New York’s Film Forum began a 40-Film Festival honoring the career of Barbara Stanwyck this weekend that will last through December 31st. The festival which “has too many highlights to name” as David Edelstein of New York Magazine wrote is as great an event as any Stanwyck fan can fathom screening films from every decade of the star’s stellar film career. While I’m saddened I won’t be able to attend the majority of the screenings, I was there for yesterday’s double feature – Billy Wilder’s, Double Indemnity (1944) and Preston Sturges‘, The Lady Eve (1941).
“Double Indemnity is the finest picture of its kind ever made, and I make that flat statement without any fear of getting indigestion later from eating my words.” – Louella Parsons
Double Indemnity got mostly positive reviews when it opened in September 1944, but audiences made it an immediate hit. The honey suckle is simply mesmerizing. From where I sat the people who packed the Forum yesterday thought so, in any case. They too “wanted to see the dame upstairs again, without a silly staircase” blocking the view. The only thing missing was honeysuckle incense.
Seven of us friends gathered amongst the crowd that spanned from serious cinephile to casual classic film newbie and the consensus was basically the same: The dialogue in Double Indemnity is fantastic, Stanwyck really sells the rotten to the core thing, the fact that Fred MacMurray has the “good guy” appeal goes far in convincing us he cannot help but be caught in Stanwyck’s web of deceit. Oh, and what were they thinking about that wig?
“We hired Barbara Stanwyck, and here we get George Washington!” – production head, Buddy G. DeSylva
Two things were confirmed for me as I watched Double Indemnity last night. The first is that there remains no doubt that the introduction of Phyllis Dietrichson wrapped in a towel as she stands high above the foyer of the $30,000 Dietrichson house is among the best character introduction in film. One never gets over that first impression. And, the second is that THE standout in the film is Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes. Robinson’s depiction of the irritable, funny, big-hearted, insurance adjuster with the “little man” who lives in his gut that serves as a warning when some claim seems “off,” is that much more impressive on the big screen. His physicality as he makes a point, how he uses his cheap cigars, which become key to his relationship with Neff, are perfection. Every line Robinson delivers is a keeper. Bosley Crowther’s 1944 review of Double Indemnity noted “Barton Keyes is the only character you care two hoots about in the film” and he was right. Theresa Brown, a friend and passionate film fan who attended the screening last night said she watched the entire film just waiting for Robinson’s last words to Walter Neff, “Closer than that, Walter.” It’s just a wonderful performance and I couldn’t wait for his scenes.
It’s worth mentioning, by the way, that Turner Classic Movies just announced this week that the world premiere of the complete restoration commemorating the 70th anniversary of Double Indemnity will be screened at next year’s Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. I think we should all wear George Washington wigs in tribute!
I’ve learned several things about myself this year while attending screenings of classic films in theaters not the least of which as the fact that I am a snoop, thoroughly enjoying overhearing other people’s reactions to movies to see if they’re similar to mine. These moments often stand among my favorites. Among last night’s “moments happened as I stepped outside after Double Indemnity and before the next feature started – I overheard a woman telling her elderly father that perhaps they should have watched The Lady Eve first and Double Indemnity second so the elder could have gotten home earlier. The father’s reply was a quick “No! I wanted to start with a really, really good film and end with a great one.” I just love that and his statement turned out to be the consensus across the board. Sturges’ The Lady Eve is wonderful and while I experienced little new while watching Double Indemnity on the big screen, The Lady Eve was funnier than ever.
Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay of The Lady Eve specifically for Barbara Stanwyck and she delivers BIG time, one of the best performances of her career, in my opinion. She’s non-stop magical from beginning to end. And, I might add, looks stunning in the film costumed for the first time by Edith Head, with whom she would work many more times. Then there’s Henry Fonda, the perfect Charles to Stanwyck’s Eve. I have to admit I never think of Fonda as a comedic force, but playing it straight, he shines as the naive and very clumsy, Charles Pike (aka Hopsy) in this. And that stellar supporting cast, which features some of the greatest character actors ever. Sturges’ favorite William Demarest as Muggsy, Charlie’s bodyguard/assistant/all around man, Charles Coburn as Stanwyck’s loving, card shark of a father, the hilariously snooty, Eric Blore and in this case, the one who actually makes me cry, Eugene Pallette who plays Mr. Pike, Fonda’s father. All the players deliver line after line in Sturges’ outstanding script with impeccable timing, energy – on and on. I can’t say enough. The Film Forum roared with laughter – in some instances even before the funny scene occurred or line was uttered, so this was an audience of knowledgeable fans.
There was one particular scene I really looked forward to seeing on the big screen and it didn’t disappoint. Of the scene, Roger Ebert noted, “If I were asked to name the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was the sexiest and funniest at the same time, I would advise beginning at six seconds past the 20-minute mark in Preston Sturges’, The Lady Eve, and watching as Barbara Stanwyck toys with Henry Fonda’s hair in an unbroken shot that lasts three minutes and 51 seconds.” That has to be one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever and I can only add a reminder – stellar acting and writing trump special effects in the making of movie magic. That. Is. All.
As far as experiences I’ve had of seeing my favorite classics on the big screen, last night’s at the Film Forum must stand among my favorites. This was my dream Stanwyck double feature and it came true. As far as the “bottom line” at the end of the night I’d say one thing kept coming up – Stanwyck could do it all. And as far as I’m concerned, no two films in her impressive filmography could have proven that fact better than watching Double Indemnity and The Lady Eve back-to-back – not necessarily because they’re her best performances, but because the roles and films couldn’t be more different. It was a wonderful experience and I urge everyone who is able to get to the Film Forum this month to watch Stanwyck after Stanwyck after Stanwyck to do so as often as possible!
“Career is too pompous a word. It was a job and I have always felt privileged to be paid for doing what I love doing.”
A shout-out to my film-loving friends with whom I shared this classic film dream – Nyssa, Susie, Joe, Theresa, Will, and Maggie who joined us later for the ever-important post-screening discussion over drinks.