The Lady Eve
Monckton Hoffe and Preston Sturges, 1941

#2 (chronologically) in Mike D'Angelo's list of twelve films to which he would give a score of 100 out of 100.

A father-daughter team of con artists targets a naive heir to a brewery fortune, but the sassy daughter genuinely falls for him. When he finds out about her past, they split up and she cooks up a revenge scheme.

A couple of weeks ago I was teaching a lesson about the SAT subject test in literature, and happened across a poem by Edmund Waller titled "Of English Verse" (1668). "But who can hope his lines should long / Last in a daily changing tongue?" he asks, later suggesting that, with immortality hopeless, the best a poet can achieve is for his verse to "prove / But as long-lived as present love."

Every art form — film, literature, music, cartooning, hairstyling, you name it — is grounded in idioms that vary dramatically over time. Most works are created to appeal to the tastes of the contemporary audience and therefore adhere to the conventions upon which that audience has imprinted. But as the era in which a work is created recedes into the past, that era's conventions become stranger and stranger to each new generation. Eventually, audiences can't really love a work — they can only appreciate it, as a well-wrought artifact of its time (assuming that it is, in fact, well-wrought). And some time after that, the conventions become so foreign that to a modern audience they are meaningless. It is interesting to me how some works rip through these phases very quickly: they may be enormously popular initially and then hold no appeal at all to the next generation. Others may not burn as brightly at first but endure for much longer.

Of course, while some lights may be brighter than others, how bright they appear depends not only on the light but also on the viewer. How widely are your eyes dilated? A scholar may appreciate a work that is flat-out incomprehensible to everyone else. And apparently there are a number of film buffs out there who can watch a movie that reached the theaters more than two thirds of a century ago, which is told in a cinematic idiom that had gone out of style decades before they were born, and somehow find it of more than academic interest.

But I'm not one of them. For instance, I don't really care for musicals. I remember taking film classes in college and being told that when we saw the leading man and the leading lady singing and dancing for the first time, we were meant to take this as a metaphor for the whole process of becoming acquainted, falling for one another over the course of several weeks, and becoming a couple. I never imprinted upon this convention, so while I can understand it intellectually, it still feels bizarre to me. Now take The Lady Eve. Roger Ebert hails a scene in which the lady con artist, ostensibly frightened by a snake, grabs the naive heir, whom she has met minutes earlier, and, "in an unbroken shot that lasts three minutes and 51 seconds [...] cradles his head, and as she talks she toys with his earlobe and runs her fingers through his hair. She teases, kids and flirts with him, and he remains almost paralyzed with shyness and self-consciousness. And at some point during this process, she falls for him."

In three minutes and 51 seconds! Wow! And soon thereafter, after little more than three minutes and 51 seconds of additional contact with her, he is proposing marriage! That means that either (a) these people are incredibly shallow, (b) this is a completely different culture, or (c) this is another bizarre convention that people just have to buy into if they want to enjoy the film, a convention that vanished long before I started watching movies, as dead and gone as most of the loves of 1941.

Thus, I was initially inclined to ascribe my inability to connect with the film to the fact that it's older than my parents and belongs to a genre that cheerfully dispenses with any kind of psychological realism. But! It occurs to me: how differently is romance treated in today's films? In the other window here I've got my screenplay software open and I'm supposed to turn two characters into a couple. The realist in me says that the only believable way to do this is to give them several hours-long conversations — the kind non-shallow people have before they pair up. But I don't have hours. I don't even have three minutes and 51 seconds. I'm supposed to come up with a couple of brief exchanges that will suggest the rest of the story to the audience. It's an interesting optimization puzzle, once. I guess that finding other people's solutions to the optimization puzzle interesting over and over and over again is part of what makes someone a film buff.

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