Director: Preston Sturges
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, and Eugene Pallette
Rated: Not Rated
Runtime: 94 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
When compared to the work of the genre’s most celebrated practitioner, Preston Sturges, it becomes tragically clear that today’s average romantic comedy has lost something crucial: The ability to innovate within convention. At this point, Hollywood has all but run out of new stories about a guy and a girl falling in love; but the tradition of mechanical, by-the-numbers romantic comedies has existed almost as long as the genre itself. Story originality is not the concern. The approach to the material, the technique in which the story is told, from the flourishes in the dialogue used to the nature of the characters, remains the ever-maltreated element in modern romantic comedies, and the deficient source of their rapidly dwindling appeal.
Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve was released by Paramount Pictures in 1941. The film serves as a grand lesson to any filmmaker posed with the question of how to approach a romantic comedy and the inherent clichés. The film’s plot is dripping with them, and in fact the characters are clichés themselves. But Sturges commands these clichés with such confidence that he helped redefine what made them formulas to begin with. Sturges was a relatively fresh face on the Hollywood scene, graduating from accomplished writer to celebrated director virtually overnight. The previous year, he made his directing debut with The Great McGinty and followed it three months later with Christmas in July, both successes. The greater part of his films prior and subsequent catered to the needs of both the studios and general audiences, but Sturges catered with a particular insight and ingenuity that survives as his signature.
For Sturges, an independent auteur who maintained considerable creative control while working within the established guidelines of a major studio, his greatest pleasure was exaggerating the clichés to emphasize their absurdity. To this end, he provided moviegoers with a considerable but true laugh, what he considered the greatest release of tension films could offer, and the most important of all cinematic escapes. His project after The Lady Eve, entitled Sullivan’s Travels, embodied this theme in its narrative, being about a serious-minded social filmmaker who comes to realize that comedies help people more than message films. As Sturges’ most singular comedy, The Lady Eve provided audiences with the crucial, easy laugh sought by the writer-director. Its success also made Sturges the highest paid filmmaker in Hollywood and further placed him in the upper echelon of America’s top earners, all by very plainly giving audiences what they want and know, just in a smarter and funnier arrangement than they were accustomed to.
Only a handful of true originals have broadened the genre beyond its conventions. The majority of them draw from the inventor of the romantic comedy as audiences know it, Ernst Lubitsch. With pictures such as Trouble in Paradise and Ninotchka, Lubitsch became renowned for “The Lubitsch Touch,” that fantastical and elusive charisma that is impossible to define but remains undeniably present within all of his films. Balancing romance and drama with silly humor, Lubitsch created a wellspring of material from the early 1920s into the late 1940s. From that source, Hollywood adopted all manner of cliché and formulas that are still used today. Sturges admitted his adoration of Lubitsch, but he avoided making retreads of his idol’s films.
Instead, Sturges applied his very own sophistication to the formulas so popular in Hollywood at the time. As a rare comedic auteur, following the likes of Lubitsch and Charles Chaplin, Sturges curiously avoided butting heads with studio executives over the messages in his films because, in most cases, there were none. Particularly with The Lady Eve, his scripts avoided heavy commentaries or social observations, and rather relied on the richness of his prose to tell the story. He happily toiled for studios like Fox and Paramount, earning millions in box-office receipts because he catered to his audience, but not in such a way that his pictures were intellectual duds. He worked inside the formulas of his predecessors because the studios demanded it, and yet his films avoided becoming merely studio programmers through the undeniable wit of his scenarios.The Lady Eve opens on a cruise ship on the Amazon River. Twists and turns along the way make a rather common tale about one lover forgiving the other’s past seem fresh and new even today. Up the river for a year on a scientific exploration, Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), the famed son of an ale mogul, ends his expedition and joins the passengers on a cruise liner returning to the States. Charles looks naïve, being more interested in snakes than in women or business, and his naivety is at once spotted by a father-daughter duo of card sharks. In Charles, ‘Colonel’ Harry Harrington (Charles Coburn) and his daughter Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) see yet another in a long line of Jean’s would-be suitors to swindle out of his dough. As Charles climbs up the ladder to the ship, on his pith helmet Jean drops an apple, a devilish replacement for Cupid’s arrow.
That evening in the ship’s restaurant, Jean watches the bookish Charles through her makeup mirror and narrates to herself. She offers a play-by-play of the other women in the restaurant vying for Charles’ attention, while he simply reads his Are Snakes Necessary? text. Various women try to draw Charles’ gaze by dropping their handkerchief or pretending to know him from somewhere, but none of them are successful. Jean does the opposite. She trips him, breaking her high heel in the process. Etiquette dictates that Charles should escort the lady back to her room to fetch another pair of shoes. In her cabin, the stiff Charles, having been up the river for a year, is suddenly drunk with attraction, enamored by Jean and her perfume. Stanwyck is irresistibly sexy in a scene where, her deep voice speaking Sturges’ dialogue, she reclines back on her shoe case and asks Charles, “See anything you like?”
Stanwyck, in one of her greatest performances, plays a familiar cliché, the Camille-type whose practiced sexuality is nevertheless seduced by the virginal innocence of a naïve man—someone all the more appealing because he represents the antithesis of her line of work. Though she had intended to empty Charles’ checking account over several nights of friendly card games with her father, she falls for his simplicity just as he falls for her directness. Soon engaged, Jean is ready to leave her life as a con artist behind. But the suspicions of Charles’ valet, Muggsy Murgatroyd (Sturges favorite William Demarest), lead him to discover the notorious identities of Jean and her father. Despite his love, Charles inflexibly calls off the marriage and they go their separate ways, he stubborn and unwilling to forgive, she heartbroken and hungry for revenge.Some time later, Charles is yet again falling for Jean in his own home, but this time she has concocted an elaborate scheme to make him believe she is someone else. Charles looks dumbfounded at the sight of Jean in a thinly veiled disguise as The Lady Eve Sidwich, the supposed niece of Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith (Eric Blore), another con artist who has planted himself among New England elite and agreed to help Jean get back at Charles. At a posh party hosted by Charles’ father, Horace Pike (Eugene Pallette), Jean fronts herself as The Lady Eve and the guests circle around her and listen to her ersatz stories about acclimating to the Unites States. Charles cannot be sure if this is the same woman, but Sir Alfred puts his doubts to rest through an absurd story about a coachman, a scandalous pregnancy, twin daughters, and divorce. Resigned to the idea that The Lady Eve is the twin sister of Jean Harrington, Charles is soon duped into marriage. However, Jean gets her revenge when on their honeymoon, knowing Charles is the old-fashioned type, he demands a divorce when Eve confesses to a string of past lovers. But rather than a sense of victory, Jean feels sadness. She does love Charles after all.
Much like Stanwyck, Fonda plays another kind of cliché, a preoccupied science-boy whose opinion of women is that they are fickle. An unlikely contender in a screwball comedy, Fonda plays a pitch-perfect straight man, a necessary element in the genre. There is not an ounce of humor coming from Charles Pike; he takes himself and his romance very seriously, which is perhaps why he could never imagine the circles that are being run around him by Jean (and Eve). Ever the prideful man, he wants to be, or at least have the appearance that he remains in control. When he confronts Jean on the boat about her criminal past, he pretends to have known about it for days though he just found out himself, if only to shield his broken heart and further bruise Jean. At once self-deceiving and untried, Charles’ predictability is what brings him together with Jean in the finale. He finds Jean on a cruise ship once more after stumbling over her foot, yet again. Jean, of course, lets Charles believe that he found her. Happily reunited, the couple forgives their bad behavior with a kiss, several of them in fact. Charles, once again manipulated into taking Jean back to her cabin for the faux victory that she has orchestrated for him, remains ignorant to her schemes. Oh, if he only knew…Sturges is something of a con artist himself. By hoodwinking the audience into believing The Lady Eve is standard romantic comedy fare, he disguises the genius of the story and the complexity of his characters. The relationship between Jean and her father, for example, has a touching layer of unspoken understanding between the two. While Harry wants to go on relieving suckers of the cash in their pocketbooks, he is also Jean’s father and wishes her to be happy. Harry demonstrates how to “deal fives”—where the four aces lay on the top of the deck and the dealer only pulls cards from the fifth spot down, reserving the aces for wherever the dealer chooses—as he questions Jean about her time with Charles the previous evening. Sturges seems to be the most like Harry, as both men play with an ace up their sleeve, pretending to be purely average talents though their ability far exceeds anyone sitting at the table.
Even though clichés are plentiful within the plot, Sturges ornaments them through his bright interplay of fast dialogue and clever humor, supplemented by just the right application of slapstick. Take the numerous pratfalls by Fonda’s character—he flops over the couch, slips in the mud, or ends up with a tray of food on his head. These moments are silly, and yet Sturges makes their silliness unwaveringly funny. The writing makes the viewer believe in the characters and their actions, however ridiculous, because it acknowledges the truth of the situation while simultaneously laughing at it. Sturges realized the reality of clichés and exploited them. In doing so, he gave his formula characters the illusion of three-dimensionality. And he enlivened his scenario through the incalculable delight that occurs when an audience recognizes a truth in comedic form.When gossip columnist Hedda Hopper asked Sturges about what made his films so successful, he replied, “I have no success formula… What I learned I picked up on sets. I just kept my eyes opened and learned.” Should modern filmmakers take Sturges’ cue, they might sit down with a collection of his films, or those of Lubitsch or Billy Wilder, and learn. Not copy, but rather perceive the devices used and draw from there. Too often audiences see identical scenes from movie to movie, how a moment in Leap Year mirrors one in French Kiss, and so on. This is because the writers of these pictures only know reproduction, and perhaps never learned how to be truly inspired. For them, drawing from the greats requires copy paper instead of artistic vision.
Imagine a Hollywood where young filmmakers sit down to a screening of The Lady Eve and instead of duplicating a tale of a headstrong female card shark falling for a gullible bookworm, they turn out something completely different and equally distinct. But the state of today’s romantic comedies does not require that these movies have originality or definition from one another; they exist as part of a factory where the proven clichés receive top choice because they are proven, and everything else is a risk. Following Sturges, Lubtisch, and Wilder, great romantic comedians come few and far between, occasionally falling somewhat inelegantly on names like Woody Allen and Wes Anderson, who are not pure romantic comedians per se, but suffice in today’s market over copycat and remake hounds like Nora Ephron.
How badly the genre needs another Sturges. He was a true original even while relying on Hollywood tropes. More than that, he was a bona fide genius and inventor of gadgets, someone the studio’s publicity department was happy to saddle with a “wunderkind” label. He could spin a hilarious and endearing yarn even under the most distracting conditions. On the set of The Lady Eve, Sturges kept the commotion to a maximum. His sets were welcomed places for people who had no need to be there. Visitors and press were greeted graciously. He liked the piano tuner Harry Rosenthal to play between takes. The radio blared and the behind-the-scenes crew would talk. It may have seemed like chaos, but all the while Sturges would plan his next scene, dictate more dialogue, and sometimes fiddle with whatever invention he had been tinkering with.
Given the discussion of clichés thus far, both this picture and its filmmaker demand that old adage, They don’t make ‘em like they used to. For his part, Preston Sturges anticipated his audience’s needs and sought to enliven their experience with his brand of comedy. From his understanding of film, Sturges formulated a sophistication to the romantic comedy that has never been matched in all of cinema. In the case of The Lady Eve, he accomplished this with unparalleled and definite precision, and it remains his most effortlessly funny and charming motion picture. It poses no great questions and contains no lessons about love. It simply provides a romantic and amusing story that awakens the audience, engages them through its scenario in ways that seem familiar and yet wholly new. Indeed, those who watch the film for the first time will have not seen anything like it before, and uniquely, they are not likely to find a modern equivalent. Sturges’ genius could never be copied with even the most muted sense of success, but with a bit of luck his film will inspire other originals to emerge and save the dying romantic comedy genre.
Curtis, James. Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, c1982.
Harvey, James. Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges. New York: Knopf, 1987.
Sturges, Preston; Sturges, Tom. Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges: His Life in His Words. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.