Last night, Film Geeks San Diego took over the Museum of Photographic Art in Balboa Park for a screening on the Preston Sturges Screwball Comedy, The Lady Eve. On hand to introduce the film and provide context to the card cheating in the movie was sleight-of-hand artist, Jami Ian Swiss. Now, I tend to not be real big on magic. I can't imagine going to a magic show, but Jami was great. I entered the lobby, and he was doing card tricks for the 25 or 30 people already there.
Since I had just come in, he ask me to think of a card and tell him what it is. He then made it appear on the top of the deck. Of course, there is a trick. He pulls the card from somewhere and puts on top of the deck. But he did have his sleeves rolled up to mid forearm. Also he has no idea which of the 52 cards I'm going to pick and has to get access to it and somehow place it on the top of the deck, all without any of the 30 or so people standing all around him seeing how he did it. All of this makes it a pretty damn good trick.
He then turned to my 16-year-old daughter Jasmine and did an equally good trick for her. Her reaction was priceless. That alone was worth the price of admission. She didn't know what to say, which if you've ever met Jasmine, is a rare thing indeed. Since he got such a great reaction out of her, he proceeded to do two more tricks on her getting equally good reactions there as well. We then went into the theater.
The Lady Eve is a great film, one of Preston Sturges' best and one of the best Screwball Comedies you'll find as well. I never really thought about it being a con film, mostly because it works so well as a comedy. In his introduction, Swiss spoke of how well and accurately the con elements are handled. Sturges who wrote as well as directed the film really did know a little something about cheating at cards. Jami Ian Swiss pointed out that the con in con man comes from the word confidence. Confidence men work by getting their marks to believe in them, and the story they are selling, a huge part of the film.
*** Spoiler Alert *** Minor spoilers to the plot are contained in the following paragraph.
In the film, Barbara Stanwyck (Eve) and her father, Charles Coburn are confidence men who set their sights on Henry Fonda (Hopsie), an ultrarich beer baron/Ophidiologist (snake expert), who cares more for snakes than the beverage that made the family fortune. Eve does the unthinkable. She falls for her mark and decides to protect Hopsie from her father. When Hopsie learns the truth about Eve and her father, he is hurt and breaks off their engagement, despite the fact that they really do love each other. Eve decides to get revenge on Hopsie for spurning her, but ultimately cons into realizing that he really does love her.
*** End of Spoiler Alert ***
How could I not think of this as a con movie? The answer is simple. It works so well as a Screwball Comedy that you don't really think about the fact that the entire movie, Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck are actively trying to take Henry Fonda to the cleaners.
The Lady Eve is one of those great old movies where the cast is great from top to bottom. Henry Fonda is perfect as the likable innocent dupe. Charles Coburn is also brilliant as the card-cheating father of Barbara Stanwyck. Of course, Stanwyck is wonderful as well and has great chemistry with both Fonda and Coburn. Rounding out the cast is William Demarest as Fonda's crusty, but well-meaning man servant. Finally, in a small role is Eugene Pallette, playing Fonda's father. It's the type of role that Pallette played over and over again, but could do so well that you never tire of it.
The Lady Eve has everything you'd want from such a film, good story, great performances, and humor that ranges from subtle to extremely broad, but all handled perfectly. The Film Geeks are hoping to do a series of con films next year and if The Lady Eve is any indication, it will be great. More info on the Film Geeks can be found on their facebook page. In addition, here's a sample of Jamy Ian Swiss' act from the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson: