Sunday, February 21, 2010

Don't Make a Scene: The Lady Eve

For the month of Valentines, scenes from four women we love in the movies.

The Story: Sexual Tens-ion. The best love stories on film have it. And you can tell immediately when the stars don't. There's a frisson on screen that's there whether the stars love or hate each other, or whether the stars are cheek to cheek or across the room from each other.

Indifference just lies there on the screen.

Here, there is a technical problem that needs to be resolved. To keep things properly chaste per The Hays Code , it was required that actors in a reclining position keep three feet on the ground at all times. This was a negotiated point—a kind of "de-militarized zone" that allowed there to be romantic clinches but no suggestions of an affair. The script for "The Lady Eve" had already run afoul of the blue-noses, and the entire idea of the film seems to be a way to have an affair between a man and a woman and still get it past the censors on a technicality.

Writer-director Preston Sturges manages to do that in this scene. It starts with swindler Eugenia attempting to get under the skin of ale scion Charles Pike. He's smitten and she's playing a game with him, but at this point, it's a bit one-sided and nowhere near the point where she says her famous line: "I need him the way an axe needs a turkey." She conspires to get him on the divan of her state-room, and once there, "Hopsie" takes a another of his many "falls" for her, this time conveniently skirting the censors by landing on the floor. The two are then on separate levels, she being, as she will throughout the movie, in the dominant position, and he, always on the defensive. The censors have been served, but it makes the scene no less charged, especially the way Barbara Stanwyck plays it.

Stanwyck could play weak, victimized people, sure (famously in "Sorry, Wrong Number"), but she was never more appealing than when she was the woman in control, for good or ill. For ill, she could be down-right evil, as in "Double Indemnity," and she's still fascinating, and you're secretly rooting for her. She was the woman with the steel spine and the haughty manner, with flashing eyes and a wicked tongue (Joan Crawford could play that part, too, but it always came off as "camp," never with Stanwyck), and she would excel as that type until the day she died in 1990.

Watch her in the video clip. Watch her eyes and where she looks, and how, even with the limited scope of the camera area she could still milk it for all the sexual tension she could muster. Very few women could play the camera as well as Barbara Stanwyck.

The Set-Up: Okay, bear with me here, there's a lot of double entendre to this set-up. Charles "Hopsie" Poncefort Pike (Henry Fonda), heir to a brewing family has been studying snakes "up the Amazon," and is making his way via cruise ship back home. He's the object of much attention among the single women on the trip, none more so than Eugenia Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), daughter and partner-in-crime with card-cheat Harold Harrington (Charles Coburn). Charles is a plum sucker for the taking and the two cons take different approaches: Harold wants to steal his money, and Eugenia wants to steal his heart.

Then, his money.

But, this is early in the con, when Eugenia is beguiling "Hopsie" with a slinky dress and a seductive manner—one that just might get her into trouble. See, she's already been up to Pike's room, where the sight of his snake—his pet grass snake—has already sent her scurrying back to her state-room in fright, with "Hopsie" right on her heels to make sure she's alright. So, there's already been quite a bit of heavy breathing by the time this scene commences.


JEAN: Come over here and sit down beside me. Oh.

JEAN: Comfortable?
CHARLES: Yes, very.

JEAN: Oh, sorry.

JEAN: Oh darling, hold me tight! Oh, you don't know what you've done to me.
CHARLES: I'm terribly sorry.
JEAN: Oh, that's all right.

CHARLES: I wouldn't have frightened you for anything in the world. I mean if there's anyone in the world I wouldn't have wanted to (her nuzzling causes exquisite torment and he pauses) - it's you.

JEAN: You're very sweet. Don't let me go.

JEAN: Thank you.

JEAN: {Sighs] How was everything up the Amazon?
CHARLES: A-All right, thank you.
JEAN: What are you thinking about?

CHARLES: Nothing.
JEAN: Are you always going to be interested in snakes?
CHARLES: Snakes are my life, in a way.

JEAN: (thoughtfully) What a life!
CHARLES: I suppose it does sound sorta silly. I mean, I suppose I shoulda married and settled down. I imagine my father always wanted me to. As a matter of fact, he's told me so rather plainly. I just never cared for the brewing business.
JEAN: Oh, you say that's why you've never married?
CHARLES: Oh no. It's just I've never met her. I suppose she's around somewhere in the world.

JEAN: It would be too bad if you never bumped into each other.

CHARLES: Well...
JEAN: I-I suppose you know what she looks like and everything.
CHARLES: I-I think so.

JEAN: I'll bet she looks like Marguerite in Faust.

CHARLES: Oh no, she isn't, I mean, she hasn't, she's not as bulky as an opera singer.

JEAN: Oh. How are her teeth?

CHARLES (startled): Hunh?
JEAN: Well, you should always pick one out with good teeth. It saves expense later.

CHARLES: Oh, now you're kidding me.
JEAN: (tenderly) Not badly. You have a right to have an ideal. Oh, I guess we all have one.

CHARLES: What does yours look like?

JEAN: He's a little short guy with lots of money.
CHARLES: Why short?

JEAN: What does it matter if he's rich? It's so he'll look up to me. So I'll be his ideal.
CHARLES: That's a funny kind of reason.

JEAN: Well, look who's reasoning. And when he takes me out to dinner, he'll never add up the check and he won't smoke greasy cigars or use grease on his hair.

JEAN: And, oh yes, he, he won't do card tricks.
JEAN: (sweetly): Oh, it's not that I mind your doing card tricks, Hopsie. It's just that you naturally wouldn't want your ideal to do card tricks.

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

JEAN: Mine is a practical ideal you can find two or three of in every barber shop - getting the works.

CHARLES: Why don't you marry one of them?
JEAN (almost indignantly): Why should I marry anybody that looked like that?

JEAN: When I marry, it's gonna be somebody I've never seen before. I mean I won't know what he looks like or where he'll come from of what he'll be. I want him to sort of - take me by surprise.

CHARLES: Like a burglar.
JEAN: That's right.

JEAN: And the night will be heavy with perfume. And I'll hear a step behind me...

JEAN: ...and somebody breathing heavily,

JEAN: and then...

JEAN: (She moans and sighs softly as she stretches back langorously on the chaise) You'd better go to bed, Hopsie. I think I can sleep peacefully now.

CHARLES (tugging his collar out because of the sexual heat that has been generated): I wish I could say the same.

JEAN: Why, Hopsie! (He rises to his feet and goes to the door. She giggles to herself.)

"The Lady Eve"

Words by Preston Sturges

Pictures by Victor Milner
and Preston Sturges

"The Lady Eve" is available on DVD from Universal Home Video.

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