We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of each decade with the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940′s
The Lady Eve 1941, Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, real name Ruby Catherine Stevens, star in this, one of the greatest screwball comedies ever made.
Fonda, heir to an ale—not beer!—fortune, has been up the Amazon studying snakes for a year. Stanwyck, a con-artist, takes one look at Fonda and says: “I need him like the axe needs the turkey.”
Preston Sturges wrote this script in Reno while awaiting his third divorce. Hmmm.
Stanwyck is, naturally, after Fonda’s fortune. Fonda is bumbling, clueless, and like most men in screwball comedies, helpless in the face of a smart, worldly woman.
Below is a classic scene. Stanwyck has cleverly maneuvered Fonda into her stateroom onboard an ocean liner. She gets him down on his knees, slyly has him change her “slippers.” Fonda, who has not seen a woman in a year, is positively melting. This might be the sexiest scene in the history of the movies, yet there is no nudity, not even a single kiss. It is romantic yet painful, and yes, deeply moving as the movie plays out the primal Biblical story of the fall of man as romantic comedy. Airy and witty, the dialogue sparkles as Stanwyck—probably the greatest actress of Hollywood’s Golden Age—often in a single breath, speaks a double-edged language of love, creating a haze of confusion and desire in Fonda’s Charles ‘Hopsi’ Pike.
Original sin as comedy is an audacious concept and writer-director Preston Sturges, a true genius—until he burned out on pride and booze—pulls it off with a firm but invisible hand.
The fall of man is played out as Fonda falls for Stanwyck, falls into her trap, and then literally as Fonda takes numerous pratfalls—Sturges had a weakness for slapstick—throughout the film.
The plot takes delightful and unexpected turns as Stanwyk’s ruthless Jean Harrington—in a reversal of theme—falls hard for Fonda. But her love turns to ice-cold hatred when Fonda, a man who is unable to deal in anything but moral absolutes, scorns the contrite Jean, after being made aware of her deception.
This is a seduction in words and subtle body language. Stanwyck’s voice is low and cozy, her tone grows increasingly intimate as the scene progresses. Notice how Stanwyck’s Brooklyn accent brushes up against Fonda’s midwestern drawl. It’s a lovely contrast.
Not only did they have faces in old Hollywood, but their voices were astonishing.
Indeed, the secret weapon in a great screen actor’s arsenal is a distinctive voice.Think of Bette Davis spitting out her dialogue with such violence that we thrill at her delivery. Marilyn Monroe makes her initial impression with an exaggerated, hip-swaying, mincing walk. But it was her voice—the breathless, whispery delivery—that made audiences love her. Consider Cary Grant, Claude Rains, Greer Garson, Myrna Loy, James Mason, William Powell, Clark Gable, Jean Arthur, Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Colman, and John Wayne to name just a few, skillfully used bewitching and memorable voices to inform their performances with subtle complexity.
Okay, let’s take a look at the scene.
Jane Fonda studied The Method under Lee Strasberg. When screening her father’s performances she couldn’t understand how he achieved such an effortless acting style. When she asked him how he prepared for a role, Henry Fonda replied: “I don’t know, I stand there, I think about my wife, Afdera, I don’t know.” Naturally, this left his overeducated daughter baffled and frustrated.
Barbara Stanwyck to Henry Fonda: “You see Hopsi, you don’t know very much about girls. The best ones aren’t as good as you think they are and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.”
The Criterion DVD of The Lady Eve is dazzling.