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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The Try It, You’ll Like It! Blogathon: THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942)

This post is part of the Try It, You’ll Like It! Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid.  Be sure to check out the other entries here!

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Let’s be honest.  If you are a classic film fan the chances are good that you have at least one person in your life who is less than excited at the prospect of watching one of your “old movies” with you.  For me that person would have to be my husband.  God love him he tries, he really does, but he just can’t quite muster up the same enthusiasm as I do when I put in a DVD and Barbara Stanwyck comes on screen.  I’ve been trying to convert him, slowly, and I have found some films that he has enjoyed.  Recently, we watched THE PALM BEACH STORY and in my opinion it is a terrific movie to use when introducing non-fans to classic films.

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First, a brief summary of the film.  Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry (Claudette Colbert) are a married couple in New York City.  They are also currently in a bit of financial difficulty especially as their landlord is showing new tenants their apartment.  Gerry happens to be home during one such tour and takes refuge in a shower.  She is discovered there by a funny little old man who calls himself “The Weinie King”.  When Gerry explains that the reason the landlord is showing their apartment is because they have no money to pay the rent, the Weinie King gives her a large sum of money for no other reason than to annoy his wife.  And the fact that Gerry happens to be a lovely girl with a nice voice.  Gerry gratefully takes the money and gives the old man a kiss on the cheek.

Tom meanwhile is at the office making a sales pitch.  He is trying to convince a potential investor that his idea for a new kind of airport is an idea worth putting some money behind.  When he gets a very excited phone call from Gerry, who is trying to tell him what happened with the Weinie King, he barely has time to listen.  Gerry agrees to tell him everything that night and then hurries out to put the new money to good use.  When Tom arrives home later he is shocked to find that Gerry has paid all the bills and the rent, as well as bought herself a new dress and now she wants to take him out to dinner and theater with the money left over.  Tom is suspicious of this man who came into the house and gave his wife money and wanted nothing in return.  Gerry is slightly offended by this but not for the reasons you might think.  She has been trying for some time to use all of her talents to help Tom get ahead in the world and every time he becomes jealous and ruins things.  Over dinner that evening Gerry, who has had a bit to drink, tells Tom that she firmly believes that while she still loves him it would be in his best interest if she was to leave him.  She is only holding him back and since he won’t accept her help, leaving is the only way she can ensure that Tom’s career will be successful.  Tom dismisses this notion as foolish but even after they return to their apartment, Gerry is insistent that she is leaving him.  But some caring and helpful unzipping of a difficult zipper stop this conversation from going any farther.

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Morning comes and while Tom slumbers peacefully, Gerry tearfully writes him a note.  In it she explains that she was perfectly serious last night, that in spite of how much she still loves him she is leaving him so that he will finally be the success he deserves to be.  Unfortunately, Gerry is not super stealthy when leaving the note and Tom wakes up in time to see her leaving.  He gives chase and the two eventually end up at the train station.  Having no money of her own, Gerry must resort to using her feminine wiles and finds success in a traveling group of men who call themselves The Ale and Quail Club.  She waves goodbye to Tom as the train pulls away from the station.  Tom decides to follow Gerry’s train and meet her when she arrives in Florida some time later.  By the time he finds her things have changed.  Gerry is no longer part of The Ale and Quail Club, but she is accompanied by a young man (Rudy Vallee) who happens to be a millionaire and who has bought her an entire wardrobe, and his wife introducing him as Captain McGlue to a very forward woman (Mary Astor) with a boyfriend named Toto.

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THE PALM BEACH STORY is crazy, zany Preston Sturgess goodness.  It is just fun!  And that is what makes it such a great first film for non-classic film lovers.  Comedy is perhaps the easiest genre to take when trying a new kind of film, book, or television show.  Humor is a universal value and something we all can enjoy.  It sets people at ease, perhaps making them feel less pressured to do anything more than enjoy the film they are about to see.  Comedies don’t have to be dissected or discussed, although they can be certainly, they really only need to be enjoyed and it doesn’t get much better than Preston Sturges.

Too often people think of classic films as slow, clunky, and boring.  These are three words that will never be used to describe THE PALM BEACH STORY or Preston Sturges.  With THE PALM BEACH STORY, Sturges is at the top of his game and throws himself and the audience into the zany story with reckless abandon.  The story, the characters, and the jokes come fast and furious and with such enthusiasm that we can’t help but get swept up in it.  Have a friend who says that old movies are dull?  Show him this movie and stand back!  The comedy makes the transition easier, the ability to forget that the film being watched is over sixty years old simpler, and the preconceived notions of classic films seem foolish.  This is an old movie that doesn’t feel like an “old movie” and this is because Sturges has crafted such a clever, funny, and enjoyable comedy that it has become timeless.  In case you are still on the fence about whether or not THE PALM BEACH STORY is a great film to show a novice fan, here are three reasons why you should courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

So back to the night I showed THE PALM BEACH STORY to my husband.  He liked it.  He really liked it.  He laughed.  Out loud.  Several times.  And days later he would look at me and say “Nitz Toto!” and start laughing.  I don’t think you can ask for a better review than that, do you?