The Lady Eve, from 1941, is my favorite of all of Preston Sturges’s comedies. I would wager to say that it’s Barbara Stanwyck’s best performance, though I also love her in Double Indemnity and Forty Guns. Heck, I love her in everything she’s in. But The Lady Eve—with Sturges writing, Stanwyck’s comic timing, and Henry Fonda’s deadpan performance—is just film perfection. In fact, my love for the movie is so great that it got in the way of restoring it.
For the last five years or so, as technical director at Criterion, I’ve been trying to get a new restoration underway for a Blu-ray upgrade of The Lady Eve, which we released on DVD nearly two decades ago. The delays mostly stemmed from the lack of good film materials for this Hollywood gem. None of the best elements for restoration purposes—the nitrate original camera negative, or nitrate preprint copies—are around any longer, and the available next-generation safety film (so named because of its less hazardous acetate base) was what I would call “dupey,” with average grayscale, film-duplication degradation, and lots of printed-in issues, including flicker, dirt, scratches, and damage. Defects like dirt and scratches are relatively easy to fix in digital restoration workflows, but mediocre grayscale and issues from duping or copying—results of the analog printing process, which reduces the amount of information in the image—can seriously affect a film’s sharpness.
After the film’s owner, Universal Pictures, sent us all the existing copies it had to evaluate, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which holds many of the studio’s film elements, sent what it had, I became increasingly frustrated by what I was seeing. I went around and asked all the archives I could think of if they had anything that might be worth looking at. There wasn’t much. The Library of Congress had a potentially good nitrate copy, but it turned out to have French subtitles burned-in, and it was incomplete (not to mention that it didn’t turn out to be very good, after all).
Time went on. I would come back to The Lady Eve every once in a while, look at the test scans from all the various picture elements, and then ask around one more time to see if I had missed something—maybe that golden can of film, hidden in some dark corner in a dusty nitrate vault, that had previously been overlooked or mislabeled. (These things happen all the time!) At some point, Peter Becker, the president of Criterion, asked me, “What’s going on with The Lady Eve?” I sighed and told him that I hadn’t been able to find a great film element, and I’d looked everywhere. He said, “Well, you should pick something, so we can release it and get it into the world again.” He was right. I had basically just been holding the film back from getting its first HD release.
I went back through all the tests and chose a fourth-generation safety fine-grain that seemed to have the best grayscale and the least amount of physical damage, and was the most complete. (It’s not uncommon that a negative is missing in action, and that a restoration has to proceed from a second- or third-generation element, but fourth-generation is further from the original source than we typically like to go.) I never got to have that special feeling of seeing well-preserved original nitrate film, as I did with, say, Mildred Pierce. When we pulled that negative and sat in a room at Warner Bros. with the scanning technicians to have a look, the beauty on the screen was positively jaw-dropping. I wanted that feeling with The Lady Eve too.
But that wasn’t to be, and it’s certainly not the only classic film that hasn’t been preserved as well as one might have hoped. With The Lady Eve, there are so many things that could have happened. The film—originally a Paramount release—was sold to Universal with 764 of the studio’s pre-1948 movies back in 1958. Some film elements could have been lost at that point. Original nitrate copies often degrade if not stored properly, or if they’ve been printed from too many times.
We couldn’t afford to keep pining for the negative, though: we had a big job cut out for us—especially without the ideal materials to start from. The Criterion restoration team went to work on the 4K scans of the 35 mm fine-grain that we chose. We worked on it for a year or so, knowing that it was going to be time-consuming to clean up all the film issues. We used every digital tool in our arsenal to address things like flicker, instability, tears, dirt, and harshly made optically printed dissolves and titles (The Lady Eve had it all). Flicker was especially problematic with this film element. When film is copied from a positive to a negative and vice versa, it’s an analog process. If the film stock isn’t exposed perfectly or if there is extraneous light that gets in during the copying, the images can become flickery. Luckily, the tools we have now for fixing this are fantastic, but the process can take a while. We also spent a good deal of time color-grading the film so that the contrast and grayscale was as appealing as it could be, given the source.
Throughout this restoration, as with all restorations, our goal was to get the picture looking as close to its original form as possible. But while this process was more painstaking than we would have preferred, and while the end result might not be exactly what I’d dreamed of at the outset, I think we still managed to do the film justice. And we can keep holding out hope for the discovery of an element even one generation closer to the camera negative.