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The Criterion Collection presents
Jean Harrington: Don't you think we ought to go to bed?
DVD ReviewHaving discovered the comic brilliance of writer cum director Preston Sturges with Criterion's release of Sullivan's Travels, I was anxiously awaiting its predecessor, The Lady Eve, released earlier the same year. Sturges produced a record seven films in four years, marking a string of inspiring comedies that may never be bested. His first feature, The Great McGinty, marked the first film to be directed by a writer, and won Sturges the first ever Oscar® for a screenplay. As a reward for this honor, Paramount gave him access to their "A" actors for Eve, for which he cast Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck as the principles. What follows is perhaps one of the finest comedies of all time, and one that words alone can't amply do justice to, as even the New York Times placed it above Citizen Kane and How Green Was My Valley as the number one film of 1941.
"Funny our meeting like this, isn't it?" - Jean Harrington
We first meet Charles Pike (Fonda), ophiologist and heir to an ale brewing empire, as he leaves the expedition he has been on for the past year collecting specimens from far up the Amazon river with his trusty companion and manservant, Ambrose "Muggsy" Murgatroyd (Demarest). The last words from those in his team are to mind the pitfalls of women, a message he would do well to heed. As his transport pulls alongside the steamer he will make the remainder of his journey on, his arrival sparks a flurry of interest from the female passengers, all wanting a shot at this handsome millionaire. Among them however, are Jean Harrington (Stanwyck) and her father (Coburn), whose plans for liberating Mr. Pike's money are in the form of a card game con, rather than the romantic notions others on board may be contemplating. In the first of many hurts to befall our hero, Jean announces her presence by plonking him on the head with an apple. Welcome to Eden.
Charles tries to keep to himself in the dining room, but instead is the center of attention, with every skirt in the house playing up to him in one way or another, and the supply of Pike's Ale being depleted in the process. Jean watches the reactions around the room in her hand mirror, before setting the unsuspecting Pike up for his first of many fallsˇliterally. With Charles' attention, the scam begins, as her beguiling seductiveness entrances the young manˇafter all, he has just been up the river for a year. The snare set, she and her father execute the setup, letting Pike win $600 in a card game, and while Muggsy smells the con a mile away, Charles refuses to believe it, as his attraction for Jean gets the better of him. Unfortunately for Jean, the feeling is mutual, much to the dismay of her father, who is set on bilking some of those ale-sourced fortunes. With a relationship blooming and the pair in love, it seems nothing but the truth can stand in their wayˇas it does, for when Charles realizes what has been going on, Jean is the one left feeling the sucker. Enter the Lady Eve.
Sturges plays on the deceptiveness of appearances, which play a central part in the film, from the Harrington's guise while cardsharking on the cruise lines, to the distinction—or lack there of—between beer and ale. This concept of recognition runs on many levels throughout The Lady Eve, adding an additional layer of complexity to the storyline. Each character has at least two names, begging the question as to which part of their personalities are truly being represented at any given moment. As Stanwyck's character comments at one point, "How did he know I was a Lady?" and how does one distinguish between beer and ale, when all they have as evidence is the superficial?
The Lady Eve is by definition a screwball comedy, but it is Sturges' gift for dialogue that sets this apart from other films in the genre. Sturges is said to have had his scripts dictated while he himself acted the parts (he claims his only real direction comes in the writing), and his ability to capture this intercourse with wit and sincerity is what makes this picture shine. Of course, without a capable cast the picture would fall apart, and here we also luck out with priceless performances from the cast. The language rolls off their tongues in pure perfection: sharp, biting and filled with double entendres. Stanwyck flirts and fawns unabashedly as Fonda reacts stupefied and dumfounded, a comic symbiosis brimming with chemistry. The sexual tension as Fonda and Stanwyck converse cheek to cheek is thick enough to cut with a knife—as the scene would have been if the censor boards who found it indecent had their way. Sturges also relies on the choice casting of his supporting players, all of whom enrich the production with their characterizations: Sturges staple William Demarest, as the always suspicious Ambrose "Muggsy" Murgatroyd; Eugene Pallette's riotous embodiment of Charles' Ale baron father; Charles Coburn as Jean's conniving yet honorable in-his-own-way father, 'Colonel' Harrington, and Eric Blore as the fellow con posing as Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith.
The blend of sophisticated and witty dialogue with ample slapstick comedy would make The Lady Eve the template for a Sturges film, one that would see him nominated for two more screenplay Oscars® in 1944 for The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero. However, Sturges' meteoric rise to the pinnacles of the movie industry was bested only by his untimely fall from grace, which would follow only a few years after his departure from Paramount, who were growing upset with the director's independent and stubborn nature. Troubled co-ventures with millionaire Howard Hughes, and box office failures under Sturges' subsequent contract with 20th Century Foxˇwhich made him one of the highest paid men in Americaˇleft the director broke and out of work by the mid-1950s. However, when he had the magic, Sturges' star shone like no other before him, and Criterion has done well to release another wonderful comedic adventure from this master writer and director. I can give a hearty recommendation on The Lady Eve with no hesitation.
May the farce be with you.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Any deficiencies in this release are due to source factors, aside from a small amount of interlace artifacting. The print used is in good condition, but has a few minor blemishes here and there, along with some fine scratches. Grayscale rendition tends to be a little over contrasty, but not by much; this does mean that deep shadow detail is affected, and the image is just a tad on the dark side. There is some flicker on occasion and one scene where the framing is unstable. Grain quality varies widely, exhibiting the standard increase during scene transitions seen in many period releases, and stock photography shots also tend to be grainier, though it is well-rendered throughout. In all a very good presentation, though not as perfect as some of Criterion's other work.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented well, with only extremely minor amounts of distortion present in a few places. Hiss is present, but of low audibility. Dialogue is easily understood apart from a couple of places, though this is a source issue. I couldn't expect much more from a film of this vintage in terms of dynamics or overall quality.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film scholar Marian Keane
A video introduction by director Peter Bogdanovich opens things up, with his comments on Preston Sturges and the film. Running just over 8 minutes, Bogdanovich points out some of the technical aspects of the film, such as Sturges' reliance on the master shot, as well as discussing the use of dialogue, which is the greatest strength of any Sturges work. It is apparent, due to some minor discrepancies between his recollection and the film's content, that the film is not fresh in his mind from a recent viewing, and interestingly, both he and commentary participant Marian Keane refer to Charles Pike coming back from a desert island. Details aside, this provides a wealth of insight into the genre, the film, and the man behind the camera.
The meat of the extras is the feature-length commentary by film scholar Marian Keane, who offers a great deal of insight into the construction of the film, though I did find some of her tangents a little unexpected. Keane has obviously done a lot of analysis of this film, which is perhaps why her comments seemed to be attributing more to the script and encompassing more than is on the screen to a novice viewer such as myself, not that her points aren't valid. There is much to glean from this track, though it took me a while to settle into its style of presentation.
Next is the complete 1942 radio version of The Lady Eve, as presented on the Lux Radio Theater. Introduced and prologued by Cecil B. DeMille and running 44m:33s, this performance features Barbara Stanwyck and Charles Coburn reprising their film roles, with Ray Milland playing the part of Charles Pike. There are some interesting revisions necessitated by the running time and the voice-only aspect, which make for a fitting contrast to the film. The program is presented intact, including the station ID and commercials for Lux Toilet Soap, a marketing campaign that wouldn't, dare I say, wash today. I greatly appreciate the preservation and inclusion of these historical broadcasts on this and other Criterion editions. Sound quality is extremely reasonable for material of this vintage.
One of Hollywood's most prolific costume designers, Edith Head, gets a showcase displaying a collection of her work from the film, which is accompanied by her comments on suiting Barbara Stanwyck in what would be a marked departure from her previous image in film. We get a comparison of the concept drawings and finished pieces, including a couple not used in the film. Ms. Head also comments on the difficulty of designing for one of the film's other cast members, which account for some of her only failures in the industry.
A photo gallery covering promotional artwork and stills from the production rounds out the on-disc features. This section includes 54 behind-the-scenes stills from around the set, along with 38 screens worth of promotional material and production momentos, including several interesting interoffice letters concerning the submission of the shooting script and suggested revisions thereof by the Hayes council. Criterion once again turns what could be just a simple photo collection into an educational opportunity, as some of the documentation included here is very eye-opening.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsPreston Sturges' third feature film, The Lady Eve is a comic tour de force, chock full of slapstick antics, trademark dialogue, impecable acting, and a story that works on many levels. Rounded out with an array of suitable supplements, this makes a perfect companion piece to Criterion's Sullivan's Travels, and another must own title from the Collection. Don't miss it.
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