Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What I Watched: The Lady Eve (1941)

I watched this movie last night and I thought it was perfectly forgettable. I chose it because of the cover and I thought I would like it better than the other choices I had. I told you previously about being unexcited about the silent films on the list and that unexcitement is actually turning into a strong aversion. I was looking at them in my Netflix instant queue and thinking they looked Dreadful. With a capital D. So I chose this one and now I am literally having some trouble recollecting it for this post just mere hours after watching it. This is a classic screwball comedy about a young scam artist named Jean, played by Barbara Stanwyck, who falls in love with a man she intended to scam.

Theatrical poster via Wikipedia

In the film, the man she is scamming is named Charles Pike, played by Henry Fonda, and he is the wealthy heir to a beer company. He is naive and kind of dense. In the course of one day he and Jean fall in love and plan to get married and she discontinues her con. But then Charles finds out that Jean and her father are scam artists and breaks it off with her. Jean becomes angry with Charles for dumping her and devises a plan to reinvent her identity as a British socialite named Eve to exact revenge. Eve and Charles meet and they fall in love and get married. Eve plans to drive him to divorce for a settlement and begins telling him about her fictitious escapades with other men. They end up separating, but not divorcing, and during their estrangement she reverts back to Jean and bumps into him again on another cruiseliner and they reaffirm their love for one another. Charles never knows the two women are one in the same. The end.

The lovely Barbara Stanwyck via Wikipedia
I cannot for the life of me figure out why this is one of the 100 greatest movies. It obviously falls into the romantic comedy genre because there are some comedic moments, but the plot line is ridiculous and neither of the characters are endearing. There is also some slapstick comedy in the film, namely when Charles falls for Eve and bumbles around in her company, knocking things over and falling everywhere because he is overwhelmed by her feminine wiles. So it's a comedy and an unremarkable one at that. Why is it on the 100 Greatest Movies list? Apparently is it a romantic comedy masterpiece and Mr. Dirks of Filmsite thinks that it is amazing this film only received one Academy Award nomination. I read and reread his synopsis and still cannot see his point of view. Peter Tonguette said this film was "one of the finest screwball comedies ever made," but I much preferred His Girl Friday. I will say that Jean is a very strong character and Barbara Stanwyck played her well, but her character was a swindler with no redeeming qualities. Charles could have been played by anyone. The blandness of his character, played by Henry Fonda, is actually precisely what makes their love affair unbelievable and makes Jean just seem conniving.

L-R: Henry Fonda, Preston Sturges, and Barbara Stanwyck via Roger Ebert
While researching reviews of this film I discovered that writer/director Preston Sturges was known for writing tough, witty, and sometimes caustic heroines and this was remarkable for his time.While I can appreciate that, I take issue with Charles Barsanti calling this film "as powerful a feminist statement as it is a smart comedy." Roger Ebert says, of Jean's relationship with her father, "that they're two adults and not locked into a narrow daddy-daughter relationship." This, perhaps, is the only feminist notion I can find in the film. Even though Jean works with her father she is her own independent woman and what she and her father do is a business in which she has equal weight and responsibility. Other than that I am at a loss. Tonguette asserts that it is feminist because Jean is strong-willed and shows us that "women...are the pursuers of love as much as they are the persued." That's not feminism. Do Barsanti and Tonguette mistake this movie as a feminist statement because Jean manipulates, dupes, and controls a man for personal gain? Because that's not feminism, either.   

Garden of Eden, anyone? via Nathan Hartman
I do get Garden of Eden references throughout the film. Jean's alter ego is named Eve and she is a temptress trying to lure the innocent and unknowing Charles. In the opening of the film we learn that while Charles is a brewery heir, his main passion lies in reptiles. He is a snake enthusiast "in pursuit of knowledge" about these creatures. He even brings a snake onto the ship on which Charles and Jean first meet. Jean gets Charles' attention by bonking him in the head with an apple. Then repeatedly we see him falling, both figuratively and literally, for Jean/Eve. While this theme is obvious it is pretty much ignored by most comtemporary reviews and discussions of this film. Everyone just comments on the hilarity of the movie and the outstanding performances, both of which I obviously missed.

Interesting note: Jean's main con is that she is a card sharp so she cheats people out of money during card games on cruiseliners. I always thought the term was "card shark," but everything I was reading about this film kept referring to her as a "card sharp." I started feeling like I had possibly misheard, and therefore was misusing, this popular turn of phrase. I had a friend in high school who swore another popular phrase was "I'll give it a world" and could not be convinced otherwise. How embarassing. Luckily, our favorite myth-busting website, Snopes, has an article about this etymological quandry. Evidently, both are correct and there is much dispute over which word originated first, but "card shark" in a more inclusive term which can be used to describe people skilled at cheating in cards or skilled at simply playing cards and is not necessarily pejorative, while "card sharp" is only used in the negative sense. Good to know.

Have you seen this movie? What did you think? Am I way off base by being thoroughly unimpressed?

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