A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)

Preston Sturges, who was a screenwriter before he became a hyphenated writer-director, has a reputation for verbal wit. It's very much in evidence in The Lady Eve, with lines like "I need him like the ax needs the turkey."  But what distinguishes Sturges from writers who just happen to fall into directing is his gift for pacing the dialogue, for knowing when to cut. What makes the first stateroom scene between Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) and Charles (Henry Fonda) so sexy is that much of it is a single take, relying on the actors' superb timing -- and perhaps on some splendid coaching from Sturges. But he also has a gift for sight gags like Mr. Pike (Eugene Pallette) clanging dish covers like cymbals to demand his breakfast. And his physical comedy is brilliantly timed, particularly in the repeated pratfalls and faceplants that Fonda undergoes when confronted with a Lady Eve who looks so much like Jean. Fonda is a near perfect foil for gags like those, his character's dazzled innocence reinforced by the actor's undeniable good looks. There's hardly any other star of the time who would make Charles Pike quite so credible: Cary Grant, for example, would have turned the pratfalls into acrobatic moves. The other major thing that Sturges had going for him is a gallery of character actors, the likes of which we will unfortunately never see again: Pallette, Charles Coburn, William Demarest (who made exasperation eloquent), Eric Blore, Melville Cooper, and numerous well-chosen bit players.