A fake heiress and a fake hobo
Thursday night, Turner Classic Movies is showing two of my favorite comedies — both released the same year — by one of the all-time great comedy directors, Preston Sturges.
I’ve blogged about both before — multiple times — but on the off chance that I can talk someone into watching these two terrific movies, I’ll do it again. I’ve never been averse to repeating myself, as all my annoyed friends can tell you.
“The Lady Eve” (1941) stars Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. When I was a kid, I knew of Barbara Stanwyck as the deathly serious matriarch on “The Big Valley” — the female answer to Lorne Greene on “Bonanza” — and had no idea that a couple of decades earlier, she had been one of the greatest comic actors of her generation. She’s certainly brilliant here.
The plot of the movie is that Henry Fonda plays a brewery heir (“Pike’s Pale: The Ale That Won For Yale”) who is somewhat of a science nerd, specifically zoology. He’s on his way back from an Amazon expedition in the company of his pet snake and his valet (Sturges regular William Demarest, lovably grouchy as always). He boards an ocean liner where Stanwyck’s character, a con artist, is looking for prey. She sets out to seduce him, and her fear of snakes is only a temporary setback.
A lot of Hollywood movies of this era have a predictable plot arc — which doesn’t necessarily get in the way of enjoying them. The first time I saw “The Lady Eve” I thought I knew exactly where it was headed. But the revelation I thought would happen near the end of the movie happened much sooner, and led to a sharp left turn that I did not see coming. Sturges is great at subverting audience expectations, which is part of what makes his movies so funny.
The night’s second Sturges movie, “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) is one I usually list among my two or three all-time favorites. It’s a genuine American classic, and I’m shocked at how many people have never seen it.
Joel McCrea plays John L. Sullivan, a movie director who’s spent the 1930s directing silly musical comedies like “Hey, Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants In Your Pants of 1939.” He longs to make a Serious Movie, a Message Movie, and he has his eyes on adapting a tragic “Grapes of Wrath” type novel called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” , by Sinclair Beckstein.
Keep in mind that this novel did not exist. Preston Sturges made up the title, a play on the dismissive phrase, “Oh, brother!” Sinclair Beckstein, of course, is a play on Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and John Steinbeck. The Coen brothers, who are fans of “Sullivan’s Travels,” appropriated the title and made an actual movie out of it decades later.
The head of the movie studio has been making good money off John L. Sullivan’s comedies and is horrified at the idea of his top director making this depressing social problem movie. So he tries to talk Sullivan out of it, by pointing out that Sullivan, raised in a good home and with a private school education, knows nothing about poverty.
Sullivan agrees — but his solution is to take a sabbatical from the movie studio and travel the countryside, dressed as a hobo. He thinks this will give him a chance to observe, and even experience, true poverty. But his comic misadventures remind him, and us, that it’s the height of arrogance to think we can quickly or easily understand someone else’s pain.
Along the way, he hooks up with Veronica Lake, playing a would-be actress who has given up her dreams and is about to leave Hollywood forever. She befriends the man she thinks is a hobo, not knowing that she’s closer to Hollywood than ever. She’s angry at first when she finds out she’s been deceived, but then insists on joining him on his journey.
Again, just as we think the movie seems to be reaching a sort of resolution, it takes a sharp left turn — and Sullivan gets to experience an all-too-real struggle of a type that he wasn’t looking for. Without giving too much away, the climactic scene leads him to appreciate the value of his earlier work in comedy.
These are both two very, very funny movies. “Sullivan’s Travels” also has a gentle message to it, but the comedy comes first. I strongly recommend that you watch them, or at least DVR them, this Thursday.