Fig Leaf for Eve, A (1944)

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Her “exotic dancing” led her to ignominy and then to a fortune—but can she keep the latter?
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vt Desirable Lady; vt Flaming Girls; vt Hollywood Nights; vt Not Enough Clothes; vt Reckless Youth; vt Room for Love; vt Strips and Blondes
US / 69 minutes / bw / Carry Westen, Monogram Dir: Donald Brodie Pr: J. Richard Westen Scr: Elizabeth Hayter Story: Harry O. Hoyt Cine: Marcel Le Picard Cast: Jan Wiley, Phil Warren, Eddie Dunn, Janet Scott, Emmett Vogan, Betty Blythe, Edward Keane, Marilyn McConnell, Dick Rush, Selika Pettiford, Cheerio Meredith, Eleanor Freeman.

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You’d guess from the string of subtitles that this was an exploitationer, and in a way I suppose it is—or as near to an exploitationer as the Production Code would allow in 1944. It’s implied that the central character is an exotic dancer, but the clientele of the NYC club where she dances, the Club Cézanne (oooh, a French painter! how provocative! how highbrow!), seems made up to a great extent of respectable middle-aged ladies, and, when we see the Dance of the Seven Veils performed by the title character, we can understand why: there’s not a trace of salacity in it, and all seven veils remain disappointingly in place. (At least, I assumed there were seven; didn’t count.)

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Eve (Jan Wiley) performa at the Club Cézanne . . .

In fact, Eve’s dance actually is mildly erotic (Noirish’s own Lechery Correspondent reports), but that’s solely because Jan Wiley, the actress playing Eve, was an extraordinarily attractive woman: she could be dancing the polka and still generate the same wistful thoughts. A little piece of dialogue expresses this perfectly:

Customer A: “Boy, would I like to wrap that up and take it home.”
Customer B: “Why wrap it up?”

Even so, one night when Eve Lorrain (Wiley)—oooh, another French painter!—is performing at the Club Cézanne, her agent, Dan “Mac” McGrath (Warren), has the bright idea of calling in the cops on the grounds that her dance is indecent—the publicity and the indecency charge will surely have customers beating down the doors to see her dancing. And so a brace of cops turn up:

Cop: “That dance.”
Eve: “It’s perfectly respectable. It’s in the Bible.”
Cop: “Could be. But we go by the City Ordinance. It’s a later publication.”

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Soon Eve (Jan Wiley) finds herself down at the local precinct house.

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Bail bondsman Gus Hoffman (Eddie Dunn) offers Eve a way out of her jam.

So off she’s taken to the local cop shop, where she’s found by Gus Hoffman (Dunn) of the Acme Bail Bond Co. He bails her out and then, before Dan can turn up, discovers from her that she’s an orphan, that her parents were actors who died during her infancy in a Colorado theatrical fire. This reminds him of a newspaper small ad he saw recently:

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After meeting with the attorney in question, Thomas W. Campbell (Vogan), Eve is taken to meet the heirs of the late millionaire quack J.P. Sardam: J.P.’s son Horace (Keane), Horace’s wife Lavinia (Blythe) and their daughter Millicent “Millie” Sardam (McConnell). It seems that Horace’s sister eloped with an actor called Westland and that Horace’s mother never forgave her. Because of the resulting estrangement, it’s only now that the family is seeking to do right by the two actors’ orphan.

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Attorney Campbell (Emmett Vogan) is prepared to take Eve’s claim seriously.

Lavinia and Millie loathe Eve on sight: a dancer, and one who’s just recently been arrested for indecency. Faugh! They themselves are of course quite the antithesis of, well, Sardam and Gomorrah. But Horace likes her enough to set her up in a luxury apartment and give her an allowance. (No, his intentions aren’t what you might think.)

Even more significantly, Horace’s Aunt Sarah Burch (Scott), visiting from Wyoming, takes an instant liking to the girl, and soon the two women are bosom buddies—they even share the apartment. And Aunt Sarah spells out a home truth to Eve:

Sarah: “Shucks, your grandfather was arrested more than once when he was trying to put his patent medicine over.”
Eve: “Why?”
Sarah: “Well, seems the medicine was worse than the sickness. And then he got a bright idea and changed the labels to “Hair Restorer.” And his fortune was made. Just goes to show there’s some good in anything.”

In other words, all those airs and graces Lavinia and Millie have been putting on are severely unmerited: the family money is, in essence, dirty.

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Eve (Jan Wiley, right) and Aunt Sarah (Janet Scott) start to paint the town red . . . with a “taxi” cocktail apiece.

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Horace (Edward Keane) and Aunt Sarah (Janet Scott) get along pretty well too.

Not that this much occurs to Eve, who’s convinced she’s the real Eve Westland. She also wants to shake off Dan: she no longer needs an agent and she hasn’t forgiven him for pulling that stunt with the cops. But he’s persistent:

Dan: “Now, look, don’t forget I’ve got a contract.”
Eve: “Don’t pull that contract routine either.”
Dan: “Well, you signed it, didn’t you?”
Eve: “Yeah, but I was too young to know what I was doing.”
Dan: “You were never that young.”

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Dan (Phil Warren) often seems out of his depth as events cascade along.

What she doesn’t realize, and won’t until nearly the end of the movie—although it’s pretty obvious to the rest of us—is that Dan’s in love with her. Another thing that she doesn’t know is that Gus is getting pretty heavy with Dan about being given his share of the dough—dough that Eve doesn’t yet have because the various searches are still being done by lawyer Campbell to evaluate her claim. (No DNA testing in those days, of course.) Furthermore, Gus is convinced that Eve isn’t the heir. So far as he’s concerned, they’re just taking advantage of a lucky coincidence. Since Gus has appeared an honest type, in a sort of avuncular Raymond Massey style, this realization that he’s a crook, or at best a mercenary, comes as a bit of a surprise to us.

Lavinia by now detests Eve if anything even more than she did earlier, and persuades Millie to set up a particularly nasty piece of humiliation for the claimant. Millie is organizing a charity concert, and asks Eve to contribute to the show. Eve has determined to put all that exotic dancing stuff behind her, and has been taking acting lessons; she accordingly agrees to perform a tragic scene from Shakespeare. Of course, it’s a fiasco, and the snooty audience falls around laughing.

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Selika Pettiford delivers a cameo as a keyboard artist at the club.

Back in her dressing room a vengeful Eve, with Aunt Sarah’s help, removes a few items of clothing. Returning to the stage, she does her Dance of the Seven Veils . . . and of course receives an ovation. The swapping of the humiliations is a great piece of theater, and far better done than you’d expect in a cheapie flick like this.

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Lavinia (Betty Blythe) and Horace (Edward Keane) have disparate reactions to Eve’s dance performance.

After spending most of its time being a fairly light-hearted entertainment—and entertaining it most certainly is, without being a laugh-aloud comedy—A Fig Leaf for Eve turns noirish in, quite literally, its last few minutes. An entire noirish plot—a killing, a false arrest and much more—happens in less time than it takes to boil the kettle, just before the movie wraps up. The odd thing is that it really works quite well: you get your crime fix, but it’s over so quickly that you come away from the movie still with a grin on your face.

Le Picard’s screenplay is pretty good for its purpose, as you’ll have gathered from the various quotes scattered around here. The direction and cinematography are nothing to write home about. What makes the movie work so well, at least for me, are the performances of Jan Wiley and Janet Scott as Eve and Aunt Sarah, and their depiction of the relationship between those two characters. If they weren’t great friends off-screen then they do a remarkable job of simulating friendship on it. When Eve at one point proposes a toast—”To Aunt Sarah, the relative who makes up for the rest of them”—you don’t for one moment doubt that she means it. When Aunt Sarah says, “Come on, Eve. Let’s get out of here. I never did like jails,” we can not only guess at the backstory, we know that Eve has already heard it at least once when the two women were talking into the small hours.

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Lavinia (Betty Blythe) and Millie (Marilyn McConnell): poison on four legs — eight if you count the sofa.

Jan Wiley appeared in supporting roles in a couple of minor movies of limited noirish interest: BELOW THE DEADLINE (1946) and CRIMINAL INVESTIGATOR (1942). Elsewhere on this site you’ll find her in Adventures of Kitty O’Day (1945). She’s probably best known for her role as Carol Winthrop in Jean Yarbrough’s She-Wolf of London (1946; vt Curse of the Allenbys). All told, she appeared in 39 movies between 1937 and 1946, all minor; she wasn’t always credited. It seems a rather low level of attainment for an actress of her abilities, looks and obvious intelligence. It may be that she decided to abandon the screen in favor of family after marrying her second husband, the screenwriter Mort Greene, in 1947; they had two kids. As with Helen Twelvetrees, one feels her screen career should be better remembered.

I’ve found out even less about Janet Scott, who’s so fine here as Aunt Sarah. This was the first of only five screen roles for her, in two of which she went uncredited—five movies spread over seven years! Back in 1921 she’d had a very minor role in the first Broadway production of Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom (1909).

A Fig Leaf for Eve is by no means a must-see movie and, as I say, its noirish interest is all crammed pellmell into its last few minutes, but it offers a very pleasing way to spend a little over an hour.

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