Twelve Classics for 2016: THE LADY EVE (1941)

To start of my year of Twelve Classics, I decided to begin with a little Preston Sturges.  Because come one, what is better than Preston Sturges when you are feeling a bit down and stressed after the holidays?  Answer…nothing.

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Deep in the South American jungle the heir to the Pike’s Pale Ale empire, one Charles Poncefort Pike (Henry Fonda), is getting ready to set sail back to America with his valet/bodyguard/banker Muggsy and his new pet snake.  Charles, it seems, is a bit of a snake fanatic.  This fact does not deter any of the young ladies about the cruise ship he boards, in fact most of them are doing pretty much anything in their power to get his attention.  One woman who is trying not to catch Charles’ eye, at least not yet, is Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck).  Jean and her father “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn) are con-artists and cardsharps, and they have just found their next meal ticket in one Charles Poncefort Pike.

Jean takes her time observing Charles and the shameless flirting of the other women onboard before she finally makes her move.  Specifically, she trips him.  Then she blames him for breaking her shoe.  Charles is extremely sorry as one might imagine and Jean suggests that he make it up to her by escorting her up to her cabin to pick out a new pair of shoes.  Upstairs, Charles is unprepared for the advances of Jean and is soon putty in her hands.  Returning to the dining room, Charles and Jean join the Colonel in a friendly game of cards.  Despite Muggsy’s watchful eye, Charles has no suspicion that Jean and her father are anything but wonderful people.  In fact he wins $600!  The evening ends with Charles and Jean promising to see each other the next day, and he and the Colonel promising to play cards again soon.

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Over the course of the next several days Jean and Charles spend a great deal of time together.  Naturally, Charles falls in love with Jean but something strange begins to happen as well.  Jean falls in love with Charles.  More than that she tells her father that she has decided that she is going to marry Charles, legitimately with no cons or tricks, and that she will eventually tell him the truth about her past.  While she and Charles are onboard she promises not to reveal anything out of respect to her father but she does warn him not to try any tricks or cons on Charles.  Her father promises but privately decides to continue to con as planned.

That evening, Charles asks the Colonel for his permission to marry his daughter which the Colonel grants.  Jean goes to get some air and Charles agrees to a friendly game of cards with his future father-in-law.  By the time that Jean comes back to the table Charles has lost $32,000!  Jean is furious but the Colonel rips up the check in front of her.  She and Charles excuse themselves and soon retire to their separate cabins.  Meanwhile, Muggsy has been doing some investigating of his own and has found proof of just who Jean and her father really are, proof he shares with Charles.  The next morning Charles confronts Jean and she admits everything.  In his anger, Charles pretends that he knew the truth all along and was just stringing Jean along for a joke.  Hurt, Jean leaves and vows to return to her conning ways and never think of Charles again.  She begins to feel better when he father shows her a check for $32,000 which actually was never ripped up at all.

Some time later, Jean and her family are having a day at the races when they run into a fellow con-artist named Pearly (Eric Blorre).  Pearly is currently known as Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith and has set up quite a comfortable life for himself among the rich of Bridgefield, Connecticut.  Jean perks up at the mention of Bridgefield because that is the hometown of Charles Poncefort Pike.  Despite her father’s protests she devises to visit Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith as his niece…Lady Eve Sidwich of England.

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Do I even need to say that this is a great movie?  First of all Preston Sturges created this screenplay specifically for Barbara Stanwyck and it shows.  Jean Harrington is such a dynamic, intelligent, funny, sexy, and all around amazing woman.  She is a con-artist for sure but you never find her so devious that she is unlikeable.  Even when she is masquerading as the Lady Eve and making Charles’ life miserable, there is still a quality to her that makes you just think she is fantastic.  I honestly don’t think that anyone else could have played Jean except Barbara Stanwyck, even if the part wasn’t written specifically for her.  She can just give one look with her eyes and convey an entire scene.  She more than holds her own in every scene she is in, against the likes of Coburn, Blorre, and Palatte, as well as Demarest and Fonda.  This is not to sat that she steals the scenes from her fellow performers, rather she allows them shine while never letting the audience forget that she is still there.  Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite classic film actress and THE LADY EVE gives her room to play.

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Henry Fonda is terrific as the bumbling, naive, unworldly Charles.  He plays his inexperience as both charming and believable.  Often when there is a character that is supposed to be sheltered and unwise to the world, I find them annoying and overly child-like.  Fonda acts like a man who knows quite a bit about some things but next to nothing about many things.  He is just a quiet man who has lived his life with the knowledge that he will probably not ever get married and have a family, that he will most likely spend his life reading books and collecting snakes.  When he meets Jean its like a whole new world has opened up to him and he is so excited at the possibility.  To find out that all this happiness was based on a lie is devastating to him and for the first, and really only time in the whole movie and perhaps his life, Charles reacts cruelly.  But just like we never dislike Jean for her conning ways, we never dislike Charles for his poor behavior.  We understand why he reacted that way and we hope that he can find a way to return from that.

It speaks to the mastery of Preston Sturges that we can have a film about a con-woman and her criminal family, as well as a rich somewhat childish man and his slightly psychotic and paranoid guarding and still care about and like each and every one of them.  I will also say that the ending when it first began to take shape didn’t make total sense to me.  But as the movie went on and the full culmination became evident, I was certain that there was no other way that this story could have ended.  For a script that was written while Preston Sturges was awaiting his third divorce, THE LADY EVE is a remarkably hopeful story about love and finding ways to accept people for who they are.


This post is part of the 2016 Blindspot Series from The Matinee.  You can see more about it here with my list of films I want to watch in 2016!

 

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Watching With Warner: BREAKFAST FOR TWO (1937)

Let me list some names for you.  Barbara Stanwyck, Herbert Marshall, Glenda Farrell, and ERIC BLORE!  Intrigued?  Too good to be true, you say?  Not at all!  In fact this amazing cast can be found in BREAKFAST FOR TWO from the Warner Archive.

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Morning comes to the apartment of rich playboy, Jonathan Blair (Herbert Marshall), and the staff goes about their daily routines.  Jonathan’s valet, Butch (Eric Blore), enters the master suite and is surprised to find that there is a strange woman (Barbara Stanwyck) in the shower and his employer is sleeping on the couch with various party favors tucked around him.  It seems that Jonathan had too much of a good time the night before and he needed to be escorted home by the mystery woman exiting the bathroom.  She is prevented from leaving by Jonathan’s massive dog and so has no choice but to accept his invitation to get to know him better.  The two sit down for breakfast while Jonathan tries to remember the events of the previous evening.  The pair are progressing marvelously, much to Butch’s delight, and it is quite obvious that the young woman is smitten with Jonathan.  Their stroll down memory lane is interrupted by the arrival of Jonathan’s girlfriend, actress Carol Wallace (Glenda Farrell).  The mystery woman takes this as her cue to exit, leaving Jonathan scrambling after her.

After breakfast, and seeing Carol safely out the door, Jonathan begins trying to find out the identity of the mystery women.  He is interrupted by the arrival of his company’s banker who is supposed to be bringing with him Jonathan’s monthly check.  This month is different and Jonathan’s banker informs him that due to his absentee managerial style, the family shipping company has decided to revoke his paychecks and find a new owner.  It is at this point that the phone rings and a man on the other end demands to know where Mr. Ransom’s niece is as she was seen leaving a party with Jonathan.  Using this piece of information Jonathan has flowers sent to Ms. Valentine Ransom, right before he completely freaks out due to the fact that he now has no money.

Valentine meanwhile has arrived back at her hotel room and is preparing to get on a train back to her home in Texas.  She is also receiving an earful about the true nature of Mr. Jonathan Blair from her own banker, along with her guardian.  It is at this moment that the flowers arrive, along with a charmingly worded note, and Valentine’s anger begins to fade.  In fact she has decided that she is going to marry Jonathan and in order to do that she has to start by taking over his company.

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This screwball comedy is a lesser known one but still a film that is charming, witty, and fun.  Clocking in at a brisk sixty-eight minutes, this gender reversed “Taming of the Shrew” is really quite enjoyable.  Barbara Stanwyck’s Valentine, her first role after winning the Oscar for STELLA DALLAS, is not your traditional scheming heiress.  She falls for Jonathan but she wants him to make something of himself, without relying on her or anyone else to do it.  She sets about making him miserable but doing so because she cares for him and she wants him to become the man she believes he can be.  While the troupe of the woman tricking a man into falling in love with her is nothing new, in BREAKFAST FOR TWO it is given a far more intelligent spin allowing Barbara Stanwyck to have good reason to climb into the boxing ring with Herbert Marshall, as well as run circles around him in the office.  This was her first true screwball role and she is magnificent in it.  Showing all the talent and charisma that made her a star, as well as a flair for physical gags and comedic timing that would go on to serve her well in such films as THE LADY EVE and THE MAD MISS MANTON.

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Herbert Marshall is great as the immature playboy.  It is a nice callback to his role in TROUBLE IN PARADISE, except now he is the rich mark being taken for a ride.  He does a great bit with ventriloquism and his reactions to Glenda Farrell’s less than bright Carol are just hysterical.  He also leaps into the comedic fray with complete abandon and seems to be enjoying himself immensely.  Also, his mammoth Great Dane companion steals several scenes often just by lying down.

Let’s also take a moment to appreciate the supporting characters.  Eric Blore is of course fantastic as the put-upon Butch.  As soon as Eric Blore comes on screen you can’t help but smile and know that you are in good hands.  Donald Meek shows up as a long suffering Justice of the Peace who practically has a nervous breakdown before the end of the film.  Glenda Farrell doesn’t have enough scenes in this film, in my opinion, because her ditzy performance as Carol is a highlight.

With a cast that I would happily watch sit around and read the dictionary to each other, BREAKFAST FOR TWO is a fun screwball comedy from RKO that deserves to be better known.  If you get a chance to see it definitely make an effort to!

 

The William Wellman Blogathon: LADY OF BURLESQUE (1943)

This post is part of The William Wellman Blogathon hosted by me!  Be sure to check out the other entries here!

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Chances are that if you are a classic film fan you have at some point or another come across the Hayes Code.  Coming into strong effect in 1934, the Hayes Office and their code monitored and censored the subject matter of Hollywood films.  All blunt and open mentions of sex, drugs, and otherwise “less than desirable” behaviors were removed from films and writers, directors, and actors needed to find clever ways to insert their racy material.  Which leads me to LADY OF BURLESQUE, a film made at the height of the Production Code but one that still manages to keep its more mature material thanks to a burlesque tease of its own.

Dixie Daisy (Barbara Stanwyck) is the latest and greatest attraction at the Old Opera House on Broadway.  New owner S.B. Foss has changed the format of the opera house to that of a burlesque revue.  Dixie is the big draw for the crowds, wowing men and women alike with her singing and dancing.  She is also a big draw for comedian Biff Brannigan (Michael O’Shea) who ardently admires her, though she is somewhat less impressed with him.  Biff and Dixie are doing one of their best bits, all about a man who buys a woman-attracting charm in the form of a pickle on a string (infer at your leisure), when Dixie notices a squad of policeman filing into the back of the hall.  Backstage everyone is in a panic as the red light that is supposed to go off when police enter the building has been cut deliberately.  Pandemonium erupts as the police attempt to arrest everyone and Dixie makes her way toward the basement coal chute to hide.  On her way there however, she is grabbed around the throat.  She blacks out but her assailant is interrupted by a policewoman chasing a stage hand.  Dixie comes to but her attacker has vanished.

The entire company is packed off to jail where they are promptly bailed out by Foss.  At a group dinner later that night Foss tries to raise everyone’s spirits by giving each of them stock in the opera house.  Not everyone is mollified however, as Dixie points out that not only has her attacker vanished without a trace but that clearly someone is trying to shut down the opera house.  A few nights later ex-racketeer Louis Grindero comes by the burlesque show and finds his girlfriend Lolita, a stuck up songbird, rehearsing lines with one of the other comics who just so happens to be in love with her.  Louis takes out his displeasure on Lolita, beating her in front of everyone.  The screams from backstage can be heard onstage as well causing Dixie and Biff to ramp up the volume and antics of their performance.

Dixie comes off stage annoyed.  Lolita is already not a favorite among the other burlesque dancers.  Cocky and stuck-up, Lolita can’t seem to get along with anyone except the photograph of her mother she keeps on her vanity.  She has already had run-ins with Dixie, other dancers, and even Mr. Wong across the way.  The girls like to get their dinners from the local Chinese restaurant but Lolita decided it was a good idea to throw a bottle at the men standing by the open window, beaning Mr. Wong leading Dixie to go across to make peace and save their dinners.  The only person who is less liked than Lolita is the Princess Nirvena.  Recently returned from shady circumstances to once again thrill crowds with her act of clothes versus whip and her own version of a Greta Garbo impression, the Princess is someone not even Lolita can tolerate.  And now Lolita is fouling up Dixie’s act with her backstage drama.

Dixie goes upstairs to her dressing room expecting to find Lolita there.  Instead she finds some red wax on a closet door and no sign of the wounded songstress.  Lolita’s cue is coming up and Dixie calls down that she isn’t in her dressing room.  The stage manager comes upstairs to check just as Dixie pulls open the closet door and finds Lolita inside dead, strangled by her own G-string.  Yes, really.

LADY OF BURLESQUE was the first film made after the reopening of Hunt Stromberg’s independent movie studio.  Based on the book “The G-String Murders” by Gypsy Rose Lee, though thought to be ghost written by Craig Rice, this film was written by James Gunn and directed by none other than William A. Wellman.  Contrary to what you might think, Wellman was thrilled when offered the chance to direct by Stromberg.  He had never yet made a film that was a musical and was eager to showcase his range and ability.  Range and ability would be important because LADY OF BURLESQUE was part musical, part murder mystery, and part romantic comedy.

William Wellman offered the part of Dixie to his favorite actress, Barbara Stanwyck.  The two collaborated on five films together and both had great respect and affection for each other.  Wellman always spoke highly of Stanwyck’s talent and professionalism.  Of Stanwyck he would say, “…(She) not only knew her lines but everyone else’s…I love her.”  For her part, Barbara Stanwyck was equally excited as Wellman to play a character so completely different from any that she had done before.  She also was looking forward to showing that her talents extended to singing and dancing as well.  Watch her in this clip and you tell me, is there anything Barbara Stanwyck CAN’T do?

The censors, not surprisingly, were all over this film.  They were very specific about what camera angles could be used, what dialogue could be permitted, and how little clothes the strippers…ahem, I mean…dancers could have on.  Still, Wellman manages to slip quite a bit past the censors from the opening number of “Take It Off The E-String, Play It On The G-String” to Dixie’s bumping and grinding just below the frame.  The dialogue is pretty risqué as well with such lines as;

Man: Did I startle you?  /  Dixie: Are you – kidding?  I’ve been startled by experts.

Biff: When we get around to that date, you’ll have to wear your working clothes.  /  Dixie: I’ll wear a suit of armor, brass knuckles, and hobnailed boots!  And where’s that prop you swiped?  /  Biff: The muff?  I’m gonna have it stuffed and hang it over my mantlepiece.

And let’s not forget the pickle on a string.

LADY OF BURLESQUE was a huge hit and brought in $1.85 million, as well as earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Musical Scoring of a Drama or Comedy Picture.  A lesser known film today it is still great fun, a dark comedy celebrating a dead art form, as by 1942 burlesque had been driven from cities and towns alike by the soldiers of the Legion of Decency.  The movie has a little bit of everything, all filmed with the Wellman touch.  There is never a sense of judgment from Wellman in any of his films.  He simply tells the story that he would like to hear.  The women and other members of the burlesque company are just people going about their daily lives.  We are never given the feeling that we are any better or worse than they are, they just are.  The people who are nasty people are nasty because of who they are as a person, not because of what their job is.  Lolita would be an annoying prima donna even if she was a librarian and Louis would still be a jerk even if he was a respectable business man.  I feel that in another director’s hands there is a chance that the film would take on a feeling of moral high ground or even overly cartoonishness to diminish the impact.  Another director might be tempted to downplay the seriousness of the crimes simply because, well what do you expect when you live that sort of lifestyle?  Wellman and his film are refreshingly devoid of stereotypes, from the burlesque dancers to the Chinese cooks and waiters across the street.  Mr. Wong speaks English without a hint of an accent or incorrect grammar.

Part of what makes this film work is the feeling of enjoyment you get while watching it.  I know it sounds crazy to say that about a film where people are being murdered, but it is true.  Watching this film I felt like Wellman and Stanwyck were having fun, enjoying trying out something new and out of their comfort zones.  Is this the best film that William Wellman ever made?  No, and I doubt he would say it was either.  But I do feel that this is a film that deserves a second look.  LADY OF BURLESQUE showcases some of the best qualities of both Wellman and his favorite leading lady.  And if nothing else, you have a fine excuse to watch Barbara Stanwyck do the Boogie-Woogie.