Saturday, July 9, 2011

TV Bites: The Lady Eve

Roast Beef with Ale Jus

A shorter version of this post was originally published on the Criterion Collection website.

I'm a little surprised that I'm back to writing about Preston Sturges so quickly. But it's in the Criterion Collection, and the Museum of Modern Art had an afternoon screening of it while I was up in the New York City last month, and so here we are. Not that I'm complaining, but I haven't even written up one Welles, Kubrick, or even a Scorsese film yet, just saying. But interesting to note, that the only other directors so far to have two films here are Wim Wenders, and Billy Wilder - with Wilder being another writer at Paramount who suffered through having his scripts hacked, I mean directed, by Mitchell Leisen and decided he needed to direct himself.

Playwright/screenwriter/director David Mamet once wrote: "Let’s examine a perfect movie: The Lady Eve, written and directed by Preston Sturges. His work is, for me, irrefutable proof of an afterlife, for it is impossible to make films that sweet and not go to heaven.... The resultant film, though made by a master, would probably have been watchable if made by a journeyman. Why? Because we, the audience... wanted to know what happened next. This is more or less the total art of the film dramatist: to make the audience want to know what is going to happen next."

That's saying a lot. Not sure if I agree this is "a perfect movie," but it is a thoroughly enjoyable one, which continues to please over repeated viewings.

And okay, I know it's more weather for grilling than roasting out there (unless you're down there on the planet where it's winter now), but this makes for great sandwiches, and I promise the next movie posted will feature something light and summery, paired with a very dark movie.

The Lady Eve is available for streaming & home rental via NetFlix, and can be streamed and purchased @ Amazon.


You know, good girls aren’t half as good as you think, and bad girls aren’t as bad, not half as bad.”

If one becomes a student of the life and work of Preston Sturges, you will quickly realize that Sturges often drew from his own life experience like many creative people. But, as I wrote about The Palm Beach Story (and I do urge you to read that post), Sturges’ life experiences were often more madcap and more screwball than any script he wrote. He claimed that when divorcing (actually the marriage was annulled) his second wife, Eleanor Hutton (heir to the Post Cereal fortune), her lawyers demanded how much Sturges wanted as a pay off, and he supposedly, like the Lady Eve character, replied: “It will cost you one courteous request, Madame, and a polite thank you when it is all over.” Sturges had eloped with Hutton when she was 18, against her father’s (stockbroker millionaire EF Hutton) will. He didn’t think Sturges was of the proper class for his daughter and told Sturges, “You can’t afford to marry a girl like Eleanor.” This sort of class snobbery would find its way into The Lady Eve screenplay as well.

There was also the story Sturges told about how returning from his honeymoon with Eleanor and going to his mother's house. In the morning, a woman knocked on the front door, he let her in, and offered her some coffee, thinking she was a friend of Mary's. When the woman asked, "Don't you know me?" Sturges then realized he had failed to recognize his own first wife, Estelle. He said that this faux pas later inspired him to allow for "Hopsie" to not see that Eve and Jean were the same woman in the film without having to use a disguise. "It took me a moment to assimilate what had happened and when I had, I realized that it isn't so much that love is blind, it is that love is bewitching. Seen through the eyes of love, Estelle had been to me the fairest of all. Only one thing had changed: I didn't love her anymore," Sturges wrote. "This proved an extremely useful insight" when he made The Lady Eve.

Sturges also spent much of his youth being shuttled by boat between America and Europe where his mother had many affairs and palled around with bohemian dancing queen Isadora Duncan. Sturges, who enjoyed doing card tricks himself, might well have befriended professional card sharks on those voyages.

Finally, he once dated a girl named Lady Eve Waddington-Greeley in his youth, and Sturges said of her, “She didn’t hang around very long, but years later I called a picture The Lady Eve in souvenir of her.” But perhaps the biggest experience drawn upon for The Lady Eve was his own mother, Mary, who reinvented her identity more than once, and with whom the character of Eve/Jean she shared a great deal of personality (as well as with Gerry in The Palm Beach Story).

I was scared to death about The Lady Eve," wrote Sturges. "I happen to love pratfalls, but as almost everything I like, other people dislike, and vice versa, my dearest friends and severest critics constantly urged me to cut the pratfalls down from five to three. But it was actually the enormous risks I took with my pictures, skating right up to the edge of nonacceptance, that paid off so handsomely.... I had my fingers cross 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. But it paid off. Audiences, including the critics, surrendered to the fun, and the picture made a lot of money for the studio.

Sturges was scared, and it wasn’t just about pratfalls. The Lady Eve was the third picture he’d ever directed. It was also the third picture he would be directing that year. He had started production even before the second, Christmas in July, was released in theaters. It was the biggest budget he been given to work with to date. He had also taken upon himself that summer to open what he hoped would become his own swank Hollywood restaurant/nightclub, The Players. Preston Sturges was scared... and crazy busy - just the way he liked his life, it would seem.

And Sturges also knew how to burn off some of that stress. Mel Epstein, Sturges’ assistant director on the The Lady Eve, described to Sturges biographer Diane Jacobs a typical evening for Sturges during filming. “[A] few hours at the fights, followed by dinner at The Players, where he’d remain until it closed, then home to start writing. ‘He’d write until the sun came up,’ [said Epstein.] ‘And I would go by his house about a quarter to nine, on my way to the studio, and stop at the side door where the butler would hand me his pages.” Sturges didn’t sleep a heck of a lot.

Now The Lady Eve was one of the only scripts he directed based on other material, though Sturges drifted so far from the original story to be unrecognizable unless you follow his revisions. The story was called Two Bad Hats, and was about a woman with two daughters - Sheba and Salome - the "nice" daughter dies, but for the mother to keep getting checks from her ex-husband's family, Salome winds up pretending to be Sheba. Enter a young man who falls for pure Sheba, who is really the not-so-pure Salome, and you get the picture.

Sturges first met Barbara Stanwyck when he wrote Remember the Night which she starred in, and told her he thought she was really funny and was going to write her a great comedy, addingand I’m going to the front office and insist they let me direct it.” She later noted in an interview that “[a] lot of people said that sort of thing, and 15 minutes later it was forgotten. But two months later, Sturges handed me The Lady Eve. He was marvelous. He loved actors. Some directors get along with actors, but they really don’t like them.”

But truth be told, Madeleine Carroll and Fred MacMurray, were the original studio picks for the leads, then Henry Fonda and Paulette Goddard were announced as the stars. But Goddard backed out at the same time as Barbara Stanwyck got an eye infection and had to withdraw from filming William Wellman’s Reaching for the Sun, and so she was free then to make The Lady Eve.

When shooting began, Stanwyck was in awe of the way Sturges ran his set. Having made three films with Frank Capra in the 1930's, she said that Capra's set was like being in a "cathedral," while Sturges' was akin to a "carnival."

We call Sturges the ‘Mad Genius,’" she said at the time. "You never know what he’ll do next. Wore his hat all day the other day ‘so we’d recognize him.’ Came on the set the day we were working in my bedroom wearing a horrible-looking bathrobe," to make her feel at ease for the scene. She often said she never had so much fun working on a film as on The Lady Eve.

Sturges, with hat
The fact that Sturges was dressed "horribly" was not on any special account. In fact, a list of the worst-dressed men in Hollywood had just been published at that time, and Bing Crosby had put Sturges' name on the top of the list. On the other hand, the clothes Stanwyck wore for The Lady Eve were a big deal for her. For the first time she had a part which called for her to wear elegant clothing, which were her first designed by Edith Head. Her new look totally changed her career, grabbing her more glamorous roles, and she and Head remained friends for life.

Speaking of Edith Head, the poor woman was forced to try and design costumes not just for the human actors, but also for Emma... the snake.

"I made Emma a nice diamond necklace from a jeweled buckle, hoping it would fit when it came time to shoot the scenes," Head recalled. "Emma as a tiny king snake, harmless as a kitten. The only problem was that it was the hibernating season for snakes, and Emma just wanted to sleep, so she proceeded to shed her skin in the middle of production. She was sleepy, lethargic, and uncooperative. I wasn’t the least bit afraid of this harmless snake, since I grew up with snakes on the desert, and I didn’t mind handling Emma to try to get the elegant necklace on her. But each time I tried, she slithered out of it. We finally had to let her do scenes without the necklace, one of my few costuming failures."

"I was also supposed to engineer a hat that Emma could wear during the opening credits so she could wriggle across the screen and squeeze through the “O” in Preston’s name," she continued. "That didn’t work either. Preston finally ended up using an animated snake in the credits - even he couldn’t make everything work. He tried, though, and that’s what I loved about working with Preston Sturges."

Henry Fonda had previously worked with Stanwyck on The Mad Miss Manton, but had a terrible time and couldn't wait for it to be done with. “I was so mad on this picture, I resented it", Fonda said. "[I] wasn’t receptive to anyone, including Stanwyck." But as they started working on The Lady Eve, Fonda recalled, she let him have it over being so unfriendly before: “You son of a bitch, you didn’t pay any attention to me!” she told him.

By the time The Lady Eve wrapped, Stanwyck became, not only one of Fonda's favorite costars, but people. “Stanwyck can act the hell out of any part,” Fonda once said, “and she can turn a chore into a challenge. She’s fun, and I’m glad I had a chance to make three movies with her. The Lady Eve was the best. She’s a delicious woman.” At the 1978 AFI Salute to Fonda, he was so excited she was there for the occasion he admitted, “I fell in love with Barbara when we did Lady Eve. I’m still in love with her, and [my wife] Shirlee can live with it.”

Fonda remembered that he thought Sturges was an egomaniac, but it was “almost an endearing quality, because he was naive about it.” As an example, he told of one day over lunch at the commissary during production of The Lady Eve, when Sturges passed around a stack of photos of the movie theater marquee showing one of his films. He “had the marquee photographed from every conceivable angle.”

On the last day of shooting, Sturges closed his restaurant to the public for the night and held a wrap party for the cast and crew, and their families.

Many thought Stanwyck would be Oscar nominated for The Lady Eve, but instead she was nominated that year for Ball of Fire. The only one who was nominated for the film was Monckton Hoffe, who wrote the original story which Sturges almost completely abandoned for his film.

The Lady Eve was remade in 1956 as the unwatchable The Birds and the Bees, starring Mitzi Gaynor, David Niven, and George Gobel - which disproves Mamet's theory that even a journeyman director, like Norman Taurog was, could have turned the script into a watchable film.


Sturges couldn’t stand the restaurants he found in Los Angeles when he first arrived there, and decided to do something about it by opening The Players. He envisioned a haunt which would recreate not only the fine food and atmosphere of his New York days, but going back even further to his mother’s London supper club Desti’s Club, which was known in 1920 as “one of the most amusing places in London” and was frequented by creative types of the day including HG Wells (Sturges was once hired to write a script of Wells' The Invisible Man).

During the early 1940's, Sturges was not only one of the most highly-paid directors in Hollywood, but also one of the most highly-paid men in America. A year after The Players opened it was dubbedone of the smartest places in town” by Photoplay magazine and regulars included Humphrey Bogart, Ernst Lubitsch, Barbara Stanwyck, Orson Welles, Joel McCrea, Rudy Vallee, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Howard Hughes, William Faulkner, and Algonquin Round Table refugees Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, and Donald Ogden Stewart. But despite all of that, it never turned a profit. Sturges would often dump his entire pay check into the restaurant.

"The Players," remarked his third wife Louise, "was a place where he could be Grand Pasha after hours - that was the main attraction for him." He often picked up the check for out-of-work actors, and would also grab patrons to be extras in his films.

It was open 24 hours a day and "[t]he menu," Sturges' fourth wife Sandy remembered, "which was new every day, was presented as a list of suggestions. If there was something you would like to eat which was not on the menu, the chefs would fix it." Sturges supervised everything from the menu to the fixtures.

Life magazine described the place as having a "galaxy of gadgets." "For The Players," they wrote, "Sturges has designed and installed a special revolving bandstand whereby its two orchestras can change places without missing a note; a perambulating wall whereby the dining room can be expanded; a new-fangled garbage hoist, and a method of extricating people and tables from the 'booths' which are a feature of all Hollywood eateries."

But by 1942, Variety commented it had "a history of barren patronage," plus his employees were stealing from him - none of which mattered to Sturges because he so enjoyed himself there. Barbara Stanwyck at one point went off on him: “That goddamned greasy spoon is ruining you!” He didn't care. As frequent guest (and future business partner) Howard Hughes had his Spruce Goose, Sturges had his money pit of a restaurant. (Hughes reportedly had his own private dining room there where he would entertain starlets.)

In his autobiography, French director Jean Renoir wasn't taken by Sturges' ex-pat French clientèle when he lived in Los Angeles during WWII. He snarkingly called it "the center of the ‘Hollywood Resistance Movement'.... Wonderful victorious attacks on Vichy were launched from the Sunset Strip cafe.” But he noted that Sturges’ “generosity was proverbial and [he] closed his eyes to unpaid bills.”

Over the years, many classic Hollywood scenes played out there. Writer/director Richard Brooks claims to have gotten his first screenwriting gig there, and television producer Aaron Spelling was a stage manager and directed his first production at the theater in the restaurant (starring his future wife Carolyn Jones). Farley Granger, who noted it "served the best Caesar salad he ever had," one night comforted a tearful and lonely Shelley Winters on her birthday. He got Sturges to bring her a cupcake with candle on it and had the waiters sing to her.

My favorite story I found was when a young Frank Sinatra came in and spotted Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall together. Bacall smiled at Sinatra who came over to the table. Bogart, true to his screen image, quipped: “They tell me you have a voice that makes girls faint. Make me faint.” Frank grinned, “I’m taking the week off.” That got him an invitation to join them for a drink.

But by 1953, his career in shambles and his coffers depleted, Sturges had to turn over the keys to the restaurant to pay off his debts. But it was time. After all, the glamor of Hollywood's Golden Era had passed. Later the site - definitely indicative of a new era - became the infamous nightclub Roxbury. Most recently it was a sushi restaurant, but that too is gone.

Writer/producer Edmund L Hartmann recalled his final night at the Players. "My wife and I were friends with Preston and his wife [Sandy], who was pregnant. We were the only ones in the restaurant as the government would come and take over. All of a sudden, his young 20 year-old wife broke into tears. He put his arm around her and said, ‘Don’t worry about a thing. When the last dime is gone, I’ll go out on the sidewalk with a stub of a pencil and a sheet of paper and start the whole thing over again.’ But he didn’t.”

"I had had so very much luck for so very long," Sturges reflected on that time, "that I had managed to forget that it is quite natural for the pendulum to swing the other way."


If you follow my humble little blog here, you'll know that I was in Vietnam in February. What does this have to do with roast beef? Nothing. But I was tempted for this post to recreate a meal I had out in the Mekong Delta with a few locals... Snake in Lemongrass, Garlic & Chile Broth. "How was it?" you ask? Let's just say that anything, including probably a pair of old sneakers, cooked long enough in lemongrass, garlic & chiles will taste good. A little chewy, but tasty. (Of course, the best part of that meal was the accompanying shots of the freshly-drained snake blood mixed with vodka. That rocked.)

Roast beef was pretty much considered the "national dish of the UK" since medieval times until recent times - nowadays it seems Chicken Tikka Masala has taken the prize.

"'Rosbifs' [a bastardized spelling/pronunciation of 'roast beef'] became a mark of the Englishman as far as the French were concerned in the 18th Century, simply because it was a very popular way of cooking," said linguistics expert Professor Richard Coates of Sussex University. "That style began to apply to other meats cooked in the same way, so you would also have 'rosbif de mouton' and that sort of thing." "Rosbif" is still used as a name for roast beef, not just in France, but also in Spain and Italy.

But due to its association with Britannia, the French turned it into a derogatory slur used against their neighbors some time in the 1700's and it is still used as an insult today - much as the British enjoy calling the French by their "unofficial national dish," "frogs." However, it seems the French today have more to worry about of a frog invasion than a "Rosbif" one.

Now I have a copy of a menu from The Players from 1952, (courtesy of the director's son Tom Sturges). The menu changed daily, so maybe it’s fate that the first item on the list of entrées is “Roast New York Prime Ribs of Beef au Jus ($3.00).” This leads me to say that I wouldn’t be surprised if the roast beef served in the film (and on Henry Fonda) was not from the studio commissary, but that Sturges had it delivered from his restaurant. We do know for a fact that to add verisimilitude to the wealthy Pike family home, Sturges brought the serving platters and silverware from his own home to be used in the dining room sequence wherein the roast beef is served. So why not bring in the roast beef, as well?

I decided to riff on the movie a little more, by making the “au jus” with beer, in tribute to Pike’s Pale, “The Ale that won for Yale” which made “Hopsie” Pike’s family its millions. But I don’t suggest reenacting the scene from The Lady Eve, unless you have changes of clothing for yourself and your dinner guests. As always... cook, watch, eat & enjoy!

Roast Beef with Ale Jus
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serving Size : 6

3 pounds boneless prime rib roast
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons onion powder
1 medium onion, quartered
1 cup beef broth
1 12-ounce bottle of beer (I used Fool Moon Pale Rye Ale)

Let roast come to room temperature. Pre-heat over to 450*F.

Mix salt, pepper, garlic, and onion powders together.

Coat roast with oil, then dust with spice mixture. Pat spices to get them to stick on well.

Put roast on rack in roasting pan, scatter onions. Roast in oven, for 20 minutes, then reduce temperature to 350*F. Continue cooking until it reaches desired internal temperature, about an hour. (I recommend investing in a good meat thermometer. It'll be your friend.)

RARE: 120*F
WELL: 160*F

When meat is done, let sit, covered in foil, for 15 minutes. (Seriously, do not jump the gun!)

Place pan on stove, turn on burners, add broth and beer and stir with wooden spoon, scraping dried bits to make the "jus." Let it reduce a bit.

Slice and serve with jus.

Note: Don't reheat meat, simply make cold sandwiches or salad with leftovers. You can reheat the jus to pour over the sandwiches, if you please.

Note: Feel free to improve or improvise by using different spice mixtures.

The Official Preston Sturges Site
TCM's The Lady Eve Page
The Seven Wonders of Preston Sturges, by Douglas McGrath, Vanity Fair, May 2010
Preston Sturges "Masterclass" @ Film4
The Lady Eve @

Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges, by Donald Spoto
Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges, by Diane Jacobs
Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges
Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges, by James Curtis
Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck, by Ella Smith
Stanwyck, by Jane Ellen Wayne
Stanwyck, by Axel Madsen
Edith Head's Hollywood, by Edith Head & Peggy Calistro
How to Cook Meat, by Christopher Schlesinger & John Willoughby
The Complete Meat Cookbook, by Bruce Aidells & Denis Kelly

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