For our third annual Winter Marathon, we decided to go with 1940s director-screenwriter Preston Sturges. Sturges had an impressive run starting in 1940, when having already established himself as one of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters he was given the opportunity to direct his own script for The Great McGinty – largely because he sold the script to the studio for a whole $10. What followed was a string of seven straight classics released between 1940 and 1944. Unfortunately, it appears that things went a bit to Sturges’ head, and his ambition to become the first trifecta producer/director/screenwriter was encouraged by Howard Hughes…leading to several years out of the spotlight, professional differences between himself and Hughes, and left him only one flop away from out of a job. And The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (ever heard of it?) flopped. Sturges had one last hurrah in our third film of the evening, but it garnered neither an audience nor critical acclaim at the time and that was pretty much that.
Sturges is known largely for his sharp and incisive dialogue – that of the timeless variety. Whereas plenty of films from his era don’t translate today, it’s rare that a Sturges joke leaves you scratching your head and thinking that maybe you just had to be there, which meant that all-in-all, we were in for a fun evening.
We started out with perhaps Sturges’ best known film, The Lady Eve. Henry Fonda plays an impeccable Charles Pike – making the fundamental naïveté of the character seem plausible.
Pike has just come back from a year in the Amazon chasing down snakes, ominously forewarned of the dangers of consorting too easily with women when so long removed from the dating scene. And normally, there would be little reason to worry (he likes snakes, not icky girls!) but seeing as this is a movie, you have to figure there may be some romance in his future.
Charles is able to pursue his herpetology due to his family’s brewing fortune. His disinterest in brewing has earned him the ironic nickname “Hopsy” which may as well be his only name in the film. His fortune, however, gives him the ability to pull over a cruise ship – a cruise ship populated with card sharps salivating at the chance to rip off the rich rube who has enough rep to board mid-ocean.
Here we see card sharp Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father as she throws an apple at the boarding Hopsy. Let’s see…we’ve got snakes, we’ve got women who will later call themselves Eve throwing apples at people…no, no symbolism here at all.
In the dining room, Jean follows (and narrates) the futile attempts of several women to bag Hopsy using her make-up mirror in an impressive tracking shot before winning the battle the way any wily woman would – she trips him, and then blames her broken shoe strap on his carelessness. She takes him back to her cabin, flirts with him, tries to exploit a possible foot fetish, and then brings him back to her dad’s table for some friendly cards.
Hopsy’s personal assistant Muggsy Murgatroyd (yes, as in “Heavens to…”), frowning above, isn’t too happy about the situation having been warned about possible swindlers on board. But these people are OK – not only did they let him win, but after the fact they announced that the game had been for money. How could they possibly be suspicious?
Unfortunately, Jean goes a bit soft on her poor mug Hopsy, and forbids her father to cheat him any further (which really means, at all, since they let him win the first night). He refuses, of course, which leads to a memorable scene of father-daughter dueling hidden card tricks. Hopsy misses it altogether, and things really are looking ripe for a two-day-in marriage proposal until…
…a crew member slips Hopsy a picture of known card sharps – a photo of Jean and her father. Jean, who had been about to admit both her occupation and her immediate retirement to her new love, is preempted by his revelation that he has discovered her gig. Her protestations to no avail, he leaves her a woman scorned, hoping only for revenge.
Some time later on dry land, Jean and her father run into an old con man acquaintance who mentions a connection with the Pike family. Quickly, she hatches a hare-brained, guaranteed-not-to-work scheme.
She and the con man secure an invitation to a party at the Pike’s as the Lady Eve Sidwich and her uncle.
Despite Murgatroyd’s insistence that “That’s the same dame!”, Hopsy is unconvinced due to the fact that the Lady Eve looks too much like Jean, and besides, has an English accent. When Hopsy gets a bit suspicious, the “uncle” lays out the whole trope about the “scandalous pregnancy twins separated at birth family secret don’t ever mention it because she doesn’t know” and Hopsy is reeled right back in.
Well, things go on their natural course and Hopsy awkwardly proposes to Eve while having his ear licked by a horse. Naturally, she accepts. Then, on their wedding night…
…Eve “accidentally” discloses her romantic history with everybody from the stable boy to Charlie Chaplin. Hopsy was put off by the idea of one former lover, but as the list grew to the dozens, he could take no more. The only thing for it was an immediate divorce.
However, Jean/Eve is a bit remorseful about her terrible treatment of Hopsy and wants to see him in person, something he refuses to grant her. So she denies the divorce. Then, learning that he’s about to head off on a cruise she hurries off to the docks, gets on the boat, and poses as Jean. If one can be said to pose as oneself.
It’s love at first sight again, but Hopsy is still as naïve as ever, confessing to her as they slip into her cabin that he is married. She doesn’t mind, because she is, too.
Next up on the list was Sullivan’s Travels. Here John L. Sullivan (played by Joel McCrea, does not own a Ford dealership) plays a successful director of such comedic tripe as “Ants in Your Plants” who hopes to make a serious film to explore the problem of poverty in America. The film is to be based on a script called “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, a title notably stolen (or more properly, referenced) by the Coen brothers over 50 years later.
Of course, Sullivan’s studio thinks he hasn’t got the appropriate background to do a film on poverty. All they really want to do is discourage him, but instead they lead him into a dangerous idea – to attempt to live among the poor as one of them until he can truly appreciate their struggles. He sets off with a dime in his pocket and a business card hidden in the sole of his shoe, just in case.
Oh, um, and an RV full of studio suits following him because he is too valuable as a director to be let out of their sight.
Sullivan isn’t terribly happy about this, so he catches a ride on a passing hot rod and leads the RV in a high speed off-road chase in an attempt to lose them. Amazingly, he does not.
He does, however, cause a bit of chaos on the RV, including a potentially offensive scene where the cook is battered into “whiteface” – but more on that later. Finally, he convinces the crew to please just meet him in Las Vegas and sets off on his own. But, a truck he boards in the middle of the night unexpectedly drops him off in Hollywood and he hits a cafe only to find out that he’s lost his dime.
To his rescue comes a failed actress (Veronica Lake) on her way out of town. For a short time he tries to hide his identity, but he can’t come to grips with the idea of this helpless beauty trying to make her way across country on her own, and offers to “borrow” a friend’s car to drive her home. To Chicago. She’s a bit suspicious of him, even when he plausibly explains that the swank car belongs to his good friend, the movie director John L. Sullivan.
But, the jig is up when he gets pulled over (still in Los Angeles) for suspicion of driving a stolen car. He has no choice but to admit his identity to the police (and to get confirmation from his people) to escape prison. Hmm. That’s going to come back.
“How does the girl fit into the picture?” asks a policeman. “There’s always a girl in the picture,” replies Sullivan. “What’s the matter, don’t you go to the movies?” And you don’t really realize until the end credits that she doesn’t even have a name. She’s credited as “the girl”.
At this point, Sullivan can’t shake the girl, so they set off on some poverty adventures. They ride a train to Vegas where they meet the studio heads, they get back on the RV because he has a cold, they try to get to Kansas City…things get kind of confused because eventually they end up in a homeless shelter in LA where Sullivan has his shoes stolen by the only evil poor person in the film. I’m not really sure how they got there.
But no matter – now that Sullivan has his experience, he’s set to make his film. But first, he wishes to go incognito through the poor areas of LA one more time, handing out a sheaf of $5 bills in appreciation. Enter the evil guy. Most of the poor people he gives some cash to are grateful, but the evil guy wants the whole stack. So he follows Sullivan until he sees his opportunity, and jumps him. This happens to be at the train station, and after giving Sullivan a nasty crack on the head and stuffing him into a boxcar, he takes the stolen money and celebrates on the tracks.
Bad move. And when Sullivan doesn’t come home from his cash giveaway, his people eventually check the morgue and find an unidentifiable smooshed person wearing Sullivan’s shoes – complete with business card. Sullivan is presumed dead, and even buried.
Meanwhile the real Sullivan makes it all the way back to Kansas City knocked out, and when he disembarks the train, dazed, he is confronted and abused by a railyard employee, whom he subsequently attacks with a rock. The wheels of justice move swiftly in Missouri, and Sullivan is tried, convicted, and sentenced to a chain gang before he can even remember his own identity.
And once again, Sullivan finds himself at the mercy of the law, and trying to prove his identity. Naturally, the bosses are having none of it, and he appears to be doomed to serve out his sentence.
As an interlude in Sullivan’s incarceration, the prisoners are taken to a local black church where they are privileged to watch a motion picture (a Disney cartoon) projected onto a sheet. The pastor of the church asks the parishoners to clear the front three rows so that the prisoners, unfortunate as they are, can be allowed to have a good seat, and the churchgoers gladly do so. It’s a scene that stands in stark contradiction to the earlier “cook with whiteface” incident, and given its place later in the film and the prominent time given to it, it stands as a virtual repudiation of the first image of blacks in the film, quite unusual for its era. In fact, Sturges was even sent a letter from the president of the NAACP to this effect:
This is one of the most moving scenes I have seen in a moving picture for a long time. But I am particularly grateful to you, as are a number of my friends, both white and colored, for the dignified and decent treatment of Negroes in this scene.
And on top of the respectful treatment of the churchgoers, Sullivan comes to a realization while watching the cartoon – a film about the poor isn’t really going to enrich the lives of the poor. More than anything, they need to laugh. But there’s still that little problem about being stuck on a chain gang. Sullivan, however, comes to the solution after seeing a story about his death in the newspaper – he confesses to his own murder.
It works, because it gets his picture in the paper and the folks in Hollywood recognize him. With no further ado he is reinstated to Hollywood and The Girl, and flummoxes the studio heads one last time by deciding to step away from O Brother Where Art Thou, instead intending to direct another comedy.
Finally, we watched Sturges’ final masterpiece, Unfaithfully Yours. After the carefree tone of the first two films, Unfaithfully Yours presented an interesting contrast – in fact it feels like three films in one.
The Cuckolded Husband
It starts out with the happily married Sir Alfred and Daphne De Carter, played by Rex Harrison and Linda Darnell.
He’s a famous symphony conductor, she’s a trophy bride, and something is not quite right. Alfred’s brother-in-law (Daphne’s sister’s husband) has apparently misinterpreted something Alfred has said, and while the conductor was off on business the brother-in-law hired a private detective to follow Daphne and check up on possible infidelity.
Apparently the check-up didn’t go so well, and the brother-in-law goes to deliver the bad news. Sir Alfred, however, is aghast at the hiring of the detective in the first place, having never requested such a thing and having full confidence in his wife, and he takes out his aggressions on the brother-in-law (who he never really liked anyways) and throws out the report.
But the report is dutifully returned by a hotel staffer who found it in the garbage, so Alfred resorts to destroying it utterly.
Umm, and the hotel room. Oops. Unfortunately, Sir Alfred decides to head off to the P.I. to give him a piece of his mind, and ends up instead becoming convinced of his wife’s guilt in spite of himself. It appears that she went to his long-time assistant’s hotel room one night wearing only a nightgown, and didn’t emerge for about half an hour. It’s not definitive, but it doesn’t look good. And Sir Alfred…has to conduct a concert.
The Psychological Drama
Sir Alfred sets about to the concert, but his mind is elsewhere.
There’s a superb zoom shot from the back of the orchestra all the way in to Sir Alfred’s pupil (one which will be repeated two more times) which should, should, cue the viewer in to fact that we’re now in the midst of Sir Alfred’s mind. Well, that, and the fact that the music from the symphony continues as the background music for the following scenes.
But those cues aren’t quite as effective as they should be, and the typical reaction for a first-time viewer is to believe that the scene which follows (it starts after the end of the concert) is reality. In it, Sir Alfred plots the grisly murder of his beloved spouse.
The plan revolves somewhat improbably around an LP recorder. Sir Alfred records his own voice calling for help and implicating his assistant. he then slaughters Daphne with a razor (oh yes, slaughters), and calls in his assistant, stealthily getting him to handle the razor and go into the room, at which point he arranges for the recording he just made to be played at 78 RPM instead of 33 RPM (where it amazingly sounds like Daphne’s voice) and to be heard over the hotel’s telephone system by the operators. It’s a remarkably elaborate plan, executed perfectly, and this circumstantial evidence is enough to have his assistant sentenced to death. Sir Alfred laughs viciously at the reading of the verdict, and the first piece of music ends.
But there’s more music on the docket, so there are more fantasies to be had.
The second is a bit less brutal – Sir Alfred blames himself and himself alone for not being a sufficiently attentive husband, and he sends her off with a fat check.
In the third fantasy, Sir Alfred confronts his assistant and challenges him to a little game of Russian Roulette. Alfred goes first, and the gun goes off in time to the climax of the final piece of music.
The Slapstick Ending
But now, with the concert actually over, Sir Alfred sets off to carry out, of all things, his first fantasy. It’s not as easy as it looks.
Simply retrieving the LP recorder causes the destruction of half the hotel room (didn’t it just nearly burn down?) The recorder itself continually defeats him with its difficult instructions, and he finally manages to record at 78 RPM and play back at 33 RPM.
Daphne walks in on his befuddled execution and can’t for the life of her figure out what is going on. He subsequently tries to shift to the second plan, again doing nothing but confusing her, and finally to the third only to find that his revolver is unloaded and he has no idea where the bullets are. Meantime, Sir Alfred is so completely inept that Daphne doesn’t have a clue what is going on. Still, she confesses that she too, has something on her mind. She thinks her sister is having an affair with Sir Alfred’s assistant. When her sister disappeared one night, she went down to the assistant’s room only to find it empty, and she stayed in there for a full half hour because some creep was watching her from the hallway.
You mean…she’s not guilty?!? A happy ending!