The Sunday Title: Snake Oil

Well, you can’t really have a Screwball Week AND and a Sunday Intertitle, can you? There aren’t really any intertitles in screwball proper, it being a genre mainly of the late thirties and early forties. We might allow some early thirties stuff in too, but that still lets out the intertitles, which appear very occasionally in talkies up to about 1931 but rarely thereafter.

So here are some titles. The above and below are from Preston Sturges’ THE PALM BEACH STORY, and they almost qualify in that they come at the close of the title sequence, which is a mini-adventure all its own, and therefore they’re a piece of bridging narrative, not just an intro. The camera pulls back THROUGH them, which is a very neat trick. Motorised track? Double exposure? This fanciness could be seen as necessary precisely to make the effect seem modern and not a throwback to “old-fashioned” intertitles.

The other title I have for you is the animated opening of Sturges’ other bona-fide, according-to-Hoyle screwball, THE LADY EVE. Both Ed Sikov’s Screwball and James Harvey’s Romantic Comedy (my two uber-texts) remark on the phallic imagery, with the serpent of Eden wriggling through the O of PRESTON and getting his waistline stuck. But I believe I can expand on the mythological and cultural connotations.

First, the tipsy-looking snake retrieves THREE apples from the bushes. Each is inscribed with one word of the main title. Why? You could just as easily get the whole title on one apple and ask the snake to hold it closer to the lens. I believe the reason we need three apples is to evoke the golden apples of Greek myth.

The myth with three apples is the one about Atalanta, defeated in a foot race by Melanion, who distracted her by dropping the apples, which were a gift from Aphrodite. None of this quite fits the plot of THE LADY EVE except for the appearance of a love goddess. The couple eventually got turned into lions, which might fit with the metamorphoses Barbara Stanwyck undergoes here, but not very convincingly. But I think the overall themes — the battle of the sexes, and not fighting fair — are kind of relevant.

There’s also Hercules stealing the apples of the Hesperides, and the apple of Discord, which is addressed “to the fairest” — which also makes me think of the poisoned apple in Snow White, which does go to the fairest one of all… Discord is certainly a Sturgesian trope.

The apple is from the Tree of Knowledge in the Bible, right? That phallic snake suggests that it’s sexual knowledge. In Sturges’ film, Fonda is bamboozled with a lot of false knowledge and he still isn’t wised up at the film’s end. But we’re promised that he is finally going to be enlightened — the film ends on a Lubitschian closed door, and the snake reappears on cue. Oh, the snake also gets beaned with an apple, recalling Newton — his “Eureka!” moment about gravity. Fonda has a lot of slapstick run-ins with gravity and I guess they are all going to lead to his own personal eureka.

Complicating things even more, Fonda is an ophiologist (“Snakes are my life, in a way,”) and his snake is female, unlike the biblical reptile or the cartoon version here. A rival for Stanwyck — bring in the Biblical serpent’s qualities of temptress, trickster, and apply them to her. Stanwyck is going to supplant snakes in Fonda’s affections — she hates and fears them. She’s brought together with Fonda by his pratfall (gravity) and the broken heel of her shoe (she tripped him) — the Bible tells us that, after the Fall, Woman will loathe the snake and seek to crush in beneath her heel.

You see what we can get out of that snake and apples once we get past the dick joke? I bet you can offer more, too.

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2 Responses to “The Sunday Title: Snake Oil”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    A note on that closed door: Fonda is about to bite the apple with a woman he believes is NOT his wife. In fact, that knowledge is physically expelled in the person of William Demarest (“I still say it’s the same broad!” or words to that effect are clearly going unheeded). Sturges found a way to show upright Henry Fonda willfully committing fornication, if only in his own mind. And since Stanwyck used a false identity to marry him, it may well BE fornication whatever the participants think.

  2. “Posi-TIVE-ly the same dame!”

    But, as Al Bridge says in MORGAN’S CREEK, “Certainly she’s married, marriage is a matter of fact, not names.” So that’s that taken care of.

    But yes, the prude Fonda is cured to the point of adultery.

    Fonda’s screwballs are among the meanest in the genre: he rows non-stop with Margaret Sullivan in the abrasive THE MOON’S OUR HOME, and is humiliated by Stanwyck in both EVE and THE MAD MISS MANTON (my favourite, actually).

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