I feel like I’m continuing a mini-series of posts about classic films, but I watched the Preston Sturges’ film The Lady Eve this weekend, and wanted to write something about a couple of the sequences in it. Sturges pushed the screwball comedy into satire in a career that reached its peak in the war years, testing the limits of the Hollywood ‘Hays Code’ censors as he went.
The Lady Eve stars Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, professional card hustler and unworldly breweries heir respectively, and love, of course, gets in the way of the hustling business. Stanwyck is as sultry as she is in Double Indemnity, but with better intent (watch the clip at the top if you want to see what I mean).
Sturges has many strengths as a writer-director (his scripts always sparkle), and I’ve written about some of these before. From The Lady Eve, there are three distinctive scenes which show his talent.
The first is his inventive use of mise-en-scène, the film word used to describe the way scenes look and film. Early on in The Lady Eve, when Fonda has just joined the liner to sail back to New York, he’s sitting on his own at dinner being watched, it seems, by every unattached woman on the boat. We know this because Barbara Stanwyck is watching the entire room from a mirror – we see it from this as well – and adding a running commentary on the feeble strategies being used by the others, unsuccessfully, to attract his attention. (Eventually, as he leaves, she ‘inadvertently’ trips him, which works just fine.)
Similarly, when Fonda eventually proposes to Stanwyck, the scene’s undercut in two ways; the script has already told us how and where this is going to happen (all part of Stanwyck’s plan), and Fonda’s horse, always in shot, keeps interrupting his speech.
Secondly, he’s adept at building the comic moment. On the boat, Fonda, Stanwyck, and her father are playing poker (this is their livelihood, but Stanwyck has fallen for Fonda and is determined to make sure her father doesn’t clean him out.) Fonda’s $2,000 down, and Stanwyck decides to help him out a bit, by dealing him a decent hand. As the scene unfolds, we see the visual equivalent of ‘see you and raise’, as the card-sharp father improves his hand by a variety of (illegal) means, and Stanwyck undercuts him each time.
And finally, Sturges is a master of ambiguity. We can’t be sure (spoiler alert) until the very last scene that Stanwyck is in love with Fonda rather than simply unfolding the longest of ‘long cons‘, turning down a lucrative legal settlement en route. For the Hays Code censors, who did not permit films to show criminals profiting from their crimes, it must have made for an anxious ninety minutes viewing.