Sexy, smart and comic, “The Lady Eve” arrives on Criterion


BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS

Barbara Stanwyck plays the seductive Jean Harrington and Henry Fonda as the wealthy snake enthusiast Charles Pike.



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“THE LADY EVE: THE CRITERION COLLECTION”

Blu-ray; 1941; Not Rated

Best extra: “Tom Sturges and friends” Zoom video conversation













ONE OF THE greatest screwball comedies of all time, Preston Sturges’ 79-year-old gem “The Lady Eve,” is available in a new remaster from The Criterion Collection. It's a performance showcase for stars Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck.

Young, gorgeous and possessed of impeccable comic timing, they play an unlikely couple who meet on an ocean liner. Charles Pike (Fonda) is the rich, nerdy son of an ale tycoon, on his way back from the Amazon jungle where he’s been studying snakes. Jean Harrington (Stanwyck) is a successful con artist/card sharp, traveling with her partner-in-crime, who also happens to be her father, the “Colonel,” (the great Charles Coburn). They see an easy mark in Pike, who is very quickly swept off his feet (literally and figuratively) by the stunning, seductive Jean – which would be perfect for the grifters, except she unwittingly falls in love with Charles.

The last thing she wants to do is swindle him out of vast sums of money, despite her father’s exasperated insistence that their livelihoods depend on it. The love-struck Jean and Charles begin making plans, but a fly jumps into the ointment in the form of the ship’s purser, who shows Charles a photo of the Harringtons and identifies them as the confidence scoundrels they are. Charles is outraged, refusing to listen to Jean’s insistence that she really loves him, and he walks out of her life. The story gets wackier as, heartbroken and furious, Jean plots her revenge. She poses as the English “Lady Eve,” seduces the clueless Charles all over again and, well, you can imagine.

From the Looney Tunes cartoon snake in the opening title sequence, to the apple Stanwyck drops on Fonda’s head, to the many times he trips and falls, and to a lady named Eve who makes everything happen, Sturges took a biblical trope and turned the classic romantic comedy on its head with it. In doing so, he also created a timeless masterpiece.


(1) Writer/director Preston Sturges and Paramount Pictures released two great American comedies in 1941. The first "The Lady Eve" hitting theaters in February and in December "Sullivan's Travels." (2) Charles Pike (Fonda) and his entourage board the cruise liner after a year in the Amazon. (3&4) During the ship's evening dinner, everyone wants a peek at the rich Pike, the son of an ale tycoon. But, he's more interested in reading "Are Snakes Necessary?"


After Pike's first of many prank falls during his adventures with Ms. Harrington, he avoids looking at her leg while helping remove her broken shoe.




VIDEO/AUDIO

After a global search, which included UCLA's Film & Television Archive and the Library of Congress, Universal Studios fine-grain master positive (1.37:1 aspect ratio) was the best source for scanning at 4K. The result of the downconverted 1080p Criterion disc is quite good, with plenty of fine detail, excellent contrast and depth, and a natural film grain. The original soundtrack was remastered from the master and appears on one mono track, as in the original. Sturges’ terrific dialogue is always clear and intelligible, but optional subtitles are available.

EXTRAS

The bonus features are typically generous and a number were carried over from Criterion’s 2001 DVD, such as Peter Bogdanovich’s introduction, and a commentary by film scholar Marian Keane, as well as a slide show featurette on costume designer Edith Head’s sketches for Stanwyck’s wardrobe; and a 1942 Lux Radio Theatre version of “The Lady Eve,” with Stanwyck and Ray Milland.

There is also a recording of a 2013 song from an unproduced stage version based on the film; an illustrated 35-page booklet with an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1946 Life magazine profile of Sturges; and an entertaining new video essay about the film by critic David Cairns.



Zoom Video Conference

(left to right) Tom Sturges, critic Susan King, filmmaker Ron Shelton, critic Kenneth Turan, filmmaker James L. Brooks, critic Leonard Maltin, and filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich.


The most fun, and most recent, is a Zoom video conference recorded during the 2020 Spring COVID-19 lockdown hosted by Sturges’ son Tom. King talks about the way “Lady Eve” is a “sexy movie” that “pushed the boundaries of censorship at the time.” Bogdanovich calls the film “extremely modern.” Tom Sturges notes that his father “hated jokes” and that, in the film, “everyone is speaking their truth.”

Brooks praises a romantic monologue delivered by Fonda in the film, and Turan compliments its “enormous amount of genuine emotion … not just pratfalls.” Tom discusses the “Great Sturges Acting Company,” referring to the stable of wonderful supporting actors Preston Sturges repeatedly cast in his films. He was extremely generous to all of them. If an extra had no speaking parts, he or she was still paid for one week’s work; and if an actor only had one line, he or she was paid for the entire film.

Tom says his father was very much in love with Stanwyck, who rejected him. Nevertheless, Sturges wrote the “The Lady Eve” for her and, in her first long seduction scene, he gave Stanwyck the words he wished she would say to him.

— Peggy Earle


(1&2) The great Charles Coburn plays Jean's father "Colonel" Harrington, a swindling con artist, as he watches Pike perform a card trick. (3) The Colonel gives his daughter a kiss goodnight.






(1-3) Pike discovers the truth of Jean Harrington and her father, as she confesses her love for him.




The second and third encounter with the Lady Eve

(1) In her guise as the English noblewoman, "Lady Eve," Jean amuses Charles' father (Eugene Pallette) at a dinner party in his home. (2) An especially disastrous pratfall for Charles and company. (3) Charles professes his love for Lady Eve, as his horse noses in (in the Zoom conference, Tom Sturges says that the back of Fonda's jacket was slathered with peanut butter, and that's why the horse was so interested.) (4) Charles jumps off the train, escaping from his honeymoon with Lady Eve, after she confesses to having had many previous husbands. (5)  Jean knows Charles will be on the next ship to South America, so she and her father make sure to be on it.





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