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.

Stella Dallas (1937)

Stella Dallas, 1937, United Artists. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, John Boles, Anne Shirley. Directed by King Vidor. B&W, 106 minutes.

Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck) is brassy, brazen and audacious enough to step outside of class constraints and pull herself out of the hovel she grew up in to take her place in high society. She has set her sights on vulnerable Stephen Dallas (John Boles), who recently broke off his engagement with the refined Helen (Barabara O’Neil) when his father committed suicide after the family business failed. While waiting until he moves up enough in his new job to support the woman he loves, he discovers Helen has married another man. Heartbroken, Stephen is on the rebound, and falls for Stella’s efforts to charm him into wedlock.

A year after the two marry, they welcome their daughter, Laurel. Soon that child is the only bond between the couple. With his attempts to change his wife’s unrefined ways a marked failure, Stephen is increasingly put off by Stella. Add to that her friendship with the uncouth and loud Edward Munn (Alan Hale), a man of whom Stephen strongly and openly disapproves.

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John Boles, Barbara Stanwyck

Eventually Stephen accepts a job transfer to New York, and Stella stays behind in Massachusetts with Laurel (Anne Shirley), now a young girl on the verge of womanhood. Stella is a devoted and loving mother, and dotes on the growing girl to a surprising degree, given her otherwise self-absorbed nature.

Things take a dramatic change when Stephen has a chance meeting with Helen, now a widow with three boys. Their romance starts anew, with Helen welcoming Laurel into her life. Stella is faced with choosing between her own happiness and that of her daughter’s.

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Anne Shirley,  Barbara Stanwyck

Stella Dallas was based on the book of the same name by Olive Higgins Prouty, who also wrote the novel Now, Voyager, on which the film starring Bette Davis was based. Prouty also became a mentor to Sylvia Plath and is believed to be the inspiration for the character Philomena Guinea in Plath’s 1963 novel, The Bell Jar. Prouty, who herself suffered from psychological issues, had a strong interest in the internal motivations of the characters in her books.

The book had been made into a silent film in 1925, starring Ronald Colman and Belle Bennett, and was also re-made as the movie Stella in 1990, starring Bette Midler and Stephen Collins. The story has been analyzed numerous times for its perception of a woman’s role in society, the ideals of motherhood and the perils of sacrifice.

Melodramas of this sort were popular during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and to an extent we still see them today, albeit on the small screen. They are presented on cable channels such as Lifetime, notorious for somewhat overblown stories of human pathos. However, that is not what is delivered here. In the time Stella Dallas was made, production values for films of this calibre were much higher than the made-for-TV movies of today, and it shows in the final product.

The film received two Academy Award nominations, Best Actress for Stanwyck and Best Supporting Actress for Shirley.

This is a tale of woman who first wants more for herself, than dreams those dreams for her daughter, who is actually in a position to obtain them. It is both warm and tragic, with a character who is on the one hand appealing, and on the other, a bit appalling. In the end, whatever you may say about the decisions she made, her final motivation was from a mother’s heart.

Ball of Fire

Ball of Fire, 1941, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Dana Andrews. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 112 minutes.

Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) and seven esteemed colleagues (six bachelors, one widower) are compiling a new encyclopedia of human knowledge. They’re up to the S’s, and Potts is charged with writing the section on slang. He’s come to realize he doesn’t know the meaning of any of the current popular lingo gum-popping youth and anyone else, for that matter, are prone to use.

To right that situation, he gathers a group of assorted citizens to help him learn the meaning of such words as “corny” and “boogie.” In the course of finding just the right individuals, he comes across Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a nightclub singer needing a place to hide while her boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), works out his problems with the law.

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Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck

Potts, of course, comes to fall for the saucy woman with the salty language, but he’s got tough competition from mobster Lilac.

The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Stanwyck, but won none. It is considered by many to be the last great screwball comedy before the start of World War II (although certainly not the last of that genre). It is a good movie, with a strong script and top-notch cast, but doesn’t move at the same quick pace some of Hawks’ other films did, and is a tiny bit long.

Both Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard turned down the role of Sugarpuss O’Shea before Gary Cooper suggested Barbara Stanwyck. The two had worked together before, on Meet John Doe, and Cooper felt she’d be a good choice for the part. Billy Wilder, who wrote the script with Charles Brackett, and director Howard Hawks agreed.

Producer Samuel Goldwyn, who owned Cooper’s contract, was anxious to produce a hit with Cooper cast in the lead. Up to that time, the actor’s biggest roles were in movies he made when loaned out to other studios.

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Barbara Stanwyck

This was the last film for which Wilder wrote the script without directing it himself, and later he expressed dissatisfaction with the finished result, saying the story as he originally wrote it in Germany was stronger and funnier, and didn’t translate well for an American setting. Audiences over the years, however, haven’t seemed to mind.

A tale of how opposites can attract, Ball of Fire is charming, as much because of the supporting cast as the stars.  The seven professors are almost childlike, yet not childish, and seemingly harmless, despite their adept use of innuendo.

It is not Hawks’ or Wilder’s best film, but in this case, second place is still a winner. Cooper, Stanwyck and Andrews are all at the top of their game, making this a movie well worth the watch.

 

 

Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity, 1944, Paramount Pictures. Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson. Directed by Billy Wilder.  B&W, 107 minutes.

Told in flashback by a man who knows he is doomed, Double Indemnity is a dark, sordid and altogether fascinating tale that pulls you in with its disturbing mix of familiar and untouchable human emotions.

Top insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is well-liked and respected by his peers, in particular, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the chief claims adjuster for the company. Keyes seeks to ensure no money is paid if criminal activity is behind the claim, and no one is better at deducing the elements of a crime than he.

One evening Neff is following up on some files, including a policy for one Mr. Dietrichson. The client isn’t home, but Neff is greeted by his provocative and scantily clad wife, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), and an intense flirtation begins.

Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity
Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck

When Phyllis nonchalantly inquires about tricking her husband into purchasing an accident policy without him knowing it, Neff is startled by her clear murderous intentions. Initially, he wants no part of the scheme, but he’s rapidly seduced by all her ploys.

Their sinister plot unfolds in chilling fashion, and Neff is left to deal with the aftermath.

The screenplay was written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on a novella by James M. Cain. Wilder’s longtime writing collaborator, Charles Brackett, had turned down the opportunity to work on the script because it was “too grim.”

Although Wilder and Chandler famously didn’t get along, Wilder greatly admired Chandler’s ability with dialogue, in particular, the exchange in the final scene. The original ending, a very different, dramatic scene, was shot at great expense, but never used. Wilder recognized the power of what became the final confrontation between the two men, and chose to end the film there.

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Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck

In 1944 Barbara Stanwyck was Hollywood’s biggest female star, and according to government records, the highest paid woman in America. She was initially reluctant to play a woman intent on murdering her husband, fearing it could end her career, but ultimately took on the challenge. She was keenly cast and played the unflappable, calculating wife with seeming effortless skill.

While Stanwyck was Wilder’s first choice from the beginning, casting the male lead proved to be a challenge. No one wanted the role of a character so weak and reprehensible. When it came to Fred MacMurray, an actor whose career had been built on playing happy-go-lucky good guys, Wilder later said “he was wonderful because it [was] odd casting.”

MacMurray had his doubts he was good enough an actor for the role, but Wilder pushed him, and the result was one of the finest parts of MacMurray’s career. In fact, it’s almost unnerving how good he is, especially if you’re primarily familiar with his lighter roles. He moves easily from the fool with the silly grin captivated by the cheap blonde to the hard-edged killer coldly covering his crime before the man he most admires.

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Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson

Edward G. Robinson accepted a co-star role after playing leading man parts for the better part of his career, recognizing his status in Hollywood was changing. Still, this could hardly be called a step down for him, as he played this pivotal part like the star he always had been.

The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but won none, losing the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay awards to Going My Way, the musical starring Bing Crosby. It was also nominated for Best Actress for Stanwyck, Best Cinematography, Best Score and Best Sound, Recording.

Today Double Indemnity is listed by many as one of the best films of all time for its top-notch performances, stark  cinematography, sharp dialogue and a finely maintained level of suspense. It is another of the film noir style classics that set a rarely-matched standard for movies that followed, and is a must-see for classic film fans.


The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, 1946, Paramount Pictures. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas (film debut), Lizabeth Scott. Directed by Lewis Milestone. B&W, 116 minutes.

Three childhood friends are linked forever by the truth behind a crime committed by one of them in their youth. Or so two of them believe — and set out to destroy the third before he reveals what they know but can’t say. Only it’s unclear what that third person believes about the crime, or if he even knows one was committed.

Of course, this is film noir, so enter the femme fatale, who becomes a pawn in their plans of betrayal.

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Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas

Van Heflin stars as the affable yet street savvy Sam Masterson, who, purely by chance, finds himself in the town he grew up in with his car in need of repair.

Unaware of the trap he’s about to walk into, he looks up his childhood friends, Walter and Martha O’Neil (Kirk Douglas, Barbara Stanwyck). Along the way he meets the alluring and vulnerable Toni Maracheck (Lizabeth Scott), who has a few secrets of her own.

Heflin is as appealing as any movie star of that era in this film, and brings an effortless, timeless quality to his performance.

Kirk Douglas made his film debut co-starring in this high-profile 1946 movie. His performance as the beaten-down, alcoholic district attorney foretells his quick rise to stardom. Placing a newcomer opposite an established star like Barbara Stanwyck was a bold move, but it paid off.

Stanwyck’s chilling portrayal of a ruthless, guilt-ridden women driven to push her husband to political success shows the depth and versatility of her talent as she reveals all sides of her character with equal skill and believability.

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Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott

True to film noir, it is melodramatic in parts. Overall, it rings true in its characters, their motivation and behavior. I found the start of the film to be a bit slow, but stick with it for essential information. The rest is compelling and suspenseful, with a dramatic finish that wraps up the story in a manner consistent with the plot as a whole.