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.

charles-coburn-barbara-stanwyck-henry-fonda-in-the-lady-eve
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.

barbara-stanwyck-henry-fonda-starring-in-the-lady-eve
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.

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.

olivia-de-havilland-robert-cummings-in-princess-orourke
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.

olivia-de-havilland-stars-in-princess-orourke
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.

ginger-rogers-starring-in-bachelor-mother
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.

david-niven-ginger-rogers-starring-in-bachelor-mother
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.

david-niven-starring-in-bachelor-mother
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.

 

In This Our Life

In This Our Life, 1942, Warner Bros. Starring Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, George Brent, Charles Coburn, Dennis Morgan. Directed by John Huston. B&W, 97 minutes.

Stanley Timberlake (Bette Davis) is used to getting what she wants, often from her over-indulgent uncle, William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn). Although engaged to one man, attorney Craig Fleming (George Brent), she has set her sights on her sister Roy’s (Olivia de Havilland) husband, Dr. Peter Kingsmill (Dennis Morgan). The two run off together the night before she is to be married to Fleming, and start their life anew in another city.

But all does not go well in their new marriage, and tragedy soon forces Stanley back to her parents’ home. In the meantime, Roy has chosen not to dwell on the past and has encouraged Fleming to do the same. The two have fallen in love, something Stanley is determined to break up.

Her efforts result in yet another horrific event, and Stanley’s character is tested to its core. Loyalties, prejudice and the fate of an innocent man all come under intense scrutiny.

olivia-de-havilland-ernest-anderson-in-in-this-our-life
Olivia de Havilland, Ernest Anderson

Notable for its brutally honest look at the plight of a black man unjustly accused of a crime, In This Our Life did something few films of its time attempted: presented a black character as an intelligent, thoughtful individual, seeking to make his world a better place. The truthful telling of racial discrimination prevented the film from being released overseas.

Davis’ performance is a bit over the top, yet she was an outstanding actress and still is compelling — and entirely unlikeable — as the spoiled, self-absorbed Stanley. Every move, every momentary expression on her face reveals Stanley’s character. She plays in sharp contrast to de Havilland’s calm, even-keeled character, and the dynamics of the sisters’ relationship is actually the larger story than the depiction of racial discrimination.

charles-coburn-bette-davis-in-in-this-our-life
Charles Coburn, Bette Davis

This was Huston’s second movie as a director, the first being The Maltese Falcon. Based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of the same name, it is entirely likely that this movie failed to bring the strength of the book to the screen. Still, despite its tendency to the melodramatic, the film is worth watching.

Huston and Davis famously didn’t get along, and in later years Davis was highly critical of both the director and the film. Ellen Glasgow, the novel’s author, was greatly disappointed in the movie version of her story, including Davis’ performance. Still, it is hard to imagine with the constraints of the Motion Picture Code at the time that the film could have been truly faithful to the book, especially its hints of incestous infatuation and other sensitive, controversial topics.

Despite the conflicts and unmet expectations, the story is strong, the cast is all-star, and the plot moves at a pace that keeps you drawn in, start to finish. Real-life friends Davis and de Havilland are enough to keep classic movie fans watching this complex drama.

The More the Merrier

The More the Merrier, 1943, Columbia Pictures. Starring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Charles Coburn. Directed by George Stevens. B&W, 104 minutes.

An improbable housing situation combines with instant attraction in this tale of an exacting young woman whose future is securely in place…until she does her patriotic duty.

Constance Milligan (Jean Arthur) wishes to help alleviate the housing shortage in Washington, D.C. during WWII by subletting her apartment, preferably to a woman. Instead, enter Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), a congenial man and retired millionaire. Despite the influence one would assume his wealth would have, he finds himself without a room for the night.

He sees Connie’s ad and talks her into letting him take the spare room. Much to her chagrin, he then sublets half of his space to Sergeant Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), who’s waiting for orders to go overseas.

Joel McCrea. Charles Coburn, Jean Arthur The More the Merrier
Joel McCrea, Charles Coburn, Jean Arthur

Connie and Joe find themselves immediately drawn to each other, even though Connie is engaged to Charles J. Pendergast (Richard Gaines), a man guaranteed to provide her with a safe, secure, if not exciting, future.

Tempers flare and passions ignite as Dingle connives to bring the two together in one way after the other. He’s helped by an unpredictable and comical mistake that has a lasting impact on all involved.

This movie is clever and original, not surprising as it is based on a short story by Garson Kanin. Arthur and her husband, Frank Ross, went to him looking for a vehicle for her to boost her shaky career. He wrote the story, Two’s A Crowd, specifically for that purpose.

It also includes some things that gave censors pause: the multiple use of the word “damn” (when Dingle quotes an Admiral), the idea of two men sharing an apartment with a single woman and a fairly suggestive scene for the era.

Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea The More the Merrier
Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea

Joel McCrea’s laid-back style is a perfect foil for Arthur’s nervousness, and Coburn’s comic sneakiness justifiably won him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The film was also nominated for Best Picture (losing to Casablanca), Best Director, Best Actress in a Leading Role for Arthur, Best Writing – Original Story and Best Writing – Screenplay.

You may notice — but likely won’t recognize unless you’re a true fan of classic cars — the sporty little vehicle Connie and her colleagues use as their mode of transportation to work, a Fiat 500 A Topolino.

This movie was re-made in 1966 as Walk, Don’t Run with Cary Grant in the Charles Coburn role. It was Grant’s last role in a feature film. As you might guess, it was The More the Merrier’s original popularity, and its lasting success, that gave producers (and Mr. Grant) the confidence it was worth the remake.

Charles Coburn, Jean Arther The More the Merrier
Charles Coburn, Jean Arthur