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!

 

The Loretta Young Birthday Blogathon: A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1942)

This post is part of The Loretta Young Birthday Blogathon hosted by Cinema Dilettante and myself!  Be sure to scroll down and check out the other great entries!lygbpolaroid

What do you do when your husband only wants to write murder mysteries?  Well if you are Nancy Troy (Loretta Young), you rent a new apartment.  And so it is that Nancy and Jeff (Brian Aherne) arrive at their new home in the basement of an apartment building at 13 Gay Street in Greenwich Village.  Unfortunately, Nancy’s dreams of newly decorated homey bliss will have to wait because Eddie Turner, the building’s owner, informs them that the electricity has not yet been turned on and advises that they come back tomorrow.  Nancy is insistent that they move in that evening, despite the lack of lights and furniture, and she and Jeff are getting their bearings when Nancy spots an old friend.

Anne Carstairs (Jeff Donnell) is climbing the stairs but she is only too happy to stop and talk to Nancy.  Anne tells them that she married now and has an apartment on the second floor of the building, but she becomes unexplainably flustered when Nancy reveals that they have just taken the basement apartment.  Anne hurries off and once inside she, and several other tenants including Mr. Turner, ponder why the Troys would move into the building at all.  It seems that all the tenants share a similar dilemma which has caused them to take up residence.

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Later that evening Jeff and Nancy go to a local restaurant for dinner.  Nancy goes off to make a phone call and Jeff reacquaints himself with restaurant owner and apartment neighbor, Polly Franklin (Lee Patrick).  Polly also becomes flustered when she finds out that Jeff is now living in the basement apartment.  Meanwhile, Nancy overhears a very large man in the next booth making a phone call to someone demanding that they meet him at 13 Gay Street in the basement apartment.  Nancy returns to the table and relates her story to Jeff and Polly, who takes this as a cue to excuse herself.  Jeff decides to take matters into his own hands and confront the would be apartment thief, which results in him earning a punch on the nose.

Back in their apartment, Jeff and Nancy hear the sound of water running.  They soon find that the tub in their bathroom has recently been filled and drained of water.  Setting down the candle they have been using for light, the couple is shocked to find it moving on its own.  Upon closer examination it is found to in fact be a turtle.  Old Hickory is his name and he used to be the mascot of a certain speakeasy that used to be in residence in the basement of 13 Gay Street.  It is at this moment that the movers finally arrive with the couple’s furniture.  After several feats of strength and some male posturing, Nancy and Jeff tuck in for a comfortable night’s sleep in their own beds.  They are awakened by several police officers trooping in and out of their apartment.  The body of a man has been found in their back yard and it is someone that the Troys recognize.  It is the man from the restaurant!  Jeff soon decides that he going to solve the mystery of the murdered man and make into his next bestselling novel…much to Nancy’s dismay.

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A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, not to be confused with the film of the same name about the Titanic, is quite a fun and enjoyable screwball comedy.  I’ve read some reviews that have said that this film isn’t particularly funny or that the ending is lazy, but I have to disagree.  Too often I think when people think screwball comedy they think only of MY MAN GODFREY, BRINGING UP BABY, or THEODORA GOES WILD.  These are the pinnacle of the art form and while A NIGHT TO REMEMBER is not on the level of BRINGING UP BABY, it is still a very good screwball comedy/mystery in its own right.  The story and mystery are a bit different than the usual fare, with the film mixing comedy, suspense, mystery, and a bit of drama quite effectively.

I really enjoyed Brian Aherne in this.  His portrayal of Jeff Troy was a great combination of wit, charm, cool, and foolishness.  When he returns from the police station he is only concerned with being hungry, rather than being traumatized by a police interrogation.  At one point someone screams and when Nancy tells him to go and see what it was Jeff replies, “What do you mean?  I know what it was, someone screamed.”  And then there is the issue of the apartment door.  Aherne gives a non-traditional performance as the “hero”, being neither all knowing nor a bumbling idiot but a nice combination of the two.

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My usual thoughts regarding Loretta Young come from her roles in THE BISHOPS’S WIFE and HEROES FOR SALE.  I tend to think of her as virtuous but serious women.  But I am delighted to say that she is quite a good comedienne and A NIGHT TO REMEMBER gives her ample opportunity to show this.  She has moments of hand wringing and “Oh Jeff!”-ing of course, but there are far more moments of her keeping pace with her husband and throwing off several witty and sarcastic one liners.  She loves Jeff but remains wholly unimpressed when he tries too hard to play the hero detective.  She gets scared sometimes by the strange goings-on in her new home but never lets it get the best of her, often sticking by Jeff during his sketchier investigations.  Loretta Young looks lovely as always, but she shows a bright and witty side of her talents that I hope to see more examples of!

Is A NIGHT TO REMEMBER a great screwball comedy on par with the best of them?  No, but I do think that it comes close.  This screwball comedy mystery is a truly fun and funny movie, and one that I hope more people will take the time to see.  In a genre that can too easily fall into troupes and well-used gags, A NIGHT TO REMEMBER takes a unique and smart approach to adapting The Frightened Stiff by Kelley Roos.  If you want a film that has a little bit of everything, including Sidney Toler and a turtle, then A NIGHT TO REMEMBER is for you!  As a special birthday treat for Loretta Young, I will leave you with a chance to watch it for yourself.

 

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 Fabulous Films of the 30s Blogathon: THE AWFUL TRUTH (1938)

This post is part of the CMBA Spring Blogathon, The Fabulous Films of the 30s.  To check out the other fabulous entries click here!

To me the 1930s are the epitome of two genres of film.  The first is the Pre-Code film, but this is inevitable as the Hayes Code went into strong effect in 1934.  The second is the screwball comedy.  With such films as IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, TWENTIETH CENTURY, BRINGING UP BABY, and MY MAN GODFREY the 1930s brought us films with quick and clever dialogue, zany situations, and hysterical physical comedy which usually ended up being sealed with a kiss.  These films are some of the first ones I fell in love with during my initiation into classic films.  They are a good start for the new fan, easy viewing if you will, but ones that only become richer and more fabulous with repeated viewings.  Even today I find these comedies far more amusing than most modern films.  So when it came time to choose a film for this blogathon I decided to pick one of the quintessential screwball comedies, and the one that debuted the classic Cary Grant “comedic light touch” persona that would catapult him into world-wide stardom.

Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) is in need of a sun tan.  He is currently under the lights at his sports club trying to get one because he has to prove to his wife, Lucy (Irene Dunne), that his recent trip out-of-town was to Florida as he said it was.  Which of course it was not.  Later that night armed with a gift basket of oranges from California and surrounded by several friends, Jerry returns home expecting to find Lucy there waiting for him.  Which of course she is not.  Everyone sits around somewhat awkwardly while Jerry reassures them that Lucy is most assuredly with her Aunt Patsy and will be home soon.  Enter Aunt Patsy.  Soon after Lucy returns, terribly happy to see Jerry, followed closely by her über suave singing instructor named Armand Duvalle.  Friends and Aunt Patsy slowly filter out as Lucy explains that she and Armand spent the night together, quite innocently, when Armand’s car broke down on their way back to the city.  Jerry is none too pleased with this situation and Armand senses that this is his cue to leave.  Once alone Jerry and Lucy have one of those not so pleasant conversations where Jerry pretty much accuses Lucy of sleeping with her singing instructor and Lucy, denying the first accusation, points out that Jerry never mentioned the terrific rains that Florida was having in any of his letters home.  After some back and forth, and increasingly sharp digs and accusations, the couple decides that without faith there can be no marriage so it is best to call it quits.

Really Jerry? And how were those California oranges?

Their day in divorce court comes and the judge grants the motion.  The only matter left to resolve is who gets custody of Mr. Smith, the family dog.  Both Jerry and Lucy claim ownership so the judge decides to play King Solomon and let Mr. Smith decide.  Much to Jerry’s dismay he chooses Lucy, thanks in large part to the sudden appearance of his favorite toy in her hand, and the group leaves the court room while the judge promises to consider visitation rights for Jerry.  Some time later Lucy is at home in the apartment she now shares with Aunt Patsy.  Patsy is bored with Lucy staying home every night, her only male companion of late being Mr. Smith, and decides to get out for a while.  As she heads to the elevator she runs into Daniel Lesson (Ralph Bellamy), a good old country boy from Oklahoma, who not only happens to be single and handsome but also an oil man.  She brings him home to introduce to Lucy and soon the pair is going out almost every night.  It is during one such date that they run into Jerry and his new squeeze Dixie Bell Lee.  Dixie works at a nightclub singing songs with a backup wind machine, an act which she soon demonstrates, leading Jerry to comment “I just met her.”

Lucy and Daniel become engaged, and Jerry begins his personal mission of trying to breakup the engagement.  Through a series of misadventures he finally does just that, through a complete misunderstanding of course, but by the time that Lucy is single again (and beginning to realize that maybe she still loves Jerry after all) Jerry is not.  Through some misunderstandings of his own, Jerry has taken up with “madcap heiress” Barbara Vance and is himself now engaged.  It is going to take some scheming, some drinks, a fake wind machine, and a sudden appearance by Jerry’s heretofore unknown sister Lola to work things out.

How’d you do? I’m the nut of the family tree!

Director Leo McCarey scared Cary Grant.  McCarey shot THE AWFUL TRUTH with a different style than most directors of the time, preferring to improvise most of it even going into a scene with no idea of what would happen more than the overall plan (i.e. get from point A to point B). In a style that sounds more like the filming of Buster Keaton, McCarey started making THE AWFUL TRUTH and Cary Grant became convinced that the whole thing was going to be a terrible flop.  He even went to see Harry Cohen, head of MGM, to beg him to be let out of the film.  Failing that he asked to be allowed to at least switch to the Ralph Bellamy role.  Harry Cohen basically told him to not let the door hit him on the way back to the studio lot, which thankfully Cary Grant did.  After some time he began to see that the film was not only working but turning out to be a great hit.  McCarey also gets the credit for helping Cary Grant craft the urbane, witty, subtly comedic persona that would become his signature for years to come.  As Peter Bogdonavich said after THE AWFUL TRUTH when it came to light comedy, “there was Cary Grant and everyone else was an also-ran.”  McCarey is said to have borne an eerie physical similarity to Grant as well, so perhaps we have more even more to thank him for.  The sense of improvisation that runs through this film makes it a bit beyond other screwball comedies, in my opinion.  The dialogue flows fast and feels off the cuff, which indeed much of it was, thus making the whole thing feel more realistic and less staged which can sometimes happen in a farce.  Instead of feeling like an excuse to get from gag to gag each scene feels like the natural progression in Jerry and Lucy’s lives and we are just along to enjoy the ride.

THE AWFUL TRUTH helped catapult Cary Grant into worldwide stardom.  Where before he was simply a good actor, now he become a persona and one that would continue to endure to this day.  To say that Cary Grant is good in this movie is like saying that the sun is hot in the middle of August.  It simply doesn’t begin to cover it.  We all know that Cary Grant can act and we all know that he can deliver snappy dialogue better than most.  But let’s pause for a moment and acknowledge the physical comedy that he brings to the film.  Having started his career in vaudeville, Cary Grant is no stranger to the tumbling and acrobatics needed for the more slapstick humor.  THE AWFUL TRUTH is different in that it actually requires the lead actors, not the second tier ones as most other films did, to take pratfalls and do physical comedy.  And Cary Grant does it with the style, the grace, and the wit that we have come to expect from his more “verbal” performances for example, HIS GIRL FRIDAY.  Go back and watch again and see how Cary Grant manages to take pratfalls and tumbles, all while never losing that sense of grace, style, and above all wit.

Of course we can’t talk about THE AWFUL TRUTH without talking about Irene Dunne.  I love Irene Dunne.  She is an actress who is able to bring a lovely light-headedness to her comedic roles without fully straying into ditz.  She and Myrna Loy have a very similar approach to their female comedy roles, I think that Nora Charles and Lucy Warriner would get along swell actually, and I think this is part of why I love her.  After having seen her in films like THEODORA GOES WILD and MY FAVORITE WIFE (another film with Grant and McCarey) I began to really appreciate Irene Dunne’s flair for comedy.  But to me she takes it to a whole new level in THE AWFUL TRUTH.  Lucy is a character that is both serious and funny, in love and hurt, clever and just a little dizzy.  In another actress’s hands one trait could have become more pronounced or outshone the others.  But Irene Dunne manages to balance all these traits perfectly, giving us a character that feels more real than made up.  And she does more than enough to keep up with Cary Grant in the comedy department!

There is some talk that maybe this kind of movie, the marriage/remarriage comedy, is not timeless and might feel dated to today’s audience.  Maybe that is true but maybe it isn’t.  While it is true that the idea of divorce and remarriage is not looked upon with the same societal mores as it was in the 1930s, I think that deep down we all want to see people end up with the ones that they love.  Why else would the whole boy meets girl/boy gets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl back formula still be so popular today?  So maybe instead of looking at THE AWFUL TRUTH as simply a movie about divorce and remarriage, perhaps we should look at it as a movie about people learning to trust each other and learning that telling the truth isn’t so bad after all.  Because the awful truth is that we can be our own worst enemies, creating lies where there don’t need to be any and mistrust where there should be faith.  Because really the truth isn’t so awful, especially when we have Irene Dunne and Cary Grant telling it to us.

I solemnly swear that I love this movie