The Lady Eve
d. Preston Sturges (1941)
The Criterion Collection

Released on DVD by The Criterion Collection back in October of 2001, we’ve been waiting a long time for the film to be restored and upgraded to Blu-ray. The day has finally arrived!

From various interviews, it was apparent that Criterion wanted to upgrade their old and outdated DVD release of the film, but they kept hoping that they’d find better elements to restore and use in an upgrade. For example, in this interview from just last year with Criterion’s technical director Lee Kline (at 52:15), Kline says that the search for better elements was ongoing and that to do a restoration from a dupe negative would feel like defeat. But you can’t wait forever. In another recent interview with Kline (this one with Roger Deakins), Kline said that Peter Becker, Criterion’s president, approached him about moving forward with a new release of The Lady Eve, saying essentially that, while moving forward with the elements they had was less than ideal, if the alternative was that people don’t get to see the film, it was time to use what they had. The film needs to be seen. And so they moved forward, going through eight different prints to see which ones had the least damage and then spending four months performing the restoration itself. The resulting 4K restoration looks fantastic!

What a welcome release this is, for The Lady Eve is a wonder. I had not seen it until I watched the new release with my wife in preparation for this review: it kept me laughing and intrigued throughout. It may be the best film in a surge of fantastic films written and directed by Preston Sturges in the early 1940s. It’s lovingly crafted with twists and turns, and filled with snappy dialogue delivered by actors who deserve their star acclaim.

Henry Fonda plays Charles Pike, heir to an ale brewery; he is rich and eligible. But he’s not particularly interested in ale, his fortune (easy to understand since he’s rich enough not to be interested in it), or all of the women vying for his attention. His passion is snakes. When we catch up to him at the beginning of the film, he is leaving the Amazon (he’s been up the Amazon for a year, he is sure to mention to anyone) and returning to New York so he can go home to Connecticut. An intimation of his social status, a luxury cruise ship pulls up alongside his little river boat and picks him up. Everyone on board, aware of who he is, gathers to see the wealthy and, bonus, handsome man climb aboard.

This is where we meet Jean Harrington, played by the always exceptional Barbara Stanwyck. Jean is a professional con artist who works alongside her father to fleece naive rich men out of their money. While Pike prepares to ascend the ladder, Jean sizes up her next target and practices her aim by dropping an apple on his head.

Later in the evening, Jean continues to survey Pike and watches many of the other women on board try their luck with him, each getting absolutely nowhere. Her tactic is more aggressive and proves more effective: when he walks behind her, she trips him and demands he take her to her bedroom to change shoes.

Pike hasn’t got a chance. Not only is Jean great at cards (as Pike will learn), but she’s also a master at seduction. Pike himself is as sincere and aw-shucks as any Henry Fonda character could be (I’ve been up the Amazon for a year, he continues to say in his earnest Boy Scout tone). He does not for a second doubt Jean’s intentions, and he is happy to be chastely (or not so chastely) seduced. Sturges is a master at conveying the heat within the confines of the censorious studio code that had little patience for anything potentially uncouth, but Sturges slips it in all over the place. Since the censors usually addressed the script (which actually was first rejected due to “the definite suggestion of a sex affair between your two leads”), Sturges seemed able to interplay the dialogue with the action on the screen.

But he still included playfully suggestive dialogue, including when Jean and Pike return to the dining area and meet up with Jean’s father, “Colonel” Harrington:

Harrington: Ah, there you are. Well, it certainly took you long enough to come back in the same outfit.

Jean: I’m lucky to have this on. Mr. Pike has been up a river for a year.

Moving quickly, Pike unabashedly admits he is in love with Jean and would like to marry her. To her surprise, Jean returns the affection.

Harrington: Are you really in love with this mug?

Jean: Uh-huh.

Harrington: Don’t you think it a little bit dangerous? I don’t mean for us. I mean for your heart. They’re apt to be slightly narrow-minded, the righteous people.

We know trouble is brewing — she met him, after all, in order to con him, and sometime he will learn the truth about her past — but Jean hopes she can reveal all to him when they arrive in New York and, thus, protect her father from scandal on board the ship. Alas, Jean’s deceit will not be concealed much longer. Pike, acting quite righteous, ends their relationship on the spot. When the ship docks in New York, they go their separate ways.

I’ll admit I was surprised by how things turned at that point in the show. I figured Pike and Jean would fight a while but ultimately Jean would prove her affection was genuine and Pike would accept her. That’s the formula, right? Ha! Sturges’s film is much better than anything I was imagining. We still have a large chunk of the movie left, and Jean is not pleased by Pike’s rejection: “I need him like the ax needs the turkey,” she says, plotting her hilarious (because it is neither realistic nor, fortunately, happening to me) revenge.

I loved the crazy film. I very much related to the horse in this still:

There is much more to love than what I’ve shared above, of course. I haven’t mentioned much of anything about the supporting characters: Harrington, amoral patriarch, is conveyed brilliantly by Charles Coburn (The Devil and Miss Jones and Heaven Can Wait). Pike has a father too, played by the scratchy-voiced, brilliant Eugene Pallette (My Man Godfrey and, again, Heaven Can Wait). Pike’s body guard is played by the hilarious William Demarest (The Devil and Miss Jones, The Palm Beach Story, and, later in life and in a different format, My Three Sons); a lot of the best slapstick humor comes from his performance.

This new release sports some good supplements as well. There is an audio commentary from the original 2001 release, featuring film professor Marian Keane. I have not listened to it yet, but I love commentaries and will be doing so soon. I did partake of the rest of the supplements already, though. First, we have an eight-minute introduction to the film by Peter Bogdanovich, created also for the original 2001 release; he calls it one of the greatest comedies ever, and I think he has a case.

More interesting to me, though, were the new supplements created so recently that one is a Zoom conversation. This is a 42-minute conversation between Tom Sturges (son and biographer of Preston Sturges), Bogdanovich, James L. Brooks, Ron Shelton, Susan King, Leonard Maltin, and Kenneth Turan; this is a really nice conversation, even given that it features some of the, uh, charm? of a Zoom meeting (“Hi Leonard! Leonard! Oh, I don’t think he has his headphones on.”). Also new is “The Lady Deceives,” a 21:30-minute video essay by David Cairns; this is not your typical video essay, since Cairns uses all kinds of artistic splashes to present his take on the film.

The supplements also include the 45-minute Lux Radio Theatre adaptation from 1942, featuring the voice acting of Stanwyck herself alongside Ray Milland (I think these are always fun). We also get a 6:22-minute feature on Edith Head, since this was among the first set of films in which her costume design made a splash. The disc also includes a five-minute segment of the unproduced stage musical, featuring “Up the Amazon,” a jaunty tune that pays tribute to the film as well as the film’s risque content (albeit less subtly: “He ain’t no Henry Fonda, but what an anaconda”). There is also a trailer.

The disc also comes with a healthy booklet (around 40 pages) that includes “Sweet Revenge,” an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien entitled “Sweet Revenge” and Noel F. Busch’s 1946 Life profile on Sturges.

This is definitely among the top tier of Criterion releases, and I strongly encourage you to make time to explore it.

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