Thursday, November 30, 2006

Stanwyck and Fonda Glow in a Sparkling Eve

Universal's wonderful Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection box set features seven of the writer/director's movies made during his remarkable run at Paramount Studios from 1940-1944. Although Sullivan's Travels is often cited as Sturges most indelible work, in picking the apex of the Sturges heap, my money's on 1941's The Lady Eve, starring Barbara Stanwyck as a beautiful card shark and Henry Fonda as the socially inept, but handsome, intelligent, and incredibly wealthy bookworm/snake enthusiast who catches her fancy. The more-than-considerable talents of the two screen icons truly has never been seen to better advantage than in this ingenious romantic comedy, which also features an astounding troupe of supporting players and a brilliant, hilarious script by Sturges which ranks among the most entertaining and timeless original screenplays ever concocted by a Hollywood scribe.

As Jean Harrington, the awesomely versatile Stanwyck has one of her most satisfying screen roles (on par with her work as Stella Dallas or Phyllis Dietrichson), using her charisma, vivaciousness, warmth, and unimpeachable acting finesse to expertly etch a memorable character rich in personal charm. Although Eve provides the best screen opportunity to showcase Stanwyck's considerable comic ability (especially during the second portion of the film, wherein Sturges miraculous scripting reaches comedy heaven after the title character is finally introduced) the film icon also manages to color the role with moments of touching vulnerability to illustrate the sensitive nature underlying Jean's tough, more sensible side. In addition, gowned by Edith Head's sensational wardrobe, Stanwyck has never been more beautiful or sexier onscreen (witness the sly way Stanwyck dreamily states her audacious query to Fonda, "Don't you think we ought to go to bed?" while nestling with her dazed leading man on a sofa). It's impossible to picture another female star evoking Jean's tenderness and high spirits in the forthright, intelligent manner Stanwyck adopts while also putting the role across with high comic flair.

The strapping Fonda is equally amazing in blending aspects of comedy and drama in his role, mixing his down-to-earth, natural delivery style with a cheesy smile, clueless demeanor, and frequent and perfectly-executed pratfalls to create one of the cinema's most believable and hilarious portraits of a loveable nebbish. Judging by his smooth, confident playing in Eve it's a shame Fonda didn't opt for more characterizations of the comic ilk, as he easily proves himself a master of the genre. Wisely playing his scenes with a somber, serious demeanor suitable for his role as the straight-laced Charles, Fonda manages to make the character funnier than any comic actor pitching for laughs could (when he uneasily states “Snakes are my life” while being seduced by Stanwyck, Fonda very amusingly demonstrates how Charles is becoming both unnerved and horny by Jean’s fearless advances).

Sturges was renown for the rich array of supporting performances which populated most of his films, and Eve is second to none in presenting some unforgettable 'sideline' characterizations. As Stanwyck's sometimes-sneaky but caring father, Charles Colburn is both funny and sage, especially when he takes on Fonda in a couple of the screens most memorable poker games. Also lending their distinctive screen presence are William Demarest and Eric Blore as, respectively, Muggsy Murgatroyd, Fonda's ultra-protective and easily agitated right-hand man, and as Sir Alfred McGlennon-Keith, the unflappable high society English gent who aides Jean in her plot to one-up her unforgiving suitor. Possibly best of all is the irasicable Eugene Pallette as Fonda's gruff father: the actor’s foghorn delivery is used to maximum effect as Pallette bellows riotous retorts while witnessing an unending string of misfortunes which befall his hapless son during one of filmdom’s most notably amusing dinner parties.

With its beautiful fusing of a perfect cast, story, and director, The Lady Eve ranks as one of Hollywood’s freshest, funniest, and smartest romantic comedies, and serves as an enduring testament to the wit and sophistication of Preston Sturges, one of the greatest and most influential talents the cinema has ever produced.

Eve, Travels and yet another top Sturges laughfest, 1942's fast-paced The Palm Beach Story starring Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert, all are making their second appearances on DVD (both Eve and Travels received the deluxe Criterion treatment in their earlier DVD incarnations). However, there are several new-to-DVD titles to be found in the set, including Sturges' breakthrough as writer/director, 1940's The Great McGinty, which won Sturges an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and another memorable Sturges classic, 1944’s Hail the Conquering Hero, featuring Eddie Bracken in a remarkable performance as Woodrow Truesmith, a discharged Marine who suddenly finds himself posing as the hometown hero of the title after befriending a group of Marines, led by invaluable Sturges regular Demarest and the remarkable Freddie Steele, an ex-middleweight boxing champ who holds the screen with a brooding, simmering intensity that predates the young Brando's work in Streetcar. How Sturges resolves Woodrow's predicament involves one of the screen's most dexterous blends of comedy and drama. Few extras outside of theatrical trailers are included, but most of the films are treasures (I've yet to see Sturges foray into serious drama, The Great Moment, which is considered sub par in comparison to his ingenious comedies), and they amply cover Sturges' incredible heyday among the Paramount elite (only 1944's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Sturges' wildest and most provocative farce, starring Betty Hutton and Bracken, is missing from the set, but it's available at an affordable price from Paramount DVD).


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