July 28, 2007

The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve
directed by Preston Sturges, 1941

I should say up front that this is the best screwball comedy I've ever seen, and among the top few romances as well. I should also say up front that I have had a crush on Barbara Stanwyck for years, so that may color my opinion somewhat.

I almost don't want to talk too much about this movie, because it's hard to do it justice in words. But yeah like I'd ever shut my mouth about something I liked...

First of all, you've got Henry Fonda who's got the dorky rich boy shtick down, but isn't satisfied to do just that. His character has quirks and depth and realness, and also all the qualities you want in a romantic leading man. (It's amazing how many so-called romances will have lead characters who are pretty despicable and unlovable.) And Stanwyck is just a marvel really - I don't think I could say enough positive things about her. She's absolutely radiant and full of life and like Fonda she seems like such a real person. Well, of course "real" within the ludicrous context posited by a screwball comedy.

As in Sullivan's Travels (reviewed a couple weeks ago here), it's the tone that makes it all work. Unlike in that other movie, the director isn't "playing tricks" with tone here, but keeping us engaged as viewers, sucked into the story. The genius is a matter of making us feel that the people on the screen are reflections of ourselves, that there's a human commonality that connects us.

So in this context, the plot is beautifully wrought, with actual developments that alter the relationships among the characters and further the drama. (Again, how often have you seen films wherein the plot twists are nothing but that - a little obstacle to make sure it doesn't peak too soon?) A great second act and third act, each one stretching the bounds of credulity further, adding new possibilities for dramatic irony, characters study, and just hilarious dialogue.

And anyone could fall in love with Ms. Stanwyck just by watching.


ASM said...

I just watched this. So brilliant. I couldn't agree more. I've been catching up on Barbara Stanwyck films and, while I've loved her in everything I've seen, this film and role are my favorites so far.

But The Lady Eve raises a question that I've been considering lately: is all manner of deviousness really just in the pursuit of love? I phrase it that way (rather than "all's fair in love and war") because, in the film, I think it's clear that her manipulations would be seen in an entirely different light if she were just pursuing revenge, if she really were, as in war, only out for blood. The movie makes a great case for deviousness in the pursuit of love because even the traditional seduction cliches are addressed with a kind of forward grace: "If you waited for a man to propose to you from natural causes, you'd die of old maidenhood. That's why I let you try my slippers on. And then I put my cheek against yours. And then I made you put your arms around me." Like that.

reviewstew said...

oh wow, well it's not many movies that can raise an issue of moral philosophy, eh? Thanks ASM.

I think your point is well-taken. To get a perspective on the issue, I'm trying to back away from the details of this movie and look at the broad shapes. Seems to me that, like many great romance stories, it's about how love levels out power relationships, alters the social landscape. I think this goes hand-in-hand with what you call "forward grace," which I take to mean a generalized hope about how subterfuge or sacrifice now will lead to continued bliss later. In other words, when we believe in that perfect future with the loved one, we also believe that any transgressions it took to achieve that state will be trivial in comparison. And therefore love brings with it the potential to smash through boundaries and turn the social order upside down. That's the social power we see in Shakespeare comedies, Tom Jones, Jane Austen, Cosi fan tutte, etc. (Of course, an act of violence also has the potential to turn the social order on its head, and there are plenty of narratives about that as well. Probably there are lots of shared characteristics, now that I think about it - I'm sure some UCLA film student's already filed a dissertation on it.)

In any case, this movie's manifestation of that theme is necessarily enmeshed with the sexual politics of the time, like any film of that era would have to be to one degree or another. The first scenes on the ship set the stage for that handily. Broadly, I'd say that this is a story that would feel creepy if it were the man doing the devious manipulations. We root for Stanwyck's character precisely because she is a woman not scared to push past set boundaries (for either love or revenge, actually - there seems to be somewhat of a conflation of the two, which gives the narrative some tension).

Some of the genius of this film is that we get very nuanced emotions from the lead actors, but all in the service of a plot that's absolutely ludicrous on its face. (No matter how dumb Henry Fonda's character might be, no way anyone would fall for the double-identity trick. Ever.) It creates a kind of disconnect - in me, at least - which is part of what I mean by the tone being so well-controlled. When my mind works to fill in this perceived gap, it keeps bumping into an outline of the social sphere, morals among the upper classes, prescribed male and female roles. These themes are given more depth than they would be if it were a pure slapstick movie or a melodrama.

When we think that Stanwyck's character might smashing through social strictures to pursue revenge, there's a frisson of guilty delight - but not so much that we feel let down when she alters course to pursue love in the end. Our own schadenfreude is redeemed at the last moment ("oh I knew all along that she was just doing all that for love"), so we forgive Stanwyck's character as we forgive ourselves.

And we forgive the filmmakers in the same breath too, for manipulating us!

ASM said...

That's a deft analysis, reviewstew. The only thing I take issue with is the assertion that no one, however dumb, would beleive the double identity gag. I have no difficulty thinking that someone would beleive it, not from stupidity, but from a desire that it be true. People can beleive any improbable thing, if they really want to. And the genius in Jean's revenge is that it's also a kind of reform: Charles rejected her because he wanted her to have a different past; Eve is exactly what he wants; identical woman without the shady background. He beleives the twin gag because he wants it to be true (It's only on the honeymoon that he learns his lesson: the bad girls really aren't so bad, and the good girls really aren't so good). Hope plus denial can render any absurdity credible. (Anecdotal evidence removed . . . because, apparently, you never know who's watching)

reviewstew said...

Yes, perhaps you're right ASM (except for the part where you call my analysis "deft"). In a way this is a way of pushing the desires of the audience onto the screen characters. We want to believe that Henry Fonda would want to believe. And if his desire to believe leads to real belief, there's nothing wrong with us (on a different meta-level) believing that the on-screen action is real.

Of course the twist is that Fonda's character was actually fooled, wasn't he? But only in the way that we were, buying into the fantasy for a while. It was good for us to do that, right?