Quick — name the best Hollywood directors from the 1930s and 1940s. You’ll likely answer Wyler, Curtiz, Hawks, Capra, Cukor, Stevens, Hitchcock, Ford, Preminger. Some might include Lang and Mamoulian and a few other wonderful directors less well known by the general public.
Too often, too many of us forget the great Preston Sturges, who was one of the best writers and directors of comedies in American film.
And Sturges’ best movie, “The Lady Eve,” starring Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, is showcased on TCM tonight, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, at 11:30 p.m. Eastern time — which is 8:30 p.m. here in the Pacific time zone. It’s also available on Netflix’s streaming movie service if you subscribe to that plan.
It’s not a holiday movie, but it is a wonderful movie to see during the holidays. The adjectives “delightful and amusing” were designed to describe “The Lady Eve.”
When “The Lady Eve” was released in March 1941, it was the third feature Sturges had directed — and he wrote the screenplays to his films as well. The first was “The Great McGinty,” and the second was “Christmas in July.” Before that Sturges had written the screenplays to at least seven movies directed by others before he took the helm for “McGinty.”
One of those who hailed Sturges as a “comedy master” upon the release of “The Lady Eve” was The New York Times’ famous movie critic Bosley Crowther.
In a March 2, 1941, column singing Sturges’ praises, Crowther wrote, “This thing called cinema style is sometimes hard to define but never hard to spot — and that of Mr. Sturges pops out all over the screen. It is evidenced in the main by a sharp and sardonic wit, expressed not only in dialogue and a run of superlative sight gags, but more generally in his themes. Mr. Sturges revels in irony, in unsentimental exposures of human caprice …
“His pictures bubble with civilized, adult humor and sparkle with mischievous gibes. And they all end in the proper way for comedy to end. But they never go soft at any point. Even his coziest love scenes have a brittle, sardonic edge. Love, in a Sturges picture, is obviously just slightly refined sex and he happily never lets you forget it.”
Those are some of the reasons, I think, that a Sturges film like “The Lady Eve” plays so well today, more than 70 years after it was made. It appeals to today’s sensibilities.
As Crowther also noted in this piece he wrote seven decades ago, “A distinction of the Sturges style is its deft and perfect etching of character in quick but penetrating strokes. His people have vigorous personalities because he gives them the words to speak and the things to do.”
And what terrific words. Here’s an example. Near the beginning of “The Lady Eve,” Charles Coburn, playing the father of Barbara Stanwyck’s character, Jean, is displeased with something Jean has said. He rebukes her with: “Don’t be vulgar, Jean. Let us be crooked but not common.”
Writing more about the performances Sturges is able to get out of the actors in his movies, Crowther notes “the truly delightful clowning of Henry Fonda as [the] clumsy clutch in ‘The Lady Eve.’"
Great perfomances are hallmarks of Sturges movies. In “The Lady Eve,” besides Fonda, Stanwyck is at her seductively wisecracking best, supported by impeccable comedic role-playing by Charles Coburn, the hysterically deadpan antics of William Demarest, plus Eugene Pallette and Eric Blore, two of the best, most reliable supporting actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
One of the best things I love about “The Lady Eve” is that I can watch it over and over again and enjoy it as much I did the first time I saw it in an introductory film class I took at UCLA in 1971.
So please, watch “The Lady Eve” tonight or in the next few weeks, either for first time or for the umpteenth time. It’s a wonderful tonic for the holiday season.