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A Royal Flush: Close-Up on "The Lady Eve" and "Sullivan's Travels"

How to capture the mixture of cynicism and romance in the best films of writer-director Preston Sturges?
Duncan Gray
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels (1941) is showing August 27 – September 26 and The Lady Eve (1941) from August 28 – September 27, 2018 in the United Kingdom as part of a Preston Sturges double feature.
How to capture the mixture of cynicism and romance in the best films of writer-director Preston Sturges? One way is to note that the writing of The Lady Eve (1941)—one of the funniest and most romantic of Hollywood rom-coms—overlapped with a certain trip to Reno. Sturges had not been getting along with his personal secretary and companion, Bianca Gilchrist, who decided to take off to Mexico to put space between them. While she was away, Sturges fell in love with another woman. Her name was Louise Tevis, and she was already married but separated from her husband. After a courtship, Sturges reportedly approached her husband, took a bow, and said, "I have the honor of requesting the hand of your wife in marriage." And so Preston and Louise went to Reno to wait six weeks for her divorce to legally take effect. 
By all accounts—at least those in James Curtis's excellent biography, Between Flops—it was sincere. Sturges "glowed," remarked one close associate. It was "a very tender love affair," recalled Sturges's assistant, who'd come along to Reno on the excuse that maybe some writing might get done—which in this case included an early version of The Lady Eve, then intended for Claudette Colbert. The two lovers were married as soon as the divorce was finalized; it would be Sturges's third marriage. By the time they returned, Bianca had moved out, taking all of her belongings and several of his. Louise took on the role of socialite, and she and Preston became known for their Sunday night parties. It didn't take very long for Preston to stray and his treatment of Louise to turn callous. Within a decade, she filed for divorce. 
It's not as if Hollywood marriages are famed for their stability, or artists for their ethics. Yet something of the man's own messy life feels so befitting of his films, particularly given how often divorce, jealousy, infidelity, marital strain, and soured affections mingle with gaiety in his comedies. Sturges certainly didn't invent this kind of farce, or stick to it exclusively. But even in the decade when Katherine Hepburn first partnered with Spencer Tracey, Sturges's brand had a pungent specificity.  
From 1940 to 1944, he was a brief-and-bright star at Paramount, a former contract writer who'd made the then-revolutionary leap to directing his own scripts. He was a showman, and no showman would deny a happy ending. But the happy ending of a Sturges picture can be both acidly ironic and perfectly sweet without either impulse canceling the other. He had a great many strengths: brilliant dialogue, a mischievous control of manic implausibility, and such a tender regard for his troupe of supporting players that the label of "character actor" could go from a diminutive term to the highest compliment. Yet that central duality is the defining virtue of his best films. Because whether Sturges's subject is marriage, politics, small town values, or Hollywood itself, his are films where irony and sweetness might walk arm and arm, looking for somewhere to be alone.
The Lady Eve is one of those precious films where only superlatives will do: a peak for Sturges, for Barbara Stanwyck, and for Old Hollywood, and an effortless example of how a good screwball comedy can offer a great deal more insight than most dramas. On a cruise ship in the mid-Atlantic, a con artist (Stanwyck) sets her sights on a wealthy heir (Henry Fonda). She is Jean, part of a trio of card sharks who, posing as members of high society, take advantage of just how idle the idle rich can get at the gambling tables. He is Charles Pike, of "Pike's Pale"—a popular ale brewed by Pike the elder and drank, we are told, by fourteen people every time the clock ticks. He is also a shy bookworm and budding scientist (his specialty is snakes, though he wouldn’t notice the metaphor). Naturally, Jean and Charles fall in love. But when he learns her true identity, he figures she must be after his money and rejects her. So, moving from heartbreak to revenge, she assumes a false identity—the posh "Lady Eve"—and follows him to his nouveau riche family estate to teach the fool a lesson. 
There are hefty forces at play in The Lady Eve's ensemble: gender, class, sex (both theory and practice), and the roles and expectations that arise when they intersect, which will present themselves as obstacles before being shredded by both romance and comedy. Charles and Jean's initial courtship is hilarious, sexy, and tender in its delirium, a sleight-of-hand game with hearts and playing cards and a rather unflinching portrait of the trouble a girl might go through if she decides to seduce a nerd. Jean is clearly not new at this—in fact, the dialogue is dotted with hints that seducing her mark was always part of the job—while Charles may be the most lovably oblivious and naive hero to ever stumble into a love affair. Stanwyck is the center and the edge, the driver of the action, joyfully in control, always with the upper hand. And it soars because, while false pretenses may abound, Jean inspires a delicate honesty in Charles and responds to it in kind. 
"I'm going to be everything he thinks I am, everything he'd like me to be," Jean says shortly after they've fallen for each other, but before he knows the truth. Which is what makes Charles's rejection all the more brutal, when, to save his pride, he pretends he always knew about her but played along for his own advantage. It is a petulant lie, a way of grabbing the upper hand back by saying that even though he was open to a dalliance, she's not seriously the sort of woman he'd ever end up with. The line is drawn between those who've joined the monied class and those who can merely impersonate them. And virtue—the definition of it, and the idiocy of those definitions—becomes The Lady Eve's great theme. When Jean reenters Charles's life as "the Lady Eve Sidwich," a glamorous English aristocrat a great deal more girlish than Jean, it's not a particularly plausible charade. But it's one that Charles will buy, both because he's a born sap and because he has his private reasons. 
So even though it's handled with the light touch of barbed discretion, there can be no overstating the utter perversity of Charles's motivation in turning his attention from Jean to Eve. He wants to wed, bed, and sexually possess a woman who looks just like his actual love—and wears the same intoxicating perfume—but who happens to be a more acceptable choice, both for social conventions and his own hang-ups. The scene when Charles, to court Eve, repeats a speech he gave to Jean is one of the most stunningly cynical statements about love in any romantic comedy. During his first awakening, it was a spontaneous outpouring of emotion. The second time around, it's a calculation. But then, if it had worked on one partner, why not try it again? The same beautiful, lilting theme plays on the soundtrack—only now, it drips with sarcasm.
This makes the narrative coup of The Lady Eve one of delicious inversion: a story where falling for a woman of loose morals on a cruise ship feels so very lovely and innocent, while the right-proper mating rituals of the equestrian set are so fraudulent, hysterically mannered, and ill-advised. Jean's revenge is a rejoinder: if you prefer an upper-class marriage, you'll get one—it will be loveless, deceptive, and no purer than any other kind. Back at sea, she wisely told Charles that the labels of "good" and "bad" when it comes to women are virtually meaningless, and she'll end up chucking a time bomb into the bourgeoisie to prove it. The last laugh line—that the two Stanwycks are "positively the same dame!"—becomes simultaneously pure farce and sly statement. And Jean's triumph, in the name of vexed women everywhere, is to turn the man she loves into the man she wants. 
The Production Code, well into effect (if not entirely effective) by the time The Lady Eve was made, held that the sanctity of marriage should always be maintained. The finale of The Lady Eve is the film's ultimate sleight of hand: a whirl of identity that allows its heroine and hero to commit adultery both on each other and with each other, and to be all the more sincere for doing so. The film opens itself ambiguously to the chance that, as in a standard romantic comedy, all deception will be clarified. But then, Charles is so gullible, so willing to swallow any story, that I prefer to think—because it is more cynical, and more romantic, too—that he'll somehow go the rest of his blissful life never knowing the trick that was played on him. Sturges claimed he got the name "Eve" from an English woman he met in New York. But that name, evoking the Biblical origin story for worldly sin—and providing a context for gags with apples and snakes—points the way to the film's most heartwarming and modern punchline: the proposition that if it were Woman who tempted Man to sin, She never did Him a bigger favor.
That Sullivan's Travels (1941) and The Lady Eve—Sturges’s two best films—bookend a single year speaks to the pace he was keeping at Paramount. Sullivan's Travels is far less classical in its construction, more direct in its central message, and no less mischievous because of it—a treasure of satire and an entertaining case study in incipient postmodernism at Hollywood's door. The plot is still the ultimate Hollywood apologia: during the Great Depression, a talented director of harmless fluff decides he wants to make a socially relevant film, so he sets out to get a crash course in reality only to learn that fluff matters more to most moviegoers than social realism. He is John Sullivan (Joel McCrea), Sturges-like in his area of expertise but closer to Charles Pike in terms of self-awareness. And the cosmic joke of the first half is that reality, for a successful motion picture director, is rather hard to find. He sets out dressed as a tramp, with only ten cents in his pocket, but can't seem to escape Hollywood: he’s never far from a publicity crew, constantly lands in one screwball contrivance or another, and at one point literally hitchhikes back to Tinseltown by accident.
There is a searching quality to the film that befits the loopiness of its story structure. This is a comedy about comedy, not just in its surface moral, but in how even the most basic gag—like a man taking a tumble into a swimming pool—is staged partway from a perspective that contemplates its own function. Suppose we have a manic car chase straight out of the Little Rascals—isn't that the sort of thing that gets laughs? What if we circle back and add Veronica Lake (never more delightful) so that the movie can have a love interest? What about a dialogue-free, seven-minute tour through the bottom rungs of American poverty—can that do justice to the outside world while still having a place in a comedy? And then there is the third act, which shows just how much Sullivan's travels could go anywhere or nowhere at a moment's notice.
Sturges later wrote that he wrote Sullivan's Travels as a rebuke to comics making pretentious message-movies, which is one of many examples of why you should never trust a director's simplistic statement when their nuanced film is staring you right in the face. If Sullivan's Travels genuinely wants comedy directors to stick to mere diversion, it has a funny way of showing it; the film is nothing if not laced with food for thought about inequities and privileges, both within Hollywood and without. The more intriguing comment by Sturges, and one that gets at the film's self-reflexive odyssey, is that Sullivan's Travels "tried a little of every form."
Sturges's comedic strengths and weaknesses are on display: brilliant dialogue, naturally, but although he professed to love physical pratfalls, they were never his strong suit. (That car chase is among the most painful moments in otherwise great films, uncomfortable in its racial representation and not particularly comical even on its own terms.) The third act pivot comes during a trial scene borrowed from film noir nightmares. And in the climactic set-piece, a black church welcomes a white chain-gang for an extended passage that's heavy on atmosphere and emphatically asks for no laughter at all—it presents a somber image, without caricature or schtick, of a union created by empathy and predicament.
In an early stop on Sullivan's journey, he goes to the movies himself, and it's a very serious drama from the sound of it. The comedy of the scene is at the audience's expense as well as Sullivan's: the theater is full of fidgety children, crying babies, and half-engaged adults crinkling their bags of popcorn. It is an exceptionally sardonic view for a film to show of its own moviegoing public. But then, Sullivan's Travels is also a film that trusts its audience: it trusts that they will follow its twists and turns, and that they can take its wildly juxtaposed tones and statements, some subtle and some overt, and join them into a coherent whole. And, as a sign of how the film approaches seriousness, it trusts that they'll do so because comedy is on the line.
Like The Lady Eve, it works as well as it does, and in the way that it does, because Sturges feels neither above Hollywood nor restricted by it. One of the film's in-jokes is that Veronica Lake's character is listed in the credits only as "The Girl", because, as Sullivan says, "there's always a girl in the picture." But, formula requirement or not, she remains so sparkling in her dialogue and performance that she surpasses a great many stock figures who actually have names. (Paramount, unsure how to market such an unusual picture, put Lake front and center in the ad campaign). Of course, she and Sullivan end up together; that's what "the girl" is usually there for, and the film knows it. But as she and Sullivan embrace, back home safe in the world of screwball, with divorce once again cheekily paving the way for a fairy tale ending, only an even stricter cynic than Sturges could deny the charm.
In short, Hollywood and the cinema of Preston Sturges got along fine, at least until they didn't. Sturges left Paramount to become more independent; the gamble was not successful, and few of his later films get much attention. Fans of Old Hollywood can look at his work and still thrill to it: if you enjoy The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels, you can proceed directly to The Palm Beach Story (1942) and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) for more examples of the audacity and absurdity that a satirist can pull off if they're on a winning streak. But then you can look back at Sullivan, and set him side by side with Sturges's own improbable life and career. And you might realize that the relationship between filmmakers, audiences, and the image on screen remains the most wonderful, dangerous, and long-running love triangle in Hollywood history.


Close-UpPreston SturgesNow Showing
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