these movies. Easy to imagine being on the Paramount version of a luxury liner circa 1941 with the most wonderful food and drink at your disposal imaginable (if you don’t count running out of Pike’s Pale, The Ale That Won For Yale), “accidentally” tripped by the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and sent into a whirlwind romance. The movie seems to say that spending eternity in the sort of Eden that this luxury liner represents doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, a few snakes and con artists notwithstanding and it seems telling that when the story moves back to the real world the relationship between the two is never allowed to be as genuine as the falsehoods on the ship. I watch Henry Fonda’s Charles “Hopsie” Pike stammering during his early scenes with Stanwyck’s Jean, practically the first woman he’s spoken to in a year and I think, yeah, that’s me every time I talk to a girl. But I’m never as smooth as Fonda is. Hell, even his clumsiness has an undeniable elegance to it. What is it about THE LADY EVE? I mean, besides Stanwyck and Fonda. There’s the forever quotable Sturges dialogue, moving at such a fast pace commonly associated with the writer-director but there’s also the elegance of how it all flows, the back and forth quality that comes from placing a man and woman in the middle of the ocean away from the rest of the world in some odd combination of being exactly who they are and someone else entirely. Can I ever try working “Beeswax, my boy, beeswax” as Charles Coburn casually says at one point into conversation? How about if I offer a toast with “Dewey and Manila”?

“You have the darndest way of bumping a fella down and bouncing him up again.” Pike says that during one of his initial scenes with Jean, continually flustered by this woman throwing herself at him, a male lead completely obsessed with his snakes, not quite up on the lingo that everyone else in the world seems to know. He finds himself in this shell game of men and women, one of several male leads in Sturges who finds himself a few steps behind the girl in question without realizing the race has already started. In this case he only has the upper hand when it involves the truth. The woman has the upper hand with everything else which ultimately means considerably more. Of course, Sturges himself could have been writing from experience but I can’t say that I blame him. Likewise, Jean is given the key thought about women in this world offering, “The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad”. Neither person seems to fully hear these thoughts when they’re stated and in the world of Sturges people are sometimes on the same wavelength even when they don’t realize it. Sometimes when it’s just the two of you talking you’re the only ones who need to get what’s being said. And sometimes there’s no way to make that happen. “He doesn’t understand,” Charles says of a waiter with the misfortune to interrupt a conversation between him and Jean but of course Charles doesn’t get it either. I guess the film is saying that you never really do until you find yourself on a furious train ride that won’t stop until you end up in mud. In the end he seems to find himself willing to believe in the lie which, in a crazy Sturges kind of way, is where the real truth is.

For Preston Sturges THE LADY EVE came third out of eight in the legendary streak of films he both wrote and directed for Paramount in the early forties. THE GREAT McGINTY and CHRISTMAS IN JULY came first and both are very good—hell, McGINTY gave him his Oscar—but THE LADY EVE is the one where things really begin to click, leading into the likes of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and THE PALM BEACH STORY. It’s where an exquisitely put together arrangement becomes a glorious sonata with more highs than one can count from the dialogue to the interplay between the characters to just the way every single moment is paced with even the smallest parts of the Sturges ensemble given a chance to toss some of the wordplay into their scenes. To this day I watch the two leads when they’re alone in her cabin near the beginning and I’m shot right back to the feeling I had way back then and I wonder, has there ever been a better seduction scene? It’s not even a real seduction, of course, but this is a movie about an illusion after all. THE LADY EVE is just as much of an illusion which is fitting. The plotting. The mood. The actors. The Dialogue. The cutaway to a sign that says “PULL IN YOUR HEAD WE’RE COMING TO A TUNNEL” at a crucial point. How much it still makes me laugh, no matter what my mood. That silvery look I associate with Paramount films from this period courtesy of Director of Photography Victor Milner along with Sturges’ growing awareness of how to use his camera to show the actors in the frame through long takes and that dead-on dissolve into the close-up of Fonda when he learns a certain piece of news. The uplift of the final moments, leading to the closing line from William Demarest. I guess what I’m trying to say in a nutshell, when it comes to this film, what makes it so special is…everything. And now that I’ve been writing about it I find myself wondering what I really have to say about THE LADY EVE beyond the exquisite jewel that it truly is.

As much as the beloved Sturges stock company is always focused on when his films are written about it strikes me that on this occasion, maybe more than any of the others, they never overshadow the two leads who are playing parts they couldn’t be more ideal for, displaying exquisite chemistry all the way through. Henry Fonda with his balance of someone most comfortable with his nose in that book and casual charm whenever he’s able to get over being stunned by this beauty, Barbara Stanwyck with all the vivacity imaginable that always makes you wonder what she’s going to say next. Placed up against them the ensemble of familiar faces is impeccable all the way through…but this may be one Sturges film where I’m perfectly happy to just stay with the two leads and not interrupt them with all those characters actors fighting in crowd scenes to make their way into the frame. Aside from wonderful roles particularly for Demarest, Eugene Pallette as Pike’s father and Eric Blore as “Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith” one regular who stands out is familiar face Torben Meyer as the ship’s purser who in just two small scenes gets several unexpected laughs through nice interplay with Demarest and is also allowed a moment where he expresses genuine concern for what is really going on. Dialogue. Character. Elegance. It all goes together and makes the movie sing.

As I wonder about a few of the different wavelengths we were on during our various late-night phone calls, hashing out our own feelings about various films, me often feeling like I wasn’t smart enough to keep up with her, I just think that it would have been nice if I could have said some of this to that particular woman late that night. I’d tell her some of it now if I could but, well, that’s the way it goes. I’m still a little amazed that I knew her at all. Sometimes I wonder if knowing her has been entirely in my mind. Maybe I think that about every woman I know, about all the lady eves that have stuck their foot out and sent me crashing to the ground in one way or another. Some of them are even oddly connected in a way that would sound like out of a bad nighttime soap. But that’s the way it goes. Positively the same dame, says Muggsy with no one around to hear. Story of my life.


Beveridge D. Spenser said...

While I usually consider Bringing Up Baby to be the greatest film ever made, some years I choose The Lady Eve. And hardly a day goes by where I don't pound my fists on the table and shout "Where's my breakfast?" like Eugene Pallette.

I never really like Henry Fonda much - he's such a stiff. Maybe that's why I enjoy seeing him tortured here. But isn't Stanwyck something? With that big nose and funny face, she can be the most elegant creature in the world.

But I'm just babbling, worse Thant Hopsy going on about some snakes in they Amazon. Why, I should be kept is cage...

Unknown said...

Stanwyck is really really good in this. I just recently watched this film (Criterion's excellent disc) and was reminded by just how well-written a lot of films were back then. The dialogue just snaps and crackles with wit and intensity. Amazing.

As much as I like Stanwyck in this film, I still prefer her in MEET JOHN DOE. Man, she is so good in that one as well. But really, let's face it, it depends on the day and the mood I'm in. I love so many of her films. FORTY GUNS while I'm at it... The list goes on.

Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of Sturgess, the genre and of Stanwyck. On the general topic of screwball comedies, and Carole Lombard in particular, "Twentieth Century" and "Nothing Scared", "My Man Godfrey".... and I always loved "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" with Lombard and Robert Montgomery who is off-beat funny. Hitchcock of all people, directed.

Of the Sturgess films, I actually like "Easy Living" best, which he only wrote (Mitchel Liesen dircted). Sturgess was reportedly unhappy with it, but I wasn't. Jean Arthur, Ray Milland and a lot of Sturgess's trademark banter and frenetic physical comedy.

There's always something I haven't loved about "The Lady Eve" and it may be that Fonda's character is so pompous that he's unworthy of Stanwyck, no matter how rich he was. But that is part of the fun, I guess, is how Eve's emotions overtake her motives.