Comedy is perhaps the most difficult thing to produce on film because it is dependent on seeming easy. Funny movies get devalued somewhat because of how effortless they appear and because the type of pure filmmaking consisting of artistic camera angles and clever editing that movie snobs like so much to prop up are anathema to comedies, which require straight and clear (and unartistic) storytelling.
How many great directors have languished and crumpled under the yoke of comedies? Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) and The Trouble with Harry (1955) remain oddities; Spielberg’s Always (1989), a miserable flop; Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983), an uneven black aberration. Though I have admiration for most of those movies (Always is pretty bad) and contend that, in their way, most of Hitchcock’s works are comedies, the point is that directors don’t become legends by making funny movies. A few of the greats like Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks could make movies that made audiences laugh and some that impressed the auteurists, but the funny stuff seemed more like the feather, not the cap. Hawks made his name on The Big Sleep (1946) and Red River (1948), not Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Ball of Fire (1941). We all know who directed Citizen Kane (1941), but who directed Duck Soup (1933)? Or A Fish Called Wanda (1988)? Or Airplane! (1980)?
That’s why it’s important to remember the greats of American screen comedy such as Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges, not because they’re so great, though they are, but because they are so easily great. Orson Welles always wants you to know what he’s up to or, at least, that he’s up to something. Sturges wants to get lost in your laughter. Sturges’ greatest film is The Lady Eve (1941), a movie so light and bouncy it’s in danger of floating away, but every time it threatens to, Sturges is there to keep it grounded, perhaps having it trip over a sofa.
The movie stars Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, as a man who knows too little and a woman who knows too much. Fonda is Charles Pike, a herpetologist and the son of a brewing fortune who has his life exactly the way he wants it. He’s in South America chasing snakes. “If I had my way,” he tells his team, “this is the way I’d like to spend all my time, in the company of men like yourselves in the pursuit of knowledge.” He has to bring the first–discovered member of a new species of snake back to the States with him, and that’s when the fickle foot of fate literally sticks itself out to trip him, in the form of the one attached to the end of Stanwyck’s shapely leg. Stanwyck is Jean Harrington who, with her father Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn), spends her time on high-class ocean liners grifting the super-rich of their money. “Let us be crooked but never common,” the Colonel tells his daughter.
The father-daughter team of con artists spot Charles arriving on a boat bound for New York and learn he’s the heir of Pike’s Ale, “The Ale that Won for Yale,” and they set their sights on that beer money. Or, as we learn, ale money. “There’s a big difference,” Charles says defensively when someone mistakes beer and ale as one and the same. Ale, apparently, is fermented on the top and beer on the bottom. “Or maybe it’s the other way around. There’s no similarity at all.” Charles tries to read peacefully in the boat’s dining hall (his book is titled “Are Snakes Necessary?”) but can hardly escape his fame as a score of young ladies throw themselves at him in hopes of snagging a rich husband. Jean observes all this (and Sturges slyly insinuates that such gold–digging is its own kind of confidence game) and amusingly gives the play by play to her father until she trips poor Charles as he tries to escape the onslaught, sending him, for the first time of many, tumbling to the ground.
She makes him fall in love with her (easy enough being Barbara Stanwyck), but she unexpectedly finds herself falling in love with him. He’s so sweet and naïve, yet believes himself worldly (he proudly demonstrates a simple card trick to Colonel Harrington, a professional card shark, who can only bemusedly shake his head), he is the perfect weapon against Jean’s jaded armor. As he melts under her practiced and expert seductions, she does the same under his clumsy but genuine ones. This process is done in one shot, Sturges proving that even comedy directors have a few filmmaking tricks up their sleeves: he uses a slow zoom in on Jean, idly playing with Charles’ hair as he sits in an anguished mixture of terror and desire, she whispering increasingly provocative nothings to him until he’s worked up to a froth, then letting out a sexually charged sigh and stretch, and suddenly, “You better go to bed, Hopsie (his brew-born nickname). I think I can sleep peacefully now.” He loosens his collar in despair. “I wish I could say the same.” They are soon engaged.
Before the voyage is over Charles will be made wise of Jean’s background, and he calls off the marriage. This adds some nice poignancy as Jean had been flirtingly warning Charles about herself since they met, something that elicited a wry smile from the audience. There’s a scene when she speaks to him after he finds out about her but before he reveals what he knows when she once again tries to jokingly put herself down, which makes the same amusing warnings seem sad. Jean is heartbroken but vows revenge just the same, and the second half of the movie is set up with her infiltrating the Pike family by impersonating the Lady Eve Sidwich, the relative of an English sir who is another con man swindling the Pikes. Despite not changing a thing about herself accept a slight accent, she is able to convince Charles she’s a different girl. “Weren’t her eyes closer together?” he asks a skeptical aide. “They were not,” the aide responds. “They were right where they are, on each side of her nose.” Jean’s lack of disguise is its own disguise. “They look too much alike to be the same,” Charles says to convince himself.
Charles then proceeds to fall, many times literally, again for Jean, but now for Eve, and she is able to both have her revenge and restore her heart for the happy ending, which gives us not one but two great closing lines. The story is classic screwball, complete with wonderful supporting performances, especially from Coburn and the impeccable Eugene Pallette, playing Charles’ father, who watches his son embarrass himself courting the woman he loves, adding his gravelly baritone to volley laconic asides. However, Sturges is able to create something a little more than a hair-brained romantic comedy through his insights as a scriptwriter, wryly observing human nature (“A moonlit deck is a woman’s business office,” Jean says), and with sexy, censor-proof banter (“You have an excellent nose,” Charles says referring to Jean’s learning ability. “I’m glad you like it,” she responds. “Do you like any of the rest of me?”), and intelligent and snappy jokes (“Six more Pike’s Pale,” a waiter asks a harried bartender who has just run out.“They want the ale that won for Yale!” “Well,” the bartender snorts, “tell ‘em to go to … Harvard.”).
What separates Sturges from simply a screenwriter who directs his scripts is his terrific eye and acumen for storytelling and pacing. My favorite sequence is a beautifully executed moment when Colonel Harrington, who doesn’t buy his daughter’s affection as genuine, is trying to cheat Charles at cards while Jean tries to cheat her father to protect Charles, who plays the game as if nothing is happening at all. The pot keeps getting bigger as Jean and her father show a remarkable capacity to hide and exchange hands of cards. This sequence only works if you have a competent visualist making the information intelligible, and Sturges is more than equal to the task.
The Lady Eve is great for all of these reasons but mainly because it breezes by so easily, because its machinery is so well-hidden that it rewards both shallow observation and deep thought. Comedy is sometimes hard to write about because to explain it is to destroy it in some way. However, the best stuff can stand up to such scrutiny, andThe Lady Eve is like a favorite toy: both fun to play with and to take apart.