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.

 

Hail the Conquering Hero

Hail the Conquering Hero, 1944, Paramount Pictures. Starring Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines, William Demarast. Directed by Preston Sturges. B&W, 101 minutes.

Woodrow Truesmith has a dilemma: as the son of a genuine war hero, who died in action the day his only child was born, he was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Marines. So he did just that, but he’s not cut from the same cloth as his father, and woefully he’s discharged for medical reasons after only one month. To spare his mother and girlfriend Libby (Ella Raines) any embarrassment over his situation, he writes he’s off to war, while in reality he begins working at a shipyard.

As fate would have it, one afternoon he buys drinks for a group of Marines, including blustery Master Gunnery Sergeant Heffelfinger (William Demarast), who served with Woodrow’s father and was saved by the man’s heroic efforts in his dying moments. Against fervent protests, Heffelfinger calls Woodrow’s mother to let her know her son received a medical discharge, but helpfully relays a few falsehoods along the way, leading the town to believe he is a war hero.

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Eddie Bracken, William Demarest

Much to Woodrow’s dismay, the accolades only keep building. A deeper and deeper hole is being dug by his deception, and it’s looking like there’s no way out of it.

In the meantime, Libby, believing Woodrow has fallen in love with someone else, is set to marry another man the following weekend, unless her true love can come to his senses and talk her out of it.

Hail the Conquering Hero film satirizes American politics, human nature and small town values, but as always with Preston Sturges, it’s done in a friendly manner, with moments both funny and touching.

After the first few scenes were shot, producers and studio executives wanted to fire Ella Raines because of a lackluster performance, but Sturges objected. She’d already been announced in the part and cutting her would be humiliating, he felt, and he also resented the interference. In the end, Raines stayed on the picture. Despite her rough start, her performance in the end is befitting the role, and she delivers some of her best lines, those pointed in their satirical nature, in an almost deadpan manner.

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Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines

Eddie Bracken is far from your typical leading man, but he’s engaging and utterly believable as the distraught Woodrow. In contrast to his befuddled character, William Demarast is well-cast as the rough-and-tumble take-charge Marine who easily moves forth with one tall tale after the other.

Funny, witty and wise, Hail the Conquering Hero is full of sharp one-liners and insight on the American dream. Its edginess is covered by an All-American “gee willikers” type of character, and it delivers on its promise of making you laugh at all the human foible it uncovers.

The Palm Beach Story

The Palm Beach Story, 1942, Paramount Pictures.  Starring Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Rudy Vallee, Mary Astor.  Directed by Preston Sturges.  B&W, 88 minutes.

Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry (Claudette Colbert) Jeffers have hit a stalemate in their marriage: they are seemingly better friends than lovers, his business is floundering and in general she’s bored with the whole situation. He hasn’t given up, but she has, and one day she leaves for Palm Beach to get a divorce and find a wealthy man who not only can support her in the way she feels she deserves, but also provide the financing for Tom’s entrepreneurial project.

As fate would have it, on the train to Palm Beach, she meets just that man, John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee). In the meantime, thanks to a generous benefactor, Tom has flown to meet Gerry and stop her from divorcing him. Instead, he’s greeted by John, Gerry, and John’s flighty, oft-married sister, Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor).

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Rudy Vallee, Claudette Colbert

This is a fun film, with a simple story line but one unexpected and delightful scene after another. It’s fast-paced, sassy, completely implausible yet acceptably unbelievable.

Writer and director Preston Sturges drew on his own experience with the wealthy to create the characters in the story. His former wife, Eleanor Hutton, was a socialite and introduced him to the world of high-society millionaires, a world he satirized in several of his films. Although Ms. Hutton had sued for annulment and their marriage ended after only two years, his humor is sharp and witty rather than mean-spirited, keeping the overall tone of the film one of good fun.

This is a cast that shines with its effortless charm, particularly Colbert and McCrea, who are a contrast in her sophistication and his laid-back ease, yet a match in personal appeal. Surprisingly, Astor, whose performance is lively and engaging, reportedly didn’t get along with Sturges and as a result, didn’t enjoy making the film. It’s a credit to her talent and professionalism that none of that shows on film.

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Mary Astor, Claudette Colbert, Rudy Vallee

While the rest of the cast were well-established box-office draws, Rudy Vallee was still better known as a “crooner” at this time. He’d made film appearances before, but was finally gaining some recognition in movies, particularly comedies. Earlier performances had been unremarkable, but experience had taught him well and he became a respected character actor in the 40s and 50s.

You may recognize William Demarest in a small character role in the film as a member of the Ale and Quail Club. Demarest was one of Preston Sturges’ favorite character actors, appearing in eight of the films Sturges directed, and he later went on to play Uncle Charley in the television series My Three Sons.

The Palm Beach Story is a farcical, classic Preston Sturges film, a wonderful romantic screwball comedy and a timeless story of tired romance finding new fuel.

Joel McCrea, Rudy Vallee, Mary Astor, Claudette Colbert The Palm Beach Story
Joel McCrea, Rudy Vallee, Mary Astor, Claudette Colbert