Big Masquerade: Stanwyck’s Hallowed “Eve”

21 Oct

In the early 1930s, let’s say 1932, Warner Bros, snatched up the rights to Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer winning novel, So Big! To clarify, this was the second silver screen treatment of Ferber’s high profile novel, but the first talkie version. Ferber, of course, extolled a particular genius for popular fiction, spinning hefty best sellers that blended multi-generational historical sagas with romance and social commentary. By the time So Big! arrived for its second cinematic incarnation, Ferber had enjoyed tremendous success with Showboat, as both a silent film and a game-changing Broadway musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein that, well before Rogers and Hammerstein’s sensational Oklahoma, set out to break the mold of fluffy, lighthearted, musicals with farcical plots of almost no consequence, save as a means for mounting show-stopping production numbers and romantic interludes. The musical version of Showboat, of course, would be, filmed twice, once in the 1930s and then again, in a noticeably altered form, in the 50s full of  vibrant color and pageantry. Ferber’s works also inspired such biggies as Cimmaron, 1931’s Best Picture winner, Come and Get It (1936), and, eventually, Giant (1956).

No, this column is not about rating the “Best of Ferber Big Screen Classics,” but a way of contextualizing Ferber’s outstanding relationship with Hollywood way back when, per the full-weight of her importance. To that end, please consider that Barbara Stanwyck, a known quantity but still a few years shy of 1937’s immortal weepie Stella Dallas and her first Oscar nomination, earned top billing in the Warner’s adaptation, a testament to her star power–that is, her box office clout. So big, indeed. Stanwyck was on top, and there, in the ingénue role, was fresh-faced Hollywood newcomer, Ruth Elizabeth Davis, playing princess, so to speak, to Stanwyck’s Queen Bee. Of course, Davis, better known as Bette Davis, soon eclipsed Stanwyck as one of Hollywood’s immortals. By 1934, Davis was scandalizing moviegoers everywhere with her intense portrayal of a seemingly soulless Cockney bar maid in Of Human Bondage. A year after that, and with more than a little controversy, Davis snagged her first Oscar (1935’s Dangerous), and then another (Jezebel, 1938), racking up a total of 10 Best Actress nods, a record in its time.

Oh, Stanwyck didn’t suddenly find herself a has-been in light of Davis’s emergence as a Hollywood heavyweight[1]. No, Ms. Stanwyck continued to work steadily, earning a total of four Oscar nominations and eventually transitioning to television as a woman “of a certain age” and enjoying adulation in such Emmy winners as The Big Valley (1965-69) and The Thorn Birds (1983), attracting generations of younger fans who might have missed out on some of her classic films. Already in her 70s by the time of  The Thorn Birds, she kept going with a featured role in lavish prime-time serial Dynasty and its short-lived spin-off The Colbys. And, later rather than sooner, Stanwyck cinched awards from both the Academy and the American Film Institute for her lifetime of excellent work. Good for her, but the point is that I’m not sure that Stanwyck has maintained the kind of aura, mystique, enjoyed by Davis and such contemporaries as, say, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, perhaps Ingrid Bergman, or even Garbo. Oh sure, every bit their equal regarding good ole acting chops, but has she burned her way into the public consciousness as have the others?

Of course, many of my peers and I first came to know Stanwyck as Victoria Barkley, white-haired matriarch of The Big Valley, a ranching family western that was not too far removed conceptually from ratings juggernaut Bonanza–the key difference being a generous dose of female empowerment that testosterone laden Bonanza lacked. While popular enough to hold onto to audiences long enough for a four year run, The Big Valley never challenged Bonanza in the numbers game, but that’s really beside the point. Stanwyck played a strong, gutsy woman at a time when such characters were far from the norm, and that, again, is how many of us learned to admire her.  But as a TV star. Not as a movie star, well, besides her role in Elvis Presley’s Roustabout.

By the time I hit the junior high years, I’d become familiar with vintage Stanwyck titles, such as Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity, Sorry, Wrong Number, and even Christmas in Connecticut but with the possibility of watching those last two with my grandma or on the late show, I didn’t actually catch up with the rest until I was grown though I might have seen her in an old black and white offering from her youth without even recognizing her.

So, no, my appreciation for Stanwyck didn’t develop until I was grown, probably about the time in my 20s when I read a Bette Davis book and learned more about So Big and both actresses’ respective roles in it. And here we are.

Again, Stanwyck never earned a competitive Oscar, and a lot of that is simply timing and/or luck, or lack thereof; moreover, she earned a relatively scant four nominations, that is, scant compared, again, to the likes of contemporaries Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, and Greer Garson. That noted, Stanwyck’s quartet of nominated performances fascinate in the way they showcase her utter versatility: the mother of all self-sacrificing mothers in classic weepie Stella Dallas (1937), a wisecracking party-girl who mesmerizes befuddled Gary Cooper in Howard Hawks’ rambunctious Ball of Fire (1941), a platinum blonde femme fatale whose smoldering allure is matched only by her icy calculation in Double Indemnity (1944), and a frantic invalid trapped in a murderous plot in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).  It’s hard to imagine anyone ever thinking that Stanwyck was ever merely playing Stanwyck, in contrast to some of the leading stars of the era who milked their personae in film after film. Allegedly.

Of all Stanwyck’s Oscar nominated performances, the one that would seem more typically award-friendly has to be Stella Dallas. Of course, Olivia Higgins Prouty’s novel about a working class woman who walks out of her daughter’s life so that said daughter will live the life that Stella cannot provide was already dated by the late 1930s, but Stanwyck, ever the trouper, made it work, aging several years over the course of the story, and delivering the emotional payoff during the film’s climax, but Stanwyck was in good company that year, what with Greta Garbo in Camille and Janet Gaynor in the first incarnation of A Star is Born, both of them watching from the sidelines with Stanwyck and Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth) while Luise Rainer made history as Oscar’s first back-to-back winner. A year previous, Rainer had captured a Best Actress trophy for a small yet significant role in The Great Ziegfeld. Her portrayal in the big screen version of Pearl S.Buck’s The Good Earth stunned just about everyone–even if the idea of a white woman playing a Chinese peasant woman now strikes a lot of us as problematic. a white-washing, if you will; however, at the time it seemed revelatory. Today, we wonder why Garbo and Stanwyck never won competitive Oscars.

In one sequence as visually inventive as anything ever devised by Hitchcock, director Preston Sturges shifts the audience’s point-of-view from looking at Stanwyck’s Jean to functioning as her second pair of eyes as she checks out the competition via her ever-handy compact. IMAGE: Turner Movie Classics (TCM), http://i.cdn.turner.com/v5cache/TCM/Images/Dynamic/i410/ladyeve_theyrenotgoodenough_FC_470x264_070820160636.jpg

On the other hand, 1941 belonged to Stanwyck, Oscar or no. Besides Ball of Fire, she and Gary Cooper also shared the screen in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, an uneven blend of populist fantasia and dark satire, not necessarily for everyone’s taste, but a hit nonetheless [2]. Additionally, in the same year Stanwyck cavorted among the leisure class with Henry Fonda, never more luscious, in Preston Sturges’ hilarious take on the battle of the sexes, The Lady Eve. This is my favorite Stanwyck performance [3A], and I think at least more deserving of an Oscar nod than Ball of Fire [3B], which is by no means a slur against the latter as Stanwyck and Cooper sparkle a-plenty for legendary director Howard Hawks, but I digress. [Given Stanwyck’s strong showing in a single year, it’s a wonder her three performances didn’t cancel out one another in the early voting.]

Back to The Lady Eve. After an opening credit sequence that brings to mind the story of Adam and, well, you know, Eve, the action begins in earnest as Fonda, in the role of a ophiologist (aka snake expert, dig it) prepares to head back to the USA after spending time exploring the Amazon. Fonda’s Charles Pike is also quickly established as heir to a fortune made in the brewing industry: “Pike’s Pale: The Ale that Won for Yale.” Something like that. He also travels with his lifelong valet, for lack of a better word, played with great curmudgeonly style, and more than a dash of genuine feeling for his charge, by ever-reliable William Demarest.

Eventually, Fonda finds himself aboard a luxury liner enroute to the States, and that’s where he takes a tumble–literally–for Stanwyck’s Jean Harrington, one half of a father-daughter confidence team, con artists, if you will. These two (dad played by Charles Coburn) maintain appearances by travelling with a third party, Melville Cooper, in the guise of a trusty butler. Their con is simple enough.  Jean presents herself as bait, mostly by pretending to be uninterested in Fonda’s wealth, then coaxes him into a friendly game of cards, only to lose on purpose, thereby setting up a rematch in which the objective is to cheat and take him for as much as possible. Because Fonda is so bookish and so instinctively attracted to Stanwyck, he never sees that he’s being played, but Demarest does, so he launches an investigation. In the meantime, Stanwyck develops genuine affection for Fonda. She realizes what a true gentleman he is, not a rich arrogant bore, and she appreciates his kindness, enough so that she turns the table on her Pop in order to thwart his scheme and keep her blossoming relationship legit by allowing nature to take its course, which she believes will result in matrimony. That way, everybody wins.

But everybody doesn’t win. Before Stanwyck can come clean about her background, Fonda learns about her past deeds as a swindler and drops her, unable to believe she might have changed or that such change is even possible. That’s when the fun begins as in true “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” fashion, Stanwyck plots a way to make Fonda pay for dropping her so coldly. “I need him,” she says, “like the axe needs the turkey.” This time, the game isn’t about money but toying with Fonda’s emotions for spite. To that end, she finesses her way to Fonda’s home turf in Connecticut, masquerading as a British noblewoman, Lady Eve Sidwich. And let the games begin.

1941: Barbara Stanwyck (1907 – 1990) as con artist Jean Harrington, posing as the wealthy Lady Eve Sidwich in the romantic comedy ‘The Lady Eve’, directed by Preston Sturges. [The Lady Eve marked the first collaboration between Stanwyck and prolific Paramount designer Edith Head. The two would reunite for both Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity and more. Head’s challenge when designing for Stanwyck was to create the illusion of curviness on the long-waisted actress.] (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

What Stanwyck does here is play two roles, more or less, and that is why I think she eclipses her own sassy performance in Ball of Fire. First, we have Jean, the modern gal who can definitely handle herself in a pinch, and then aristocratic Eve, all fluttery sophistication and hoity-toity accent as she charms just about everyone in Fonda’s social circle.  Do the filmmakers in any way try to create a disguise for Stanwyck–prosthetics, glasses, or wigs–so that she will be not be recognized immediately by Fonda? Nope. That’s part of the gag. He’s hoplessly besotted and is in no mood to listen to reason. Stanwyck pulls off this masquerade by changing her body language and her attitude while affecting an accent, one that sounds just plausible enough. Designer Edith’s Head’s luxe costuming helps, of course, but Stanwyck provides the juice. Whether seducing Fonda in the early scenes or working the locals with her Eve shtick, Jean is always giving a performance–and having a grand time doing it. The trick is to keep the audience on her side. She has to show that underneath Jean’s schemes is a woman with heart.

Something else Jean/Eve is good at is sizing up people, always spotting a mark and plotting her next move, and this is when Stanwyck is at her most delightful–as improbable as that might sound. The first time I ever saw this movie was, really, just a random occurrence. One day, several, several years ago, back when the American Movie Classics channel still mostly showed old black and white movies without commercials, I turned on the TV one Saturday morning, just in time to see one of Stanwyck’s–and the film’s–best bits. In what is only her second scene, Stanwyck sits with her dad in the ship’s fancy dining room and uses her compact to scope out the competition–meaning any one of a seemingly endless parade of women willing to throw themselves at Fonda’s eligible bachelor. As Jean trains her mirror on the action, she provides breathlessly witty commentary on the likely contenders in all their earnest, yet doomed, optimism. Here shines the genius of not only Stanwyck but also Sturges because much of what unfolds is photographed from Jean’s view as she holds the mirror to scan the room. The audience sees what Jean sees and from the angle from which she sees it. What this means is that for the better of part of two minutes the audience sees Jean’s face only fleetingly. The connection is forged solely through the strength of Stanwyck’s voice and the inflections of her rapid delivery, and the effect is utterly captivating. In one bold directorial choice–keeping the performer’s face out of frame–we come to admire Jean’s moxie, and we’re right there with her when Fonda arrives as if on cue. Harking back to my own experience, I was so intrigued by this one sequence that both Michael and I stopped clicking through channels to watch all the way to the end. And we’ve been rewatching ever since.

Within minutes of meeting each other, Stanwyck and Fonda settle into a romantic clutch in the former’s stateroom. As Stanwyck invites Fonda to join her on a cozy chaise lounge, Sturges frames the actors in a tight two-shot, promptly parking the camera and not cutting away for right at 4 minutes: Stanwyck seductively running her fingers through Fonda’s luxuriously dark hair while the latter remains hopelessly transfixed, and good for him. The effect is both sublimely comic and swoonily romantic. The ability to sustain this sequence is another plus for Stanwyck.

As much as The Lady Eve is clearly weighted in Stanwyck’s favor, her schemes would be less engaging without Fonda’s game contributions. He does not underplay, exactly, but his role is not as flashy as his co-star’s. “Hopsie,” his nickname, btw [4], is steeped in confusion: nerdish, socially awkward (prone to tripping, which Sturges milks), but not entirely divorced from his sexuality, either, and part of the fun is watching him navigating his overwhelming primal attraction to Stanwyck in whatever guise she appears. It is, indeed, his sweetness and vulnerability that prompt Stanwyck’s hard edges to soften, and why his rash dismissal of her stings so deeply. Oh, and pay special attention to how tenderly he goes about the business of assisting her change shoes after an awkward accident. I melt at the thought of his touch every time. Of course, it certainly doesn’t hurt that dreamy-eyed Fonda is flat-out gorgeous. If there were ever any doubt about where his famous daughter Jane got her camera-ready good looks, search no further than her dad in his youthful prime.

How does it all end? Oh, I don’t want to spoil the full effect of Sturges’ mischief, but, rest assured, the conclusion is outrageous, a wee scandalous, on-point, and something that only the great comic director could invent. To clarify, Sturges receives a story credit on the film though the actual screenplay is drafted by Moncton Hoffe, who earned the film’s sole Oscar nomination; however, while the Academy might not have been enticed, this does not mean that the film did not boast plenty of admirers in its original run. For example, influential New York Times critic Bosley Crowther lavished Sturges and his movie with praise, heralding The Lady Eve has the best romantic comedy since 1934’s It Happened One Night [5]. Even better, at year’s end The Lady Eve reigned supreme at the top of the same newspaper’s 10 Best Films list, outpacing, yes, Orson Welles’ esteemed Citizen Kane [6]. That’s huge, but that’s not all. Stanwyck and Fonda’s pairing was also listed as one of 1941’s 10 Best by the National Board of Review, a distinction not earned by either of Stanwyck’s other ’41 releases including, just to be clear, the flick for which she was Academy nominated, Ball of Fire [7].

The Lady Eve continues to reap honors, such as the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry (inducted in 1994, [8]) and spots on two American Film Institute’s retrospectives, celebrating the first century of moviemaking: ranking as high as 26 among the most passionate love stories [9], and coming in at 55 among the funniest comedies [10].  The film has also been given the Criterion treatment with an expert digital transfer, a thoughtful introduction by triple threat, director-critic-historian Peter Bogdanovich, and a slide presentation spotlighting designer Edith Head’s costume sketches and notes.

Stanwyck herself was recognized on the AFI’s list of greatest stars, coming in at 11 among female players [11]. Just outside the top 10 and the likes of, you know, Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford, but ranking higher than Grace Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall, and Ava Gardner (with no less than formidable Rosalind Russell absent from the roster). We’ll take it, Ms. Stanwyck, and Michael and I will keep watching The Lady Eve, all year ’round because, as Michael says, it’s always fresh and fun, year after year, no matter the season. Hallowed Eve, indeed.

Thanks for your consideration, y’all, and Happy Halloween!

 

[1] Indeed, according to  published reports, the IRS listed Stanwyck as the highest paid woman in America in 1944:  http://articles.latimes.com/1987-04-05/entertainment/ca-22_1_barbara-stanwyck/3

  • ^ Furthermore, regarding the matter of Stanwyck being the highest paid woman in America, my guess is that her good fortune, so to speak, was the result of being a “free agent” during the height of the old studio system. For example, The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number are  Paramount; So Big and Meet John Doe are Warner Bros.; Stella Dallas and Ball of Fire are from Samuel Goldwyn. Working independently allowed Stanwyck to name her price, and if a given studio wanted her badly enough, she got what she asked. Again, notice that her three big 1941 films all came from different studios, during the same time that say, Bette Davis was under contract to Warners. Joan Crawford was still at MGM, barely, as were Judy Garland and Greer Garson, while Betty Grable reigned at 20th Century Fox, etc.

[2] Shades of both Stanwyck in Meet John Doe AND Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson, per His Girl Friday, can be found in the reporter Jennifer Jason Leigh portrays in the Coens’ 1994 The Hudsucker Proxy.

[3A] Incredibly, my second favorite Stanwyck performance is in 1955’s There’s Always Tomorrow (a remake) in which Stanwyck, in the role of a top-flight fashion designer, is reunited with Fred MacMurray, her Double Indemnity co-star in a very adult tale of love, loss, consequences, and regret. From the same team (producer Ross Hunter and director Douglas Sirk) who wowed audiences in the 1950s with such soapy entertainments as Magnificent Obsession, All that Heaven Allows and the sublimely over-the-top remake of Imitation of Life, There’s Always Tomorrow differs from those better known titles in that it is a black and white release, a bit odd given the production team’s fondness for bold and exciting use of color; nonetheless, Stanwyck and MacMurray give it their all, and the ending still strikes a nerve.

[3B] I didn’t catch up with Ball of Fire until a years after I first watched The Lady Eve (which I had seen several times in the interim), and, perhaps, I would have preferred Ball of Fire if I had seen it first. It’s definitely an amusing romp. We own copies of both films, btw. The difference for me is that while Stanwyck clearly drives the plot of The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire plays more like an ensemble piece with the actress playing opposite not just Cooper but also a host of comic vets cast as Cooper’s colleagues (members of an encyclopedia editorial board), not mention to the likes of baddies Dana Andrews and Dan Duryea. That noted, Ball of Fire has been recognized by both the Library of Congress, per the National Film Registry, and the American Film Institute in its retrospective of America’s 100 funniest films.

[4] A reference to the hops found in ale.

[5] Crowther writing about The Lady Eve in the New York Times, originally published in February, 1941: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9D07E2DD133DE33BBC4E51DFB466838A659EDE

[6] Please see: https://thestopbutton.com/lists/new-york-times-ten-best-films/#1941

[7] That noted, in his 1993 book Alternate Oscars, Danny Peary takes 1941’s Best Actress award from Joan Fontaine (Suspicion) and gives it to Stanwyck for Ball of Fire while acknowledging that the actress is also “flawless” in The Lady Eve and a near photo-finish worthy honorable mention (see pages 62-63). Also, as I do here, Peary describes Stanwyck in Ball of Fire as sassy. Furthermore, in the section devoted to the 1944 Oscars, Peary subs Stanwyck in Double Indemnity for actual winner Ingrid Bergman, per Gaslight (77-78). Finally, in 1941, the year in which Gary Cooper nabbed Best Actor accolades for Sergeant York, Peary makes a slight adjustment, awarding top honors to Cooper, sure, but in Ball of Fire opposite Stanwyck.

[8] See the complete list of National Film Registry inductees:

https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/

[9] See the American Film Institute’s 100 Years..100 Passions:

http://www.afi.com/100Years/passions.aspx

[10] See the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Laughs:

http://www.afi.com/100Years/laughs.aspx

[11] http://www.afi.com/100Years/stars.aspx

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