The Lady Eve (1941)

The Lady Eve – 1941

Director – Preston Sturges

Starring – Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, and Charles Coburn

Screwball comedies are a tricky mixture of absurdity and reason.  The absurdity gives these films their energy, their source of conflict, and it keeps the plot moving forward.  This is the defining element of the screwball comedy, and while absurdity can go a long way to tickling our funny bones, it ultimately can fall flat or fail outright if there isn’t some grounding element, some person, or people who play it straight.

Howard Hawks apparently once said that the flaw with his famous screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby, was that everyone was a screwball.  There was no gauge by which the audience could compare the antics of the crazy characters with those of a normal, functioning, human being.  Despite, or perhaps because of, it’s inclusion in the screwball genre, The Lady Eve works very hard to ground the film squarely on the shoulders of the straight man, Henry Fonda.  He is the lens through which the audience can clearly see, appreciate, and enjoy the madcap antics of the family of con artists and ne’er-do-wells that populate The Lady Eve.

The story is fairly simple, a young, rich, handsome, young man, Charles Pike (Fonda) who prides himself on his zeal for new experiences and adventure, begrudgingly learns first hand how naive he really is when he encounters a group of traveling hucksters (Stanwyck and Coburn primarily) on a steamship back from the jungles of South America.  Friendly, shy, and the object of desire of all the single women on the ship, he makes an ideal mark for Jean Harrington (Stanwyck), the devious, whip-smart, and capable con-woman who is determined to relieve him of his money.

She and her father, the delightfully underhanded (Coburn), go work almost immediately, isolating, charming, and seducing Pike in short order.  The surprise comes for Jean with the sudden realization that she has fallen for Pike’s subtle, earnest charms.  All that remains is to gently break the news of her background as a card-shark, and that is when the trouble starts.

While he is the foundation upon which the premise is based, the least engaging character is Fonda’s Pike.  He is by and large just another set-piece for the more interesting grifters to play against.  He is used as prop almost like someone might use a gun or a hat, to build upon and explore their character.

Stanwyck on the other hand, really has room to spread her wings.  Her role in Double Indemnity, as the murderous, money, hungry wife, may have been more iconic, but this one is far more developed and way more fun to watch her work.  During a con, Jean wears a mask, a different personality to blend in and follow the script that’s been written, never able to show her true self.  The irony is that the face she wears when she is being herself is also a mask to hide and protect herself from danger, like falling in love and getting hurt.  It’s when she finally realizes that she’s fallen in love with Pike that she starts to show her real personality.

When Pike learns of her past, and her deception, she has to develop yet another character, so she can win him back, and there you have the titular, Eve.  The gusto that she brings to the role of Jean/Eve is infectious, and quite frankly the best part of the film.  The longer we watch Jean work, the more we want to see, and the more we see, the more we like her.

The Lady Eve is packed with gags, all vying for the audience’s attention.  From Pike’s rough around the edges bodyguard mixing with high society, to the slap-stickish food based humor in the second half of the film, Preston Sturges really throws everything including the kitchen sink at us hoping to connect.  While that stuff is funny, it’s really an after thought as compared to the interaction between Stanwyck and Fonda, so much so that it can almost be distracting, and take you out of the movie.  Almost, but thankfully, not quite.

The Lady Eve gives me hope for screwball comedies.  It joins the ranks of “His Girl Friday” as being madcap, exciting, and genuinely funny, without seeming ridiculous and un-restrained.  The characters, while bigger than life, aren’t too big, too crazy, and they never become unbelievable, which is death for any movie character.  Definitely a good example of Screwball Comedy that is, itself, good.

“Men are dumb.” – Ashley


12 Angry Men (1957)

12 Angry Men – 1957

Director – Sidney Lumet

Starring – Henry Fonda, Jack Klugman, and Lee J. Cobb

The legal system is a funny thing. By and large it works on the notion of truth, the differentiation between lies and provable fact. The problem is, that since all of these definitions and judgements are filtered through, and interpreted by other human beings, it’s nearly impossible to keep prejudice, opinion and point of view from clouding the “truth”, and making an unbiased result a near impossibility.

12 Angry Men seeks to scrutinize the process of determining a mans guilt or innocence by watching that process unfold. Henry Fonda plays juror number 8, the one man on the jury of a murder trial who hasn’t pre-decided the fate of a young man who is accused of stabbing his father to death. Each of the other jurors has their own individual reasons for thinking he is guilty, although none of them have anything to do with the facts in the case and have more to do with their own biases.  The entire duration of the film is tied up in the task of separating perception and fact, and as a result the internal, and is some cases subconscious motivations of each of the jurors is laid bare.

One major theme in this film is prejudice. Whether its prejudice against the young man because of where he comes from (a poor, immigrant neighborhood), or prejudice in favor of ones own interests (the man who wants the trial over with so he can get to his baseball game), the film is really asking what form of prejudice do you, the viewer, subscribe to, and are you able to understand it and take responsibility for it?  To a certain degree we are all guilty of this manner of behavior at one level or another, but like juror 8 we are also capable of standing up for what is right, understanding when we’ve made a mistake, and changing course when we are wrong. The biggest takeaway from this film is the idea of personal redemption. Yes, the personal redemption that is on display in the film, but moreover the potential for our own personal redemption.  Despite the dramatic story acting as a vehicle for the message, it is the audience that is under scrutiny the entire time.

The jurors are a vehicle through which we can see ourselves.  The young man accused of murder is not even a character that we get to know.  All we know of him is based on the impressions that we get from the completely normal,  yet flawed human beings that are charged with judging him, and we in turn make our own judgements based on what we think of them.  It quickly becomes apparent how fragile and important the system is that decides a man’s fate can be.  Not based on the color of his skin, his occupation, the neighborhood he grew up in, or much more scary, what else you have going on in YOUR life, but by the definable and provable facts of what he (or she) did or didn’t do.

As usual, Henry Fonda plays the role of our system’s super-ego to a tee (a role he has worked on and perfected in another film I had the pleasure of seeing and reviewing, “The Ox-bow Incident”).  With his furrowed brow, stoic features, and piercing eyes, he was born to take on the good guy role (precisely why he is so good as the villain in “Once Upon a Time in the West”).  Similarly, the gravely voice, gruff “angry-father” demeanor, and intense stare, make Lee J. Cobb a perfect choice as the stubborn, petulant, juror 3.  Finally, despite the fact that it took me out of the story a little, it was fun to see The Odd Couple’s Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) take a turn as a raving, racist, who doesn’t quite understand how uncomfortable he makes everyone else.

As far as cinematography goes, this film is beautiful to look at.  The fact that it takes place (almost) entirely in the same room throughout the entire film is a testament to how engaging the film’s subject matter, and how talented cinematographer Boris Kaufman actually is.  One scene in particular, just after the aforementioned racist rant, where each Juror is forced to listen to what they sound like and each responds with shame and disgust, is so well orchestrated that I kept thinking about it for days after seeing it.

When it comes to the films on this list, the ones you should see, some are good, some are not so good, and there are others, like 12 Angry Men, that transcend the boundaries between importance of message, and quality of work.  It’s a wonder that this film came out of the 1950’s, before the bulk of the civil rights movement that would come after it.  It has definitely earned it’s place on this list, and is well worth a watch.  Incidentally, if you haven’t already seen it (or read the review), go watch The Ox-bow Incident too!  It might actually be my favorite of the two films, but both are fantastic.

“Acting!” (said in a whisper) – Ashley

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Ox-Bow Incident – 1943

Director – William A. Wellman

Starring – Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan, and Anthony Quinn

The Western, as of late, has gone through a bit of a transformation.  What was once a nice clean depiction of black and white, good and evil, has changed over the years flitting across many different themes and archetypes into the  metaphorical and allegory laden period pieces that they have become today.  As I’ve said in my review for the fantastic McCabe & Mrs. Miller, I have tended to discount westerns in general, and early westerns in particular as being fluff, and devoid of value.  My appreciation for the genre came to me fairly recently, and I’ve been working to shake my initial impression ever since.  The Ox-Bow Incident goes a very, very long way in repairing my misconceptions of what the western is capable of, as well as make me wonder why I haven’t seen Henry Fonda in more films.

As the title suggests, the plot centers around a single horrific incident, that we the audience don’t even see.  Everything that inspires what we see happens off-screen.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Quentin Tarantino took a little inspiration for how to achieve the bank heist from Reservoir Dogs from watching this film. There is not a word of dialog wasted in this almost too-brief potboiler that deals with fear, anger, and the tenuous connection between the two.  Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (better known as, and from here out, referred to as Col. Potter from the M*A*S*H TV show) play a couple of ranchers who, fairly new in the area, come into town for a bit of relaxation and a bit of drink.  Conversation in the saloon quickly turns grim when word comes that a local cattleman has been shot to death and his herd stolen.  Fear quickly turns to anger, and despite the best efforts of the few level-headed townsfolk, a posse forms and rides on the word of rumor to intercept the criminals.  Soon enough, the lynch mob happens upon a group of three sleeping men, who quickly become a target for the aggression and fear of the scared towns folk.

So we have a typical western-ish set up, and a cast of characters that also seem a little typical for your average western, so what makes this one so different?  Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews.  Henry Fonda’s character, Gil, is neither good nor evil.  He doesn’t moralize, blindly standing up to do “the right thing”, nor is he driven by nefarious motives toward the typical tying of a helpless maiden to the railroad tracks.  He is a cynical observer who is no more exempt from the actions of the mob than the rest of them.  Despite his objections, he believes without question that there will be no redemption, no help for the three accused men.  He is a beaten man from the beginning.  The real hero, “Good Guy” is played by Dana Andrews, as Donald Martin, one of the suspected cattle rustlers.  He tries to reason with the mob for the lives of him and his companions, a senile old man, and a Mexican man (played soulfully by Anthony Quinn) who is instantly demonized by the crowd due to his race.  Together Gil and  Donald juxtapose the humanity of individuals as well as the monstrosity capable of indifferent men, a struggle that wouldn’t creep into mainstream cinema consciousness till the noir films that came out later,  after the war.  It is in these two men, that we see victory battle defeat, and true good versus true evil.

As far as the artistry and construction of the film, it is economical, taking place in two main locations (the Saloon, and at the accused men’s camp site).  The film doesn’t rely on flash, massive set pieces, or spectacle.  Instead, it simply lets the solid, well-told story play out as it should.  The fact that it was shot in black and white (although probably more of a decision based on when it came out rather than as a conscious artistic choice) really helps to underpin the fact that the characters see each other as well as themselves in terms of black and white, good and evil.  Similarly, the “trial” of the three men takes place out in the wild, literally and figuratively outside the bounds of civilization.  Civility is not a quality that the mob has going for it, and the creaky, shadowy setting suits this subtext perfectly.

I chose to watch this movie via my streaming Netflix choices mainly based on it’s length (it’s only 74 minutes), but I was wowed by everything about it.  The message of the film can be seen in both the overt imagery, the subtext of the plot, and the finely honed dialog.  Each element of this film works together so incredibly efficiently, that 74 minutes was all it needed to do the job right.  You owe it to yourself to watch this film, I promise it won’t take long and you’ll be happy you did.