A Preston Sturges Double Feature at the New Beverly
If you’ve always wondered exactly what it was that defined a “screwball” comedy, then you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to see two of the most excellent examples of the genre this week at the New Beverly in West Hollywood.
Preston Sturges is well known for some of the most brilliant screwball comedies of the 1940s (Sullivan’s Travels, Hail the Conquering Hero). The versatile Howard Hawks is credited for having introduced the genre in 1934 with Twentieth Century, and is considered to have created the epitome of the form with Bringing Up Baby in 1938. But Sturges certainly perfected the motif and created a particular style all his own, retaining the required banter and expected madcap humor while expanding the scope of the genre to include more of the realities of life.
Although Bringing Up Baby is the epitome of a perfect screwball comedy, Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve has to be a close contender. Not only does the classic feature contain the elements required to categorize it within the genre, but also the film has additional qualities of wit, charm, and chutzpah that unmistakably identify it as a Preston Sturges creation. The film stars a young and vivacious Barbara Stanwyck (Meet John Doe, Double Indemnity) at her most conniving and brazen best chasing after a deliciously handsome Henry Fonda in one of his rare turns as a gullible and clumsy scholar (this was very shortly after his impressive turn as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath). The two come from very different worlds that, in this reality, make it inevitable that they should become an unlikely couple, falling for each other not once, but twice.
First, there is the setup in a fantastical world – a luxury liner where the idle rich mix among professional cardsharps and the intelligentsia. Initially, Stanwyck’s worldly “Jean” merely considers Fonda’s egghead “Charles” as an easy mark for her next scam. Naturally, she can’t help herself when she actually falls for the schmuck. She decides to come clean, but Fonda finds out about her and her con-artist father (played by the affable curmudgeon Charles Coburn). He throws her over before she gets the chance to explain the situation, vowing never to be taken in by another scheming woman. She becomes embittered by his lack of faith in her and in turn makes her own vow to get revenge on the one man she didn’t get the best of. Here comes the clever scheming.
In the second act, Stanwyck’s “Jean” disguises herself as an English aristocrat (the lady “Eve”) and comes back to tease and torment the confused Fonda until they fall in love once again. Only this time she turns the tables on the moralistic young man by playing with his narrow expectations. In typical fashion of the genre, the expectations of “polite society” are compared and contrasted to those of the so-called lower class and prove to be less than polite. The third act is all about Stanwyck’s regret and redemption for successfully scamming the man she realizes is the one person with whom she wants to be honest and true. Ultimately, Fonda comes to accept the woman he loves, faults and all, and by this time he realizes there are far more than he could ever have expected, but he just doesn’t care.
Another fine example of Sturges’ screen forte is the billing’s second feature, The Palm Beach Story. In this zany second feature the director displays a particular genius with the genre he helped shape. In this frantic delight, the ageless Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night) is at her caustic best as she attempts to do right by her industrialist husband played by the dull but incredibly handsome Joel McCrea (Sullivan’s Travels).
With both the noblest and admittedly selfish intentions, Colbert leaves the man she loves in search of a wealthier man. In the attempt to gain the financial security she wants and her husband needs (in order to develop his plans for a futuristic airport) she encounters an entourage of whacky characters, including Sturges mainstay William Demarest as a member of a lodge group that comes to our lady’s rescue, ex-matinee idol Rudy Vallee as a square but enamored millionaire, and Mary Astor in a rare turn as a carefree, party girl heiress (better known for The Maltese Falcon) who gleefully sets her sites on Joel McCrea who passes himself off as his wife’s brother.
The screwball comedy was offered as an antidote to the Great Depression. These two films are common to what the genre had to offer – a fanciful escape from reality. Regardless of the nature of the world outside, these movies had beauty and fun, full of larger than life characters behaving without consequence in a glamorous world filled with eccentric, comical characters. Now, as it was then, who wouldn’t want to take some time in these late days of summer and enjoy some pure escapism from the realities of life?
Friday, September 15: The Lady Eve at 7:30pm & The Palm Beach Story at 9:35pm. Saturday, September 16: The Lady Eve at 4:20pm, 8pm & The Palm Beach Story at 2:30pm, 6:15pm, 9:55pm.