Turner Classic Movies will start their annual “Summer Under The Stars” festival on Thursday. Each year during August, they do a daily tribute to a different star each day. You get 24 hours of movies featuring that star; and then the next day, 24 hours of movies featuring a different star, and so on.
The term “star” includes not only leading men and ladies. Each year, they throw interesting character actors or supporting players into the mix, so that a day of John Wayne might be followed by a day of Peter Lorre or Marie Dressler.
Things will kick off on Thursday with Henry Fonda, and right in the prime evening spot, 8 p.m. Eastern/Pacific, 7 p.m. Central, they will have one of my all-time favorite comedies, “The Lady Eve”:
I am a big Preston Sturges fan, and this is a great Preston Sturges comedy. I’ve blogged about it before. I am blogging about it again.
Charles Pike (Fonda) is an awkward, science-obsessed heir to a brewery fortune (see the title of this post). After spending some time with a research expedition on the Amazon, he has caught up with an ocean liner, along with his butler/bodyguard (Sturges regular William Demarest, who gets the movie’s hilarious last line), and a specimen of South American snake.
On board the ocean liner are Jean Harringon (Barbara Stanwyck) and “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn), who are father-and-daughter con artists. (Are they really, biologically, related, or are those just the parts they play in their con game? It’s never made completely clear, although it’s clear they have a filial affection for one another.)
Anyone who knows classic Hollywood movies can plot out the next few points: Stanwyck will try to con Fonda. In the process, Stanwyck will end up falling in love with Fonda. Just before Stanwyck gets the chance to confess, Fonda will find out about Stanwyck’s occupation from an outside source, jeopardizing their relationship.
But, here’s the thing — for most Hollywood directors and screenwriters, that would be nearly the whole movie, followed very quickly by some pie-eyed longing by the female character, then reconciliation and Happily Ever After. But for Sturges, that’s just the first half of the movie. Preston Sturges is the master of the sudden, unexpected left turn. Stanwyck’s reaction to Fonda’s reaction is to decide that she’s now even more determined to take him for everything he’s got, just because. She plans to do this even though he now knows she’s a con artist. And her plan for this second con, which I won’ t spoil here, is as brilliant as it is comically implausible.
This is one of Stanwyck’s funniest performances, self-assured and with perfect comic timing. The scene, near the beginning of the movie, where she delivers a play-by-play commentary on all the other women on the ocean liner trying to flirt with Fonda is just priceless. Then, once they’ve all struck out, she shows them how it’s done.
See this movie. It’s as funny now as it was in 1941.