06 January 2009

52. The Lady Eve

Some movies are so good and seem so effortless that you take them as a given, letting them glide by you without really thinking about them in depth -- about the craft you just saw, or about how economical and tight the storyline was, or how good those snappy lines sounded rolling off the movie stars tongue. Comedy is especially easy to dismiss in this way, because somewhere in our bones we as audience feel that it isn't difficult to be funny, it doesn't take real skill.

My love for classical Hollywood cinema from the 30's and 40's is near absolute. A lot of that has to do with two aspects (not surprisingly, all outlined by Billy Wilder in Cameron Crowe's book): the correct use of glamorous movie stars, and the complete mastery of screenwriting craft so that every script is a thing unto itself: economical, no backstory, no wasted moments, complicated plots, and short third acts that end without fanfare.

And few filmmakers embraced the classical Hollywood model more than Preston Sturges.

David Mamet is a smarter man and a better writer than me, and he wrote well about "The Lady Eve", which he calls "a perfect movie", in his book Bambi vs. Godzilla:

Here we have Barbara Stanwyck and her father, Charles Coburn. They are cardsharps and confidence tricksters plying the liners.

Here comes Henry Fonda, an amateur naturalist and the filthy rich son of Eugene Palette. He's been up the Amazon for a year and is going home.

Everyone on the liner is angling for his notice or favor. Stanwyck, of course, wins out. And she and her father set out to fell Fonda.

This is called a premise.

Stanwyck, however, makes the mistake of actually falling in love with him.

This is called a complication.

Her love is reciprocated, and Fonda proposes marriage.

But wait -- before she can accept, she must confess to her life of sin, and before she gets to do so, the ship's purser warns Fonda that she is a criminal.

He is heartbroken and tells her that he knew it all along and was just stringing her along for the entertainment value. She, now, is heartbroken.

...What keeps them apart?

Aha. The lovers are now kept apart by loathing on the part of Fonda and, upon the part of Stanwyck, by a desire for revenge.

Enter act 2.

She decides to impersonate a wealthy British countess or something, gets introduced into Fonda's family's rich Connecticut set, and win him all over again.

She, of course, does so, and they get married.

We now have act 3. They are together, but the notional forces have not been propitiated. He has not been won through love but through actual chicanery (the very method she disdained in act 1), and Stanwyck must have her revenge.

They proceed on their honeymoon. About to consummate the marriage, she confesses first to one and then to a very lengthy run of sexual encounters, and he dumps her.

She has had her revenge, his family proposes a fat settlement, and she turns it down. All she wants is for her husband to ask outright for his release.

Note, she has won the prize of the first act (money) and that of the second (regard) but finds that revenge is empty -- that she has, in fact, gone too far...

Fonda, she learns, is going back down the Amazon.

In a fit of inspiration, she boards his boat in her old persona as the rejected con artist.

He is overjoyed to meet her again and calls her to his bosom. Great story. And we may reflect that its description contains none of what the ignorant refer to as "characterization", nor does it contain any of their beloved "backstory". [italics mine]

...A director could (indeed, did) shoot the story above. It was simple and straightforward enough to allow him to make simple choices about clothes, costumes, camera angles, music, and so on.

Actors could act upon those directions he gave them based on the script.

The resultant film, though made by a master, would probably have been watchable if made by a journeyman. Why? Because we, the audience (those in their seats at the cinema and you, gentle reader, no less), wanted to know what happened next. That is more or less the total art of the film dramatist: to make the audience want to know what is going to happen next. [again, italic mine]

Now, I've just told you the whole plot of the movie, and it is beautiful in its simplicity, structure, and tightness. But I didn't give the movie away. Because a movie like this is a classic not just because of the narrative economy (in which case it would simply be nice to watch and study, but not to savor), but because of the cleverness and playfulness of the individual scenes and lines:

Watch as Stanwyck uses a small mirror to scope out Fonda, alone at his table with his book, as she provides voiceover of his various failed vixens.

Watch as Stanwyck sticks her stockinged legs in Fonda's face as she demands he bend down and put her shoes on for her.

Watch as Stanwyck forces Fonda's face next to hers as she purrs, getting to know him before she moans and kicks him out of her room.

Watch as Fonda loses to the Colonel at cards before Stanwyck pulls an ace and saves him.

Watch as Fonda is led through five pratfalls in one minute after meeting the Lady Eve.

Watch as Fonda finally takes the lead -- grows up and becomes a man -- by grabbing Stanwyck by the hand back to his room. And watch those delicious last lines.

To paraphrase a line from "Dead Poet's Society", the narrative structure is noble and necessary for a well-built movie, but the contents of the scenes, the dialogue, and the interactions between the movie stars -- that's what we live for.


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