Classic Movie Trivia Quiz: In what 1940s screwball comedy does Henry Fonda play a vacationing millionaire seduced by a sexy swindler? If your answer is The Lady Eve, you’re only half right.
In March of 1941, Paramount Pictures released Preston Sturges’ Eve with Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck to critical accolades and box office success. A year later, Twentieth Century Fox released Rouben Mamoulian’s Rings on Her Fingers with Fonda and Gene Tierney and a plot that largely (but not actionably) aped Eve. The former is one of the most beloved movies of all time and was recently added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The latter is almost entirely forgotten, only now seeing the light of day on DVD-R from Fox’s new manufacture-on-demand Cinema Archives label.
As Sturges stock player William Demarest might say, “What gives?”
Rings on Her Fingers is not nearly the classic Eve is, but it’s a charming Cubic Zirconia to Sturges’ flawless gem. Once again, Fonda plays a handsome nerd who falls prey to a team of grifters, only this time, he’s not actually rich. In a clever twist by scenario writers Robert Pirosh (A Day at the Races) and Joseph Scrank (Cabin in the Sky), Fonda’s John Wheeler is a “$65 a week accountant” masquerading as a moneybags to impress gum-snapping Brooklynite Susan Miller (Tierney) - herself posing as debutante Linda Worthington. He thinks she’s rich, she thinks he’s rich, and her conniving accomplices believe they have finally found their perfect victim.
Linda/Susan is visiting Catalina Island with her “mother” (Spring Byington, Oscar-nominated for 1938’s You Can’t Take It With You) and “uncle” (Laird Cregar, memorably creepy in I Wake Up Screaming), both con artists hoping to use the naïve young woman’s good looks to make a dishonest buck. And they do, bilking Wheeler out of his life savings by selling him a boat they don’t own. Cregar, who died tragically in 1944 at age 31, is hilarious in this sequence as “Captain Beasley,” the phony, one-legged seamen, puffing on a pipe in a sailor’s cap and pea coat.
The scam is revealed, and the three sharpies barely escape with the loot - until they again encounter Wheeler on a Connecticut estate where he's visiting wealthy client Todd Fenwick (John Shepperd). This provides another delightful comedic opportunity for Cregar, who dives head first into the pool (while smoking a cigar) and hops from bush to bush to avoid being spotted by his mark. For a man who weighed north of 300 lbs, Cregar was surprisingly light on his feat, and his talent for comedy makes me wish he had done more of them.
All the while, Wheeler and Linda/Susan are falling for each other, despite the efforts of “Mrs. Worthington” to encourage the wealthy Todd to marry her “daughter.” Adding further impediments to their complicated courtship, Wheeler has hired a private investigator to find the real crooks who bilked him on the boat, not knowing, of course, that he is engaged to one of them.
In The Lady Eve, William Demarest played Muggsy, the rough-hewn bodyguard whose sole narrative mission was to expose Stanwyck's character as a fraud. Sturges even gave him the final shot in the film, with the now-iconic closing line: “Positively the same dame!” Frank Orth as Kellogg the detective fulfills the same mission in Rings, albeit with less comedic finesse (and fewer malapropisms). He’s the voice of reason, the antagonist who must be avoided in order for the two lovers to unite, despite the duplicity. And it all comes together in a nicely staged conclusion, as Linda is forced to juggle two identities, two fiancées and one tenacious private eye.
Rings on Her Fingers is a fast-paced farce with a number of memorable set pieces and a solid cast. Gene Tierney, so icy as the titular psychopath in John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945), is sweetly sexy here, with arguably better and more believable chemistry with Fonda than Barbara Stanwyck had in Eve. She's no Stanwyck, but the role doesn't ask her to be. If The Lady Eve was a parable of female empowerment, Rings on Her Fingers is about no more than the title suggests - a nice girl from the neighborhood who wants to get married.
Fonda reportedly was unhappy with the roles Fox gave him in the early '40s, but you'd never know it from this film. After playing Stanny's foil in Eve, he is clearly the star here: charming, charismatic, and demonstrating a nuanced comic touch that is a joy to watch. The ever-reliable Spring Byington is perfectly cast against type, and my affection for Cregar has already been made clear. He in particular benefits from a laugh-out-loud-funny screenplay by Ken Englund, who went on to write the sitcom-ish A Millionaire For Christy (1951) with Fred MacMurray and many actual TV sitcoms (including MacMurray’s My Three Sons). Mamoulian’s direction may lack the visual style of his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which won an Oscar for star Fredric March in 1931, but he does an excellent job of keeping the plot moving and the comedy fast-paced.
In fact, at 86 minutes, the film may actually be a bit too fast-paced. There are a few scenes that feel missing, like Susan’s phony “debut” after she’s rescued from “the wrong side of the counter” at the department store. And I wish there had been a longer sequence in which the counterfeit millionaires teach her how to "play rich." Tierney goes from rather broad Brooklynese in the opening scene to flawless “society speak” faster than you can say “dese and dose.” I mourn the lost comedic opportunities of a Pygmalion-style coaching session between Cregar and Tierney.
As is typical of manufacture-on-demand titles, Rings on Her Fingers contains no special features and is not restored or remastered, though I found the image quality to be sharp and mostly flawless, save for a slight muddiness in nighttime scenes. The packaging is basic, but does include three nice black & white stills from the film on the back cover, and colorful, hand-drawn art of Fonda and Tierney from the one-sheet poster on the front. You’re not buying an M.O.D. DVD for the packaging, but it is nice to know that this one won’t stick out on your movie shelf like a poor relation.
Rings on Her Fingers may be a watered-down knockoff of The Lady Eve, but if you love the Sturges film, as I do, you should jump right in. To paraphrase the great Bill Demarest, it’s “positively the same plot!”