The Lady Eve’s Long Road to High Definition
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.
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