Poor Henry Fonda is such an easy target for con artists. In Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, Barbara Stanwyck tries to swindle a wealthy Fonda out of his fortune, but ends up falling in love with him. One year later in Rings on Her Fingers, it happens all over again—except instead of Stanwyck it’s Gene Tierney, and after the con and romance, it turns out Fonda was conning her too—he’s broke. While Rouben Mamoulian’s film feels like a lesser ripoff of Sturges’ classic comedy at times, Rings on Her Fingers has enough original beats to set it apart.
As Susan, Tierney doesn’t do much conning—that’s the job of the two who recruit her, Warren (Laird Cregar) and Maybelle (Spring Byington). Maybelle poses as Susan’s mother, having Susan distract rich young men while she and Warren get their money. One such unfortunate soul is John Wheeler (Fonda), who they think is an investment banker. Susan falls for Wheeler just as Warren and Maybelle pull off the con, in which Wheeler doesn’t know she’s involved. They elope only for Susan to discover he’s just a mild accountant, and that they conned him out of his life savings. Susan tries to get his money, and the expected drama ensues.
Fonda felt all the films he was making at Fox were “dogs,”1 and Tierney recalled how he “detested the script and suffered throughout the film. That was the beginning of his unrest with Hollywood. ‘This huge money they pay you,’ he said to me one day, ‘it just isn’t worth it.’”2 Despite those complaints, he still brought his unique sensibility to the film. In one especially funny sequence, Susan has rigged a series of slot machines in his favor, but Wheeler, devoted to mathematics, is only enraged by the machines’ defiance of basic probability. Still, it’s not much different from his work in The Lady Eve—he’s a loveable dope, albeit a little less loveable in Rings on Her Fingers when he aggressively forces Susan to fit gender roles. Though Fonda hated working on the film, Tierney did manage to find him a bright side to the situation. “The moment the picture ended he [returned to Broadway], and began to do brilliant things . . . Henry was kind to me, then as always. But I would remind him that if he had not done those awful pictures he might never have returned to his beloved Broadway.”3
Tierney had only been acting in films for two years, and this marked the first comedy Fox cast her in. A critic for The New York Times wrote derisively, “Miss Tierney is allowed to resemble a human being, if not an actress. An actress, we suspect, should have a little more equipment than Expression A for rapture, B for apprehension, etc.” However, the author admits that she has “slight sense of timing”4 Frankly, she just isn’t given much to do; her whole purpose in the cons is to stand around and look pretty, and so that’s what she does for much of the film. When she has the opportunity to try out physical comedy in later scenes, there’s a spark of life to her, but those moments are scarce.
For every original bit writer Ken Englund comes up with, there’s another that feels just as cheap, including the cop-out of an ending. Rings on Her Fingers is still better than the sparse and somewhat accurate description “Gene Tierney in a rip-off of The Lady Eve,” but it can’t help but suffer from inevitable comparisons to that much funnier film.
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References [ + ]
|1.||^||Henry Fonda, Fonda: My Life (New York: Dutton, 1981), 142|
|2, 3.||^||Gene Tierney, Self-Portrait (New York: Wyden Books, 1979), 100|
|4.||^||T.S., “At the Roxy,” The New York Times, April 24, 1942.|