Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Short Take: The Lady Eve

In The Lady Eve, writer-director Preston Sturges' wonderful 1941 romantic comedy, Henry Fonda falls for Barbara Stanwyck, and falls, and falls, and falls again. Fonda plays the shy, naïve heir to a brewery fortune. While traveling by ship to New York, he is targeted by Stanwyck's character, a cardsharp and con-artist working with her father (Charles Coburn). She effortlessly hooks and reels him in. She falls in love, too, and repeatedly thwarts her father's efforts to fleece him. But he discovers the truth about her and her father before the voyage ends, and breaks things off. Determined to get revenge, she gains entry into his family's high-society community by posing as a young British noblewoman, and again captures his heart. Sturges delivers one terrific comic set piece after another, and he's as deft at verbal humor as he is with slapstick. The two stars have never been funnier, whether it's with Fonda's pratfalls or Stanwyck's delight in her character's cynicism. But as hilarious as the picture is, the romance has weight. The best scene is when Stanwyck's character, resting her head against Fonda's, runs her fingers through his hair and beguiles him with romantic talk, all the while falling in love despite herself. One also feels the characters' pain when circumstances drive them apart. The film is one of the high points of Hollywood's Golden Age. Sturges features some delightful light humor in the picture's incidentals. The faux upper-class manner of high-society servants in satirized, most notably in casting William Demarest as the Fonda character's valet. The character is the most brusque and declassé "gentleman's gentleman" one will ever see. Sturges also gets that shy young men substitute geeky pastimes for romance. The joke comes with the book Fonda's character reads at dinner. Its title, which relates to his character's scholarly fixations, is a play on E. B. White and James Thurber's 1930s bestseller Is Sex Necessary? And Sturges has an unmatched wit when it comes to thumbing his nose at the strictures of Hollywood's Production Code. One example is the scene where editing tricks allow Stanwyck's character to relate her British noblewoman's sordid romantic past. Another is the finale, when the picture nimbly gets around the prohibition against extramarital sex being rewarded. The cast includes Eugene Pallette as the Fonda character's uncouth father, and Eric Blore, who plays Stanwyck's high-society accomplice. The screenplay is based on the Monckton Hoffe story "Two Bad Hats."

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