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The Lady Eve: The Joke’s On Her

I’ve been thinking about the adage that the best screwball comedies have leads who are roughly equal, able to give-and-take and be worthy opponents: Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. But my favorite screwball comedy, The Lady Eve, seems to defy that adage as Barbara Stanwyck appears to run all over the hapless Henry Fonda. So why do I love it so much?

I think it’s because everything is not as it seems. Director/writer Preston Sturges has deceived us, because his subtle joke is that the joke’s not on Henry Fonda at all; it’s on her and she’s the only one who’s in on it.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a tough, hard-boiled, unsentimental card sharp who takes advantage of poor suckers and then, like a sap, falls in love herself. She lays down her defenses and is rejected and humiliated. It’s the ultimate humiliation and she loses her self-respect. Because although it looks like she’s always in total control, manipulating Fonda at will, he’s the one who really is in control (though he doesn’t have the faintest idea that he is). She can captivate him, but because she’s so in love, he’s the one who can reject her or accept her.

That’s why she’s so bent on revenge; to regain her own personal self-respect. But she can’t help it; she still loves him. I think it’s that depth of emotion that I like so much about The Lady Eve (besides how hilarious it is). Her sincerity in love makes it clear that if her character doesn’t get her man, we’d be watching a tragedy instead of a comedy. Beneath the cynicism, the battle of the sexes, the ironic jabs at marriage and love and the rich, is a deeply romantic film because of how crazy the two leads are about each other. The Lady Eve has one of the most satisfying endings of any screwball comedy I’ve seen.

So basically, all the pratfalls, the humiliation that Fonda must go through is to make his humiliation equal to hers.

Random Note – in a fit of Sturges enthusiasm I named my cat Lady Eve, but sometimes I think I should have called her Buster. Lady Eve (the cat) has the most perfect stone-face as she watches life go by. She also needs to work on her sultry look.

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2016 in Movies

 

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Five Favorite Christmas Films…with a few extras

I was recently asked about my five favorite Christmas films by Robert Horvat of If It Happened Yesterday, It’s History and The History of the Byzantine Empire. So without further ado, here are my top go-to Christmas favorites.

Actually, there is some further ado. I realized as I was making the list that I came to my favorite Christmas films somewhat late. Apparently I didn’t watch Christmas movies as a kid? Anyway, they all are from 1939 to 1945. The war years seem to be a sweet spot for me and Christmas films.

Remember the Night (1940) – John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) is the upright Assistant DA whose specialty is prosecuting woman because he can appear gentle and therefore not alienate a sympathetic jury. But when Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) steals a diamond bracelet and is caught just before Christmas, he manages to get the trial postponed. Feeling guilty because she now has to spend Christmas in prison, he pays her bail and offers to drive her to her home in Indiana. But she ends up staying at his family home and for the first time experiences what a loving family can be like

That description sounds syrupy, but it’s actually a funny script that is both touching and ironic. Written by Preston Sturges, he said it had a little bit “of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz.” Sturges’ idea was that love made Lee honest and John crooked. Lee is a street-smart, petty thief and con artist who appears confident, but is really longing for stability and love. We discover that her mother always thought she would come to no good and Lee is living out her expectations. Meanwhile John’s mother (played by Beulah Bondi) always expected him to succeed, which he does, though falling in love with Lee makes him want to break the law to help her.

The ending is not your typical happy ending; there is room for several interpretations, but it is still completely satisfying. Also in the film is Sterling Holloway.

Bachelor Mother (1939) – I love nearly everything Ginger Rogers appeared in in the 1930s. Bachelor Mother was made near the end of her collaboration with Fred Astaire at RKO and was a hit for her. Polly Parrish is out of work in New York when she sees a woman leave a baby on the steps of an orphanage. She picks the baby up, but is then mistaken for the baby’s mother. When she denies this, they go to her former employers at the John B. Merlin and Son department store. Thinking that her abandonment of the baby is related to losing her job, John B. Merlin’s son, David (David Niven), insists that she keep her baby and only then will he give her job back.

She agrees out of desperation and soon David falls in love. Adding to the fun is David’s father (Charles Coburn), who assumes the baby is his grandchild and wants to raise the child himself since David and Polly don’t seem willing to do the right thing, as he imagines it. Ginger Rogers always excelled at these kinds of roles: a working girl, tough and yet sweet, not above a little conniving, but essentially honest. Pure delight.

Holiday Inn (1942) – Holiday Inn is one of two films that Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire made together and they are a fantastic duo of contrasting styles and camaraderie. They even get a song about their contrasting styles. Crosby sings of how he’ll woo the girl through singing, while Astaire says that he’ll sweep her off her feet with dancing. In a fun bit of joshing, Crosby tries to dance and Astaire tries a little singing; neither with any success. They remain throughout the film, semi-friendly rivals for the affections of not one, but two girls.

Jim Hardy (Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Astaire) have a joint act, but when Hardy loses his girl to Ted, he decides to relax and enjoy life and buy a farm. The farm isn’t as relaxing as he’d hoped, so he turns his farm into an Inn. The idea is that he’ll put on a show every holiday: Christmas, Washington’s Birthday, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, Easter, The 4th of July, etc. But inevitably, he and Ted end up fighting over another woman, sabotaging each other at every turn, in between some fantastic songs and dances, all written by Irving Berlin. Fred Astaire dances with firecrackers, the song “White Christmas” is introduced for the first time by Crosby, Astaire dances while drunk, Crosby sings “Easter Parade.”

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) Another great Christmas film starring Barbara Stanwyck! Elizabeth Lane (Stanwyck) writes a column about her farm in Connecticut, her husband and baby and all the wonderful food she cooks, which is followed faithfully by female readers around the country. The only hitch is that none of it’s true. She can’t even cook and gets her recipes from a friend, Felix (S.Z. Sakall) who owns a restaurant.

But when a sailor (Dennis Morgan) miraculously survives having his ship torpedoed, the magazine’s owner, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) has the idea for a publicity stunt where they’ll invite the sailor to her farm and give him a taste of the ideal American domesticity. Of course, she has to then scramble to find a farm, a husband and even a baby so she doesn’t lose her job. She also brings Felix along to cook for her. But when the sailor arrives, she finds herself attracted and mayhem ensues.

The incredible cast also includes Una O’Connor and Reginald Gardiner.

Shop Around the Corner (1940) – One of my favorite Ernst Lubitsch films, this is the film that also first made me really like Jimmy Stewart. Two co-workers at a leathergoods shop in Budapest, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan), do not get along with each other, but what they don’t realize is that they are secret pen palls. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was remade several times as the musical In The Good Old Summertime and Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail.

It’s a completely charming story with a bit of a dark side involving a side plot with a suicide attempt, infidelity and loneliness. Alfred Kralik and co-worker Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) discuss how much money you need to support a family. Alfred and Klara, in their letter writing, are reaching out for something beyond the mundane of work, as they discuss everything from philosophy, poetry and culture. Ironically, they bond intellectually and it is only when they meet in person that it becomes difficult to navigate through their attraction to each other, which manifests itself as dislike and arguments. The film also stars Frank Morgan of Wizard of Oz fame.

Other favorites:

The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (1966) – Here’s one Christmas film I always watched faithfully as a child. Dr. Suess’ book is faithfully adapted as an animated TV film narrated by Boris Karloff and to me, Boris Karloff will always be the Grinch, no matter how many of his iconic horror films I see. The remake with Jim Carrey has nothing on the original, which still makes me smile endlessly.

Larceny Inc. (1942) – Edward G. Robinson became famous playing brutal gangsters, but he also made many comedic gangster films. One of these is Larceny Inc., where he is just out of prison and wants to turn over a new leaf. But he needs money to buy the dog racing track that will enable to be both honest and rich and the bank won’t give him a loan, so he decides that he must commit one more crime. He buys a luggage shop that is right next door to the bank and begins tunneling in the shop’s basement. But despite all his attempts, his luggage shop is a financial success and he begins to make friends with his shop owner neighbors. Most of the story takes place during Christmas time and we even get to see him dressed as Santa!

An Affair to Remember (1957) – And I have to mention this one, which Nora Ephron used for inspiration in her film Sleepless in Seattle. It’s been called sappy, syrupy and hopelessly coincidental, but I love it and always cry at the end (just like Rosie O’Donnell and Meg Ryan – the ending takes place on Christmas day). It is tremendously helped by the sparkling chemistry and dialogue between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. The film is actually a remake of Love Affair, which Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, another superior film.

Ahhh! After completing this post I realized that I forgot about The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), directed and written by Preston Sturges. A hilarious screwball comedy about a young woman in a small town in America who parties, gets drunk, marries and can’t remember who she married. But she’s pregnant and the film is about her family’s reaction, the town’s reaction and the attempts of her suitor to help her. Starring Betty Hutton, Eddie Bracken and William Demarest.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2015 in Movies

 

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The Great McGinty (1940) – Political Satire by Preston Sturges

greatmcgintyposter2My predominant impression of The Great McGinty is unfortunately somewhat overshadowed by the fact that I had a very bad stomach ache when I watched it, though it had nothing to do with the movie. I’ve been trying to watch all of Preston Sturges’ films and when one has a stomach ache it seems like a better idea to watch comedy than drama. Though I will note that laughter does not necessarily ease the pain.

Ironically enough, The Great McGinty is actually a comedic treatment of dramatic material: biting political satire with an ending that is funny, but really quite sad.

Preston Sturges had been writing screenplays throughout the 1930s, his most famous being The Good Fairy (directed by William Wyler), Easy Living and Remember the Night (both directed by Mitchell Leisen), but he always felt that the directors were changing his scripts and that the only way to preserve them was to direct them himself. The first movie he both wrote and directed was the 1940 The Great McGinty, starring Brian Donlevy, Akim Tamiroff, Muriel Angelus and William Demarest.

The film opens with the caption: This is the story of two men who met in a banana republic. One of them never did anything dishonest in his life except for one crazy minute. The other never did anything honest in his life except for one crazy minute. They both had to get out of the country. Though it’s really the story of the man who had only one crazy moment of honesty. His name is Daniel McGinty (Brian Donlevy) and he relates the story of his rise and fall in politics to the other man.

Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy - McGinty used the money from his 37 votes to buy the new suit

Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy – McGinty used the money from his 37 votes to buy the new suit

His story begins on election night, when the party faithful are mustering the vote. Soup is being handed out and a party worker (William Demarest) is giving out two dollars to whoever will vote for Mayor Tillinghast…especially several times. As he explains, just because people are too lazy to go out or because they die unexpectedly is no reason for Mayor Tillinghast to be deprived of his voters.

McGinty is a tramp who happens by and votes thirty-seven times and when the party worker (who never does get a name – I think of him as William Demarest) takes McGinty to meet the party boss (Akim Tamiroff…who also never gets a name) the Boss is impressed by McGinty’s pugnacity and unwillingness to be pushed around. He gives him a job, first as an enforcer, but slowly moves him up the political ranks. McGinty goes from tramp to thug in a gaudy suit to polished and well-groomed alderman.

And when the Boss decides that he needs a fresh face in politics he chooses McGinty to run for mayor on the reform ticket (the Boss is the boss of all political parties in the area, reform or otherwise). But first, the Boss tells McGinty, he must get married. Since women have the vote, he says, they don’t vote for bachelors. McGinty’s secretary (Muriel Angelus) talks him into marrying her. She likes him and sees an opportunity to provide for her two children from a previous marriage. It is to be a marriage strictly of convenience…though of course the two fall in love and he comes to care for her two children. It is a very sweet part of the film and once again demonstrates Sturges’ knack for combining satire with genuine sentiment.

Muriel Angelus and Brian Donlevy

Muriel Angelus and Brian Donlevy

The film is not a long film and is built around one great irony. In most movies, a man is rewarded for doing the right thing. In The Great McGinty, it is his undoing. His wife begins to influence him and urge him to break free of the party. She’s like a kind of angelic femme fatale. She has good intentions, but she brings him down just the same.

I am used to seeing Brian Donlevy play villains (Destry Rides AgainUnion PacificBeau Geste), but as Daniel McGinty, although he’s a dishonest man, he’s not fundamentally a bad man and can be quite sweet. He’s just used to working with the way things are. I love the moment when he comes home from his election celebration drunk and falls all over his new dishes (there are the usual Sturges’ pratfall in this film) and his wife comes in to help him to bed. At this point, they haven’t realized they love each other and she is trying conscientiously to keep the kids from bothering him. When the kids do come in while she’s putting him to bed, she apologizes for their intrusion, but all he can think is how sorry he is that they had to see him drunk.

What’s interesting is that Preston Sturges seems to be pretty cynical about everybody, even those who genuinely want to do good. The reform party is just as corrupt as the previous party. One man’s reform is another man’s graft. Bridges that bring employment deplete treasuries and enrich party bosses. There are the parades, the showmanship, the total lack of real principles being expressed in political speeches. And even McGinty’s wife’s ideas – ideas that seem like good ideas, like child labor reform – are treated somewhat doubtingly. After all, as McGinty tells her, he liked being able to work when he was a child. It was better than being on the street and it helped his mother, too.

Brian Donlevy and family

Daniel McGinty and family…with dog

William Demarest, as in all of his roles in Sturges’ films, is possibly the funniest person in the film, though Tamiroff more than holds his own. The Boss and McGinty have a habit of getting into tousles whenever they disagree. Demarest usually referees. As a bit of trivia, in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Tamiroff and Donlevy actually make an appearance as the characters they played in The Great McGinty and help to bring about the happy ending in that movie.

By no means Preston Sturges’ best film, The Great McGinty is still a pretty good one. What took me aback is that unlike all his following movies (or like Frank Capra’s movies), there is no convenient occurrence to make everything right at the end. Once McGinty falls, he really has fallen. Sturges plays it for laughs, but it’s actually quite tragic. It doesn’t pay to try to do the right thing.

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2015 in Comedy

 

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