I was scared to death about The Lady Eve. 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 crossed 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.
Preston Sturges was scared, and it wasn’t just about pratfalls. The Lady Eve was the third picture he ever directed. It was also the third picture he directed that year. He started production even before the second, Christmas in July, was released in theaters. It was the biggest budget he’d been given to date. He also took it upon himself that summer to open 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 knew how to burn off some of that stress. Mel Epstein, assistant director on The Lady Eve, would describe to Sturges biographer Diane Jacobs a typical evening for the director during filming. Jacobs writes, “[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.” After the last day of shooting, he closed the restaurant to the public for the night and held the wrap party there. Sturges didn’t sleep a heck of a lot.
In the early 1940s, Sturges was not only among the best-paid directors in Hollywood but also among the best-paid men in America. A year after The Players opened, it was dubbed “one 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, the restaurant never turned a profit, and Sturges would often dump his entire paycheck into keeping it running.
Life magazine described the place as having a “galaxy of gadgets.” “For The Players,” Noel Busch 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 was noting that The Players had “a history of barren patronage,” and Sturges’s employees were stealing from him—none of which mattered to him because he so enjoyed himself there. He often picked up the check for out-of-work actor friends. Director Jean Renoir recalled that Sturges’s “generosity was proverbial, and [he] closed his eyes to unpaid bills.” Barbara Stanwyck recalled going off on him at one point: “That goddamned greasy spoon is ruining you!” He didn’t care.
Over the years, many classic Hollywood scenes played out there. One of my favorite stories is about a young Frank Sinatra, who came in and saw Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Bacall smiled, and he went over to meet them. Bogey, 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 in 1953, his career in shambles and his coffers depleted, Preston Sturges had to turn over the keys to the restaurant to pay off his debts. “I had had so very much luck for so very long,” he would reflect on that time, “that I had managed to forget that it is quite natural for the pendulum to swing the other way.”
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 entrees is “Roast New York Prime Ribs of Beef au Jus ($3.00).” I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the roast beef served in The Lady Eve (and on Henry Fonda) was not taken from the studio commissary but delivered from Sturges’s restaurant. We do know for a fact that, to lend verisimilitude to the wealthy Pike family’s home, Sturges brought serving platters and silverware from his own home to be used for 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 in putting together this dish by making the jus with beer, in tribute to Pike’s Pale, “the ale that won for Yale” and that 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.
Roast Beef with Ale Jus
3 pounds boneless prime rib roast
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons onion powder (feel free to improvise with other spice mixtures)
3 tablespoons canola oil
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. Preheat oven to 450?F. Mix together salt, pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder. Coat roast with oil, then dust with spice mixture. Pat spices to get them to stick well. Put roast on rack in roasting pan. Scatter onion over it. Roast in oven for 20 minutes, then reduce temperature to 350?F. Continue cooking until roast is desired internal temperature, about an hour. (I recommend investing in a good meat thermometer. It’ll be your friend. Rare =120?F. Medium rare = 126?F. Medium = 135?F. Medium well = 150?F. Well = 160?F.) When meat is done, remove from oven, then let it sit, covered in foil, for 15 minutes. (Seriously, do not jump the gun!) Remove roast from pan. Place pan on stove, turn on burners, add broth and beer, and stir with a wooden spoon, scraping up dried bits, to make the jus. Let it reduce a bit. Slice roast and serve with jus.
Note: Don’t reheat the roast; simply make cold sandwiches or salad with leftovers. You can reheat the jus to pour over the sandwiches, if you please.
Ron Deutsch also blogs at chefducinema.com.