The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve, 1941, Paramount Pictures. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda. Directed by Preston Sturges. B&W, 94 minutes.

Charles “Hopsie” Pike (Henry Fonda) is fresh on the boat after a year-long expedition up the Amazon studying snakes and other assorted reptiles. The first evening on board the luxury liner he meets socialite Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father, Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn)…only father and daughter aren’t who they claim to be. Unbeknownst to Charles, they are card sharks and con artists, out to fleece their latest victim.

Jean, however, finds herself falling for Hopsie. She’s ready to go straight and begin a life together with her new love, when his friend and bodyguard Muggsy (William Demarest) discovers the truth about the Harringtons. Charles dumps Jean and leaves her heartbroken, as well as out for revenge.

She returns to his life as the Lady Eve Sidwich, ready to break his heart just as he broke hers. But she is at risk of being sidelined by her own desires.

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Charles Coburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda

The third film both written and directed by Preston Sturges, The Lady Eve is considered by many to be his finest work. It is a smart combination of satire and slapstick comedy, with plenty of sexual innuendo and mockery of the wealthy. Sturges, who had once been married to a socialite, was known for poking fun at upper crust society.

But the fun isn’t all at the expense of the privileged. Others in this film have a moment of having his or her foibles exposed or dignity bent.

Paulette Goddard and Brian Aherne were the studio’s choices for the lead roles, but Sturges, who had clout after the success of his first two films, insisted on Stanwyck and Fonda. It was one of the few comedies Stanwyck had appeared in during her career so far, and its success led her to the starring role in Ball of Fire later that year.

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Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda

The film was well-received by critics and audiences alike, with The New York Times critic writing, “It isn’t often that this corner has good reason to bang a gong and holler ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry!’ As a matter of fact, it is all too rare indeed that we have even moderate provocation to mark a wonder of the cinematic world.”

The film received one Academy Award nomination, for Best Writing, Original Story (Monckton Hoffe, who wrote the original short story the final script was based on). It lost to Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

Stanwyck was long known for her professionalism on the set, including always being prepared for the day’s shooting schedule, as well as her kindness to fellow cast members and crew. It was a rare actor who met the high standards she set, but Fonda appears to have been one of them. He later wrote she was his favorite co-star, and is even rumored to have had a long-time crush on her.

The Lady Eve is sophisticated despite its slapstick comedy, and a prime example of Preston Sturges at his finest. It does lose a little shine with a few details such as Stanwyck’s distinctly bad English accent, although perhaps that was a deliberate element, but overall remains sharp and funny today.

As of March 28, 2017, “The Lady Eve” is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Tuesday, April 11, at 8:00 p.m. ET/7:00 p.m. CT. Scheduling is subject to change. Check TCM’s schedule for the latest information and to receive email updates about your favorite films.

It Should Happen to You

It Should Happen to You, 1954, Columbia Pictures. Starring Judy Holliday, Jack Lemmon, Peter Lawford. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 86 minutes.

Young and broke, Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday) dreams of a better life, better than “marrying the first man that comes along…or maybe the second.” She has been saving for the rather unusual goal of buying billboard space, where she plans to place her name and picture for all of New York City to see, believing fame will bring her what she wants.

She catches the attention of budding filmmaker Pete Sheppard (Jack Lemmon) while walking through Central Park one afternoon in her stocking feet.  The two hit it off, and when Pete tells her she may end up in one of his documentaries, Gladys is thrilled at the idea of being in the movies.

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Jack Lemmon, Judy Holliday

Later that day, she acts on her dream of fame and fortune and buys 90 days of billboard space. With her name in letters that seem sky-high, Gladys is on her way to the happiness she desires. Or so it seems, until the Adams Soap Co., which traditionally has purchased that same billboard space each year for the same three months, steps in. With negotiations designed to intimidate, Evan Adams III (Peter Lawford) works to get back what he sees as rightfully his.

In the meantime, Pete has moved into the same apartment building Gladys lives in, and the two begin a romance of sorts. Pete’s interest is obvious, while Gladys, although appreciative of his attentions, is more intent on seeing where the notoriety from the billboard can get her.

Judy Holliday portrays Gladys as a likable young woman who, despite her dreams of glory, is basically happy in life. Most importantly, she knows what she wants, although the path she believes will lead her there is perhaps ill-advised.

There are some wonderful lines in this film that reveal Gladys’ perceptive side and keep her from being merely a ditzy blonde. She is, in fact, more insightful than simple, and well-equipped to take care of herself in treacherous situations.  The script was written by Garson Kanin, who also wrote Born Yesterday and Adam’s Rib, two significant vehicles for Holliday’s career.

This was the first major film appearance for Jack Lemmon, who is at his best as the sincere, baffled man in love with a woman who is stubbornly pursuing a foolish goal. He stands in stark contrast to Lawford’s slick and sleazy character, a man who takes advantage of women as a matter of course.

Look for a delightful duet between Holliday and Lemmon, interspersed with conversation and casually confident piano-playing, one of the finest parts of the film.

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Judy Holliday, Peter Lawford

It Should Happen to You was nominated for one Academy Award, Best Costume Design (Black & White). It was well-received by both critics and audiences, and its popularity for classic film fans has grown in recent years with the onslaught of reality shows making the film’s mockery of being famous for being famous seem both prescient and insightful.

This is a movie with all the elements for a great comedy, and it delivers. The script is original and sharp, the performances by Holliday and Lemmon endearing, and the direction by George Cukor once again showing he knows how to bring out the best in both actors and a script. The better scenes are perhaps in the early parts of the film, but it remains charming until the heartfelt end.

Princess O’Rourke

Princess O’Rourke, 1943, Warner Bros. Starring Olivia de Havilland, Robert Cummings, Charles Coburn. Directed by Norman Krasna. B&W, 94 minutes.

Princess Maria (Olivia de Havilland), heir to the throne of an unnamed European country, has taken refuge in New York City for the duration of WWII. With her is her uncle Holman (Charles Coburn), who shows particular concern she marry soon and produce male heirs. He has someone picked out, a man for whom Maria quite clearly states she feels no attraction.

On a flight to California, Maria, who is afraid of flying, takes too many sleeping pills, and when bad weather forces the plane to return home, the pilot, Eddie O’Rourke (Robert Cummings), co-pilot Dave Campbell (Jack Carson) and stewardess (Julie Bishop) aren’t able to wake her. To further complicate matters, Maria is flying under the name Mary Williams, and she gave no address when she booked her flight.

Eddie takes her home, but is careful to have Dave and his wife Jean (Jane Wyman) stop by to help him care for the heavily sedated woman.

It isn’t long before Maria and Eddie have fallen for each other, but he still doesn’t know who she is, and royal constraints are pulling tight.

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Olivia de Havilland, Julie Bishop, Robert Cummings, Jack Carson

Olivia de Havilland later called this role “one of the most satisfying” she did while under contract to Warner Bros., even though it came at a turbulent time in her life. Between the time filming was completed and the movie was released, she sued her studio in a move that would ultimately significantly weaken the studio system Hollywood was built on. She won the lawsuit, but did not work for nearly two years while she was essentially blacklisted.

This was the directorial debut for Norman Krasna, who was well established as a screenwriter by this time, including such movies as Bachelor Mother and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Krasna won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay.

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Olivia de Havilland

The final scenes allegedly include an appearance by President Franklin Roosevelt’s dog Fala, although the truth appears to be the dog on the screen was a different Scottish Terrier. Regardless, the pup plays an endearing part as messenger for Maria, who has spent a restless night trying to resolve her problem.

This is a pleasant, lightweight comedy, not of the calibre of the film to which it is so often compared, Roman Holiday, but it has developed a following of its own. Olivia de Havilland has the poise and beauty to make her convincing as a princess, and Robert Cummings is a pleasure as the bewildered suitor who doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into by falling in love.

It moves at a decent pace until the final scenes, when it starts to drag a little. It has a stellar cast, strong script and overall, is a charming film classic movie fans will enjoy.

 

Bachelor Mother

Bachelor Mother, 1939, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Ginger Rogers, David Niven, Charles Coburn. Directed by Garson Kanin. B&W, 82 minutes.

Polly Parrish (Ginger Rogers) has just been laid off of her seasonal job at Merlin and Son’s Department Store. It’s Christmastime, and she is in need of income, any income.

While at lunch on what appears to be her last day of work, she passes a foundling home and sees an older woman drop off an infant. Afraid the child may fall off the steps, Polly reaches out to pick him up, just as one of the home’s matrons opens the door. Inside, she’s unable to convince the home’s director the baby isn’t hers, but escapes the situation without a bundle of joy.

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Ginger Rogers

The foundling home tracks down her employer and convinces David Merlin (David Niven), the son in “Merlin and Son’s,” to give her back her job so she can care for “her” son. He does, but ends up paying an unexpected price for his generosity. Through a series of mishaps, the elder Mr. Merlin (Charles Coburn) comes to believe his son is the father of the baby, and expects him to do right by the child and his mother.

Bachelor Mother is an engaging comedy, predictable in some ways, yet clever in the details and twists that raise it above the level of bland storytelling. Nivens, Rogers, and Coburn each bring his or her own particular charm, with Rogers in particular showing an edgy, droll side. It doesn’t hurt that the baby is delightful, performing, it seems, on cue, although of course that likely wasn’t the case.

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David Niven, Ginger Rogers

Rogers initially expressed “deep reservations” about the script, stating the story line was thin and the characters “had no life.” However, her concerns proved unfounded, and in her autobiography she wrote, “I loved working with David Niven and the precious baby…(Garson Kanin) was imaginative and spontaneous and his good humor and lively sense of comedy smoothed out any problems along the way.”

The script was by prolific screenwriter Norman Krasna, who also wrote the screenplays for such movies as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and White Christmas.  It was based on a story by Felix Jackson, who received the film’s one Academy Award nomination, Best Writing, Original Story.

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David Niven

The film critic for The New York Times wrote “through smart writing, direction and performance, the theme is developed hilariously, with sudden and unexpected twists which never are permitted to affect the insane logic of the yarn’s progression.”

Perfectly enjoyable, Bachelor Mother is a comedy all classic movie fans should see. While the plot line of child abandonment hardly seems comic material, it’s handled in such a way that the improbable is easy to believe and the unbefitting is downright funny.

 

Adam’s Rib

Adam’s Rib, 1949, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 100 minutes.

A distraught wife (Judy Holliday) seeks out her husband (Tom Ewell) as he meets with his paramour (Jean Hagen). With great inexpertise and a shaky aim, she shoots him in the shoulder, wounding his ego more than his body. Their story is headline news, and particularly captures the attention of Adam and Amanda Bonner (Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn), married New York attorneys on the opposite side of the courtroom.

Amanda, a defense attorney, seeks to represent the bewildered and aggrieved wife, while Adam, part of the prosecuting attorney’s team, is assigned the case. For Adam, it is cut-and-dry; the defendant shot her husband and admitted to it, therefore, she is guilty of a crime. Amanda, however, sees a double standard in the way women are treated in the court system and believes a just sentence would be no sentence at all.

The happily married Bonners find their union strained as a result of the courtroom drama, and their belief in each other challenged.

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Jean Hagen, Tom Ewell, Judy Holliday

The movie was nominated for one Academy Award for screenwriting. It was greeted with favor by the press, including The New York Times, whose critic called it “a bang-up frolic” and Variety, who reported the film was “a bright comedy success, belting over a succession of sophisticated laughs.”

This was one of the first major motion picture roles for Holliday, who had come to the attention of the theater-going public in the Broadway production of Born Yesterday. Holliday would go on to make a career of playing scatterbrained yet inadvertantly insightful blondes, the same way she portrayed her character in Adam’s Rib.

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Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

The script was written by the husband and wife team Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon.  Unlike many screenwriters of the time, Gordon and Kanin wrote independently and sold their scripts to the studios, so they remained free to write the stories they wanted without studio oversight. Working with George Cukor was beneficial, Kanin said in a later interview, because he “was a great respecter of the text.” Cukor, Hepburn and Tracy had input into the story, but the screenwriting remained the domain of Gordon and Kanin.

The sixth of nine films Hepburn and Tracy would star in together, it is perhaps one of their best, along with Woman of the Year. Their chemistry is obvious and, as we know, very real, and their talents equal and balanced. Both are masters of the use of subtle expression and moves, pure communication without words.

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Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

Adam’s Rib was timely in its portrayal of the woman’s issues of the day, and in many respects, the message is just as relevant today. The courtroom drama may become slapstick and story line a bit improbable at points, but that is part of most comedies, and this is a gem of a comedy.

 

To Be or Not To Be (1942)

To Be or Not To Be, 1942, United Artists. Starring Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. B&W, 99 minutes.

A renowned Polish acting troupe is compelled to take on the performance of their lives with an impromptu spy plot in this wickedly funny satire of Naziism and Hitler’s Germany. Josef Tura (Jack Benny) and his lovely wife Maria (Carole Lombard) have both talent and ego, as well as the affections of the Warsaw public.

Among those devoted to Maria is aviator Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), who Maria sneaks backstage as her husband is giving his dramatic performance of Hamlet. The two have taken to a clandestine romance under the eaves.

Until the war begins. Like all Poles, the Turas are living in uncertainty. Sobinski, in the meantime, is flying for freedom, and in an unfortunate case of mistaken identity, potentially puts dangerous information in the Gestapo’s hands. His realization of his error and the resulting attempts to set it right lead the entire troupe in a witty, deceptive game that inevitably trips them up at each turn.

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Jack Benny, Carole Lombard

Sadly, Lombard died in a plane crash while promoting war bonds only two months before the film’s release. She was never more dazzling, or funnier, than in this movie, and her comic delivery of the sharp one-liners with their subtle innuendo is flawless. Benny, for his part, is in his element as the husband torn between unleashing his fury at his wife’s betrayal and giving his finest performance for the sake of his country’s freedom.

To Be or Not To Be was met with sharp criticism from some, who questioned how something as serious as the Nazi occupation of Poland could be made comedy material, and strong praise from others, who recognized the satire for what it was. German-born Lubitsch defended his work, pointing out the story is as much about an actor’s drive to act, no matter what the circumstances, as it is about the war, which was heavy on the hearts of all at the time.

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Robert Stack, Carole Lombard

The movie received one Academy Award nomination, for Best Music, Scoring. It is now recognized as a comedy classic, one of the best of the era, and is considered by many to be Lubitsch’s finest work.

The 1983 remake of the same title, starring Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, is an enjoyable movie, but not of the calibre of the original. There is nothing quite like a film with the Lubitsch touch.

 

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, 1948, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Melvyn Douglas. Directed by H. C. Potter. B&W, 93 minutes.

Tired of life in their crowded Manhattan apartment, Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) and his wife Muriel (Myrna Loy) have decided to move to the country. Their tour of properties leads them to a dilapidated home the realtor convinces them is a gem in the making, and their troubles begin.

The home, it turns out, needs to be torn down, and the Blandings set out to build their new dream house. It isn’t long before the first setback occurs, and trouble after trouble follows, slowly but surely increasing the cost of their humble — but increasingly customized — home to astronomical proportions.

Steadily advising them, with sardonic wit and a skeptical view, is their closest friend, Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas).

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Melvyn Douglas, Myrna Loy, Cary Grant

Produced at a time of prosperity, when millions of Americans were building homes, this movie remains funny and relevant today. The foils and fobbles of new construction are familiar to anyone who’s faced the drama surrounding the bringing of that particular dream to life.

Grant and Loy are perfectly cast as the upwardly mobile couple seeking a tranquil life in the country. This was the third of three films they made together, the other two being The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and Wings in the Dark. They worked well together, so well it’s regrettable they didn’t star together in more movies.

Douglas brings a dry wit to the story, both in his character and in the narration of the story. It was his notable brand of humor, and it served this movie well.

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Cary Grant, Myrna Loy

The studio built an actual home for the set, and later that building served as an office for Malibu Creek State Park. In addition to this home, 73 homes were built across the United States as part of a promotion for the film. Some of these homes were raffled off, and several still stand today.

The movie was based on the popular book of the same name by Eric Hodgins. In real life, the budgeted cost of his home of $11,000 was overtaken by final costs of $56,000. Hodgins was forced to sell the house two years later, but ultimately his sorrows paid off by the money made from his tale.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is fun fare, particularly for fans of Grant and Loy. It is light viewing with sharp humor that has stood the test of time.