When’s the last time you had this much fun at work?
But then who has a boss like Preston Sturges?
The set of The Lady Eve “was so ebullient that instead of going to their trailers between setups, the players relaxed in canvas chairs with their sparkling director, listening to his fascinating stories or going over their lines with him,” wrote Axel Madsen in his biography of Barbara Stanwyck. “To get into mood for Barbara’s bedroom scene, Sturges wore a bathrobe.” The actress gleefully compared the set to a carnival.
And the director was the head barker, with a wardrobe to match. Sturges favored brightly colored berets, felt caps with feathers sprouting from them, top hats, silk and cashmere scarves, and sports coats so loud they looked as if they’d been stolen off the winner of the sixth race at Santa Anita. They not only suited his personality, but, he claimed, they helped crew members spot him amid the throngs of technicians, actors and members of the public meandering around the set. The public, you say? Yup. To keep things light and unpredictable, Sturges openly encouraged visitors to his sets, from friends, colleagues and press reps to whoever happened to be wandering down Melrose Avenue that day.
The Lady Eve marked the second time Sturges teamed with Stanwyck. He’d written the screenplay for the criminally underrated Remember the Night hoping that Paramount would be able to borrow Carole Lombard, and was at first disappointed when he had to “settle” for Stanwyck. Until he saw her work and realized her tempo and his dialogue went together like a felt hat and a feather. During one of their long, lively conversations, Stanwyck complained to the director that no one wrote comedies for her, and he promised to put that right. Soon after, he penned the screenplay for The Lady Eve while in Reno, awaiting his third divorce.
“He kept his word, and how!” recalled Stanwyck years later. “By that time I wasn’t under contract, and he had to borrow me. I figured that would kill it. But somehow The Lady Eve all came together.”
The film also marked the start of Stanwyck’s long and happy relationship with Edith Head. While other designers with less talent and imagination saw her long waist as a figure flaw, Head accentuated it with wide waistbands that tapered in the back, giving way to sumptuous skirts that draped elegantly over fabulous legs. Thrilled with the designs, the ever-loyal Stany found a way to show her gratitude. “Edith always covered her mouth when she laughed and I didn’t know why,” the actress remembered. “Finally she showed me her teeth and I understood. They were awful—not diseased, but some were missing and she felt self-conscious. She told me she had been to dentists and they said nothing could be done. I informed her that my dentist could fix anything—he’d fixed my smile!” And he went on to fix Edith’s.
As usual, Sturges had to battle his bosses for just about every scene he wrote. In this case, producer (later director) Albert Lewin blustered that “the first two-thirds of the script, in spite of the high quality of your jokes, will require an almost one hundred percent rewrite.” He especially objected to the entire snake subplot and the physical comedy that sprang from it.
“I happen to love pratfalls, but as almost everything I like, other people dislike, and vice versa,” Sturges recalled in his memoir. “My dearest friends and severest critics constantly urged me to cut the pratfalls from five down to three. There are certain things that will convulse the audience, when it has been softened up by what has occurred previously, that seem very unfunny in cold print. Directing and acting have a lot to do with it too. I had my fingers crossed when Henry Fonda went over the sofa. I held my left ear when he tore down the curtains, and I held everything when the roast beef hit him.”
Sturges had borrowed Fonda from Fox—which Stanwyck later called a “piece of intriguing casting. Hank had been Zanuck’s Abraham Lincoln in so many things, whether his name was Tom Joad or Jesse James. How did Sturges know he was a sensational light comedian?”
“Henry Fonda was delicious to work with,” she once said. “We made three films together, and I was sorry when each one was over. I wish we had done more movies together. I loved Hank.”
And at a tribute to Stanwyck, Fonda returned the feeling, even using the same luscious adjective: “Everyone who is close to me knows I’ve been in love with Barbara Stanwyck since I met her. She’s a delicious woman. We’ve never had an affair. She’s never encouraged me, but dammit my wife will verify it, my daughters and son will confirm it, and now you can testify to the truth.”
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