Friday, July 20, 2007

It's the Same Dame

Yesterday I linked to David Denby's piece on modern romantic comedy films in general, and Knocked Up in particular. While discussing older romantic comedies, Denby casually lumps The Lady Eve in with the "Screwball Comedies".

Now, don't get me wrong, I adore those screwball comedies. But the thing about them is that the heroines are almost always daft, dizzy debutantes. In The Lady Eve, the heroine is a conwoman and a card shark. There's nothing daft or dizzy or innocent about her. The hero is a more conventional stock character, the wide-eyed academic, so engrossed in his studies that he hasn't a clue about love (Denby mentioned Ball of Fire and Bringing Up Baby as two examples of this hero type. If you haven't seen them, do. They're both loads of fun.).

Denby says, "The screwball comedies were not devoted to sex, exactly—you could hardly describe any of the characters as sensualists." And this is why he was wrong to lump Eve in with her contemporaries. The Lady Eve is hot. Not scorching, but definitely damned sexy for a movie in which no sex actually occurs.

Working at the height of the Hayes code, writer/director Preston Sturges was a master of suggestion. (He wrote a movie about an girl who gets knocked-up with septuplets by a soldier she can't remember during WW2 without ever saying the word "pregnant" or showing a pregnant belly. The Miracle at Morgan's Creek). Sturge's screenplay for The Lady Eve is sexy and suggestive when it shows Barbara Stanwyck's Jeanne seducing Henry Fonda's Charlie. It casts Charlie's high-falutin ideals about love against Jean's earthy sensuality, and Jean wins every time. In one of my favorite scenes, the two are standing on the deck of the boat at midnight discussing their romantic ideals:

CHARLIE: I shouldn't think that kind of ideal was so difficult to find.

EAN: Oh, he isn't. That's why he's my ideal
What's the sense of having one if you can't ever find him?
Mine is a practical can find two or three of
in every barber shop getting the works.
CHARLIE: Why don't you marry one of them?
JEAN: Why should I marry anybody that looked like that?
When I marry, it's going to be somebody I've never seen before.
I won't know what he looks like or where he'll come from or what he'll be.
I want him to sort of take me by surprise.

CHARLIE: Like a burglar.

JEAN: That's right.
And the night will be heavy with perfume,
and I'll hear a step behind me...and somebody breathing heavily.
And then...


JEAN: Ohhh! You better go to bed, Hopsie. I think I can sleep peacefully now.

CHARLIE: I wish I could say the same.

JEAN: Why, Hopsie!

If you haven't seen The Lady Eve, put it at the top of your Netflix list. It's funny, it's witty, it's romantic, it's a little bit sexy. And in my humuble opinion, it's The Best Romantic Comedy Ever Made.