Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, one of the most memorable of the battle-of-the-sexes comedies and among the writer-director’s greatest achievements, makes a stunning Blu-ray debut in Criterion’s impressive new release.
The Production: 5/5
With just his third production as both writer and director, Preston Sturges reached the apex of his career with The Lady Eve. There would be other high points to follow right after it: The Palm Beach Story, Sullivan’s Travels, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, but he’d never be any better than in The Lady Eve, an uncanny blend of romantic comedy and slapstick chicanery that weaves its ardor and its farce together with a sinewy brilliance.
Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) is a con artist travelling on a luxury liner with her even-more-expert card sharp father (Charles Coburn) with their sights set on one of America’s wealthiest heirs, Charles Pike (Henry Fonda). Things get complicated when Jean starts falling for her mark and he for her. When Charles is presented with evidence that Jean is a con woman, his disillusionment forces him to end their engagement. Jean, fixated on revenge and yet still secretly pining for the millionaire, devises a plan to get back into Charles’ life. She re-introduces herself to Charles as an aristocrat named Lady Eve Sidwich, but her strong resemblance to the woman he had given his heart to keeps Charles in a perpetual state of disarray and discombobulation.
Director Preston Sturges’ clever script is neatly planned to emphasize the romance in the film’s first part and leave most of the slapstick antics (much of it with Henry Fonda’s Charles as the inevitable victim) in the second half. Spread throughout, however, are a stunning series of set pieces that make for delicious viewing: a wonderfully witty game of poker where father and daughter play a cunning game of one-upmanship, the roaringly funny slapstick dinner party for “Lady Sidwich,” the proposal with a nudging horse as an interloper with all of these antics (and more) punctuated with some of the cleverest and most literate dialogue Sturges ever dreamed up. In his director’s guise, Sturges stages a wonderful introduction to Charles’ study of snakes, one of whom seems to get loose at the most inopportune moments (hilarious when the butler played by Robert Greig claims not to have seen the escaped serpent only to walk away unknowingly with it wrapped around his ankle) and mounts a glorious montage of the preparations for the wedding filled with wonderful sights that don’t require a word of dialogue to make us completely engaged in the upcoming festivities.
Barbara Stanwyck has never been better handling the comedy, the drama, and the romance than she is here. She may have earned her 1941 Oscar nomination for Ball of Fire, but she could have just as easily been nominated for her work in this picture so spot-on is she with her devotion to Charles, her believable distress with his desertion of her Jean, and her masquerade as Lady Sidwich (even if she can’t quite remove the Brooklyn twang from her English accent, but it’s funny because it wouldn’t fool any of the audience but fools everyone in the movie). Henry Fonda plays preoccupation better than just about anyone whether it’s with his snakes or his budding romance, and he maneuvers a series of pratfalls sensationally. Charles Coburn as Jean’s father and Eugene Palette as Charles’ father both manage their characters’ bluster and boldness with just the right comic finesse. Eric Blore has some marvelous comical moments as a fellow con artist, but William Demarest really steals the picture right out from under everyone’s noses as Charles’ Man Friday Muggsy. He’s amusingly grouchy and crass throughout, and he has a genius moment where he grabs a brush and mimics Adolf Hitler in trying to make a point to his ward about the ease with which someone can impersonate someone else. It’s only one of dozens of genius moments in this sterling slapstick romance.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 original theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. While the transfer looks generally filmic with a soft layer of grain, there are a couple of places where one can spot the remastering work which has occurred to smooth away problems: some light spotting on the right hand side of the frame and a couple of light white scratches that barely show up late in the picture. The grayscale is very nice with very good black levels (while not quite the inkiest possible) and rich, crisp whites. The movie has been divided into 26 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 audio track offers mono sound fidelity very reminiscent of its era. Dialogue has been wonderfully recorded and has been combined with the background score (which often uses standards from Paramount films like “Isn’t It Romantic”) and sound effects with expert professionalism. Age-related anomalies like hiss, crackle, flutter, and hum have been removed and do not in any way affect one’s listening enjoyment.
Special Features: 5/5
Audio Commentary: film historian Marian Keane provides a scene-by-scene analysis of the film, one she calls among the best of the “remarriage comedies.”
Peter Bogdanovich Introduction (8:08, SD): the filmmaker offers a brief video analysis of the movie touching on all of the production’s most memorable moments.
Film Scholar Roundtable (42:12, SD): recorded in 2020 on Zoom when meeting together would be impossible, seven filmmakers and/or historians discuss the merits of The Lady Eve and other Preston Sturges productions. They include directors Ron Shelton, James Brooks, and Peter Bogdanovich and film historians Leonard Maltin, Kenneth Turan, and Susan King, and Preston Sturges’ son Tom.
The Lady Deceives (21:30, HD): film critic David Cairns offers an expansive critical video analysis of the movie.
Edith Head Commentary (6:22, HD): excerpted from her book on her Hollywood costume designs, Edith Head notes (in on-screen captions taken from her book) her ideas for Barbara Stanwyck’s wardrobe for the movie.
Lux Radio Theatre (44:46): 1942 radio adaptation of the movie starring Barbara Stanwyck and Ray Milland.
“Up the Amazon” (5:00): the opening song for a proposed stage version of The Lady Eve.
Theatrical Trailer (1:28, HD)
Thirty-Six Page Booklet: contains cast and crew lists, stills from the movie and backstage publicity shots, information on the video and audio transfers, an essay on the movie by critic Geoffrey O’Brien, and a 1946 profile of Preston Sturges from Life magazine.
Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, one of the most memorable of the battle-of-the-sexes comedies and among the writer-director’s greatest achievements, makes a stunning Blu-ray debut in Criterion’s impressive new release. Highly recommended!