The Lady Eve
Barbara Stanwyck sizzles, Henry Fonda bumbles, and Preston Sturges runs riot in one of the all-time great screwballs, a pitch-perfect blend of comic zing and swoonworthy romance. Aboard a cruise liner sailing up the coast of South America, Stanwyck’s conniving card sharp sets her sights on Fonda’s nerdy snake researcher, who happens to be the heir to a brewery fortune. But when the con artist falls for her mark, her grift becomes a game of hearts—and she is determined to win it all. One in a string of matchless comedic marvels that Sturges wrote, directed, and produced as part of a dazzling 1940s run, this gender-flipped battle-of-wits farce is perhaps his most emotionally satisfying work, tempering its sparkling wit with a streak of tender poignancy supplied by the sensational Stanwyck at her peak.
The Criterion Collection presents Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. It’s provided here with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode on a dual-layer disc, sourced from a new 4K restoration performed by Criterion.
As Criterion’s Lee Kline tells it (and told it through the years), the long delay in getting this film out on Blu-ray (after Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels had received a Blu-ray edition 5 years earlier) had to do with Kline not being able to locate what he considered suitable elements; the original nitrate negatives were long gone, the safety prints looked dreadful, and other prints were less than stellar (the DVD came from a duplicate negative but based on that edition it looks as though it may have been too dark). Fearing he wouldn’t be able to get a pristine scan of what he had he put the restoration off until finally just accepting what was available and just making the best of it. The best looking source available, a 35mm fine-grain master positive, was scanned in 4K.
Seeing it now I’m a little stunned this release was put off for so long. Is it perfect? No, it's not, and again it's the limitations of the source, but I was still taken aback by how well this turned out, and not just because Kline had lowered my expectations: it has a gorgeous film quality to it and is so much cleaner in comparison to the old DVD.
The presentation’s grayscale—one of the key things Kline says he was concerned about—looks exceptional, with a nice wide range in the grays and clean blending, whites looking white without coming off harsh and blacks that manage to look deep without crushing. Damage is present, though not all that bad. There are a few bigger blemishes but most of the remaining imperfections come down primarily to fine little scratches raining through, but they’re very easy to overlook.
The image can have what I guess you could call a “foggier” look, but I’d say that probably comes down to the original photography. Sure, the negative could have probably delivered a sharper picture, but as it is here, taken from a later generation print, details are still rather astounding and a big improvement over the DVD, best shown in the various outfits Stanwyck wears throughout the film.
The digital presentation is also clean. Grain is present and, much to my surprise, it ends up being finer than I was expecting, rendered cleanly and naturally to boot. Artifacts never stick out.
Yes, the film still shows its age in the end, the source holding things back a bit, but I still believe this looks remarkable when all is said and done.
The film’s audio technically gets an upgrade with a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack, though it’s still hampered by age and what is possibly a bit of filtering. The track is pretty flat and lifeless, while the music can sound a bit tinny and distorted. While damage isn’t a concern, I’d say the DVD’s soundtrack, despite some slight background noise and distortion, probably sounded a little sharper.
Criterion’s Blu-ray edition for The Lady Eve ports most of the material over from their 2001 DVD edition, which I clearly remember buying as though it were yesterday. That material unfortunately includes Marian Keane’s audio commentary. As I’ve mentioned when writing about Criterion’s discs for The 39 Steps and Notorious, I’m not particularly fond of Keane’s tracks, as some of her interpretations are, well, questionable. It can be forgiven when she reads sex into everything in 30s or 40s film, innuendo being the best way to get around the production code restrictions of the time, but her track in Notorious pushed it by constantly pointing out how objects that phalluses, even uranium.
Interestingly, she tones that aspect down in this track, which I found surprising since this film is laced with innuendo, though she lets go a bit when talking about the snake Fonda’s character is carting around on the boat, along with, early on, seeming to suggest that two boat horns blowing at each other means they want to have sex, or something. Still, I probably would have welcomed more questionable theories of the film's subtext over what she ends up doing most of the time: just reiterating what’s on screen and offering play-by-plays before stating the obvious as to what it all means. Fonda being cockeyed? That means he’s cockeyed for Stanwyck’s character. A character making his intentions obvious? That means their character is readable. A character not making their intentions obvious? Well, that means the character is unreadable. How should Charles Coburn’s grifter character saying “That’s the tragedy of the rich: they don’t need anything” be interpreted? It can be interpreted as both an actual pitiful comment and a cynical slight. I don’t think she ever says anything that one can’t pick up on their own.
She gets a little into framing and camerawork, even pointing to how the two “versions” of Stanwyck’s character is presented, though to be fair camerawork isn’t what Sturges is usually concerned with, so her analysis around the visuals of the film are a bit limited. She also does an okay job talking about some of the film’s gags, admiring their construction. But there is very little of this, and very little about the actual production, which would have probably changed up things enough to have a positive effect.
What caught me with her track this time around—and it might have to do with the fact I’ve been listening to a ridiculous number of commentaries the last little bit—is how natural Keane is at delivering her commentaries. Her tracks are more than likely scripted, but she does inject a nice, confident energy into them that I never noticed prior to this. She has a knack for this type of format. Unfortunately, it doesn't make the content itself any better.
Peter Bogdanovich’s 8-minute introduction is also here, the director offering a quick appreciation around the director’s screwball comedy and the flair in his writing. Bogdanovich also appears in a newly created feature for this edition: Tom Sturges and Friends. For this feature, recorded through Zoom, Bogdanovich (who shows up late because he could figure out “this Zoom thing”) joins Preston Sturges’ son, Tom, along with Susan King, Kenneth Turan, Leonard Maltin, Ron Shelton, and James L. Brooks who all talk about the film and their favourite moments, each participant focusing on a key sequence or a particular line.
It’s a lighthearted and fun addition (running 42-minutes) but I confess I got more of a kick out of the technical difficulties around the remote conference format, everyone a little unsure on what to do from time to time, and that is thanks this feature being one of the first to go this format after the initial COVID lockdowns in early 2020. You first have Bogdanovich showing up late, King trying to say “hi!” to Maltin while Maltin doesn’t have audio, and then you even get Bogdanovich’s phone going off at one point. The most amusing moment, though, may be when Brooks loses his internet connection (mid-sentence sadly) and disappears, only for his camera to come back on and you see him wandering in the background. The feature is a solid appreciation for the work and Sturges’ writing—along with the performances of the leads—but there’s something special about this little document of the time period and everyone making the best of an unorthodox situation (that has of course become more common over the last year).
Also new to this edition is 5-minute audio excerpt from a musical number called “Up the Amazon,” written for a stage musical adaptation of the film, along with a new 21-minute video essay by David Cairns called The Lady Deceives. This sort of feels like it’s here to pick up on the slack left by the commentary, covering the production history in more detail—like how the original concept involved Stanwyck’s character having a twin—and then a look at the comic timing of the film and Sturges' troupe of actors. Though it runs a less than a quarter of the film’s runtime I found it offered a far more satisfying look into the film in comparison to the commentary.
Criterion also carries over the 44-minute Lux Radio Theatre adaptation featuring Stanwyck, Ray Milland (in the Fonda role) and Charles Coburn. It’s not a bad adaptation but it really rushes through the last act. It also updates the feature around Edith Head’s costumes, which was a standard gallery on the DVD; this one automatically plays like a slideshow, displaying quotes from Head in regard to the costumes in the film accompanied by original sketches and concept art. The film’s trailer also appears here again.
Criterion drops a gallery of production stills and promotional material (along with some internal Paramount memos) found on the DVD, along with an essay written by James Harvey, found in that DVD’s insert. Criterion replaces that insert with a booklet now featuring a new essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, along with one of this releases strongest additions, a reprinting of a 1946 profile of Sturges that appeared in Life magazine, offering a wonderful look at his work and personal life up to that point. It's a really good booklet.
Again, like the DVD, the commentary is still a bit of a bust, but the new material makes up for it.
Despite any reservations Kline may have initially had due to the lack of pristine materials, I think the presentation is a knock-out, all things considered. With that and the new features (making up for the lackluster 2001 commentary) this makes for a worthwhile upgrade over Criterion’s original DVD edition.