1941 – Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, William Demarest, Eric Blore, Eugene Pallette – Directed by Preston Sturges – Screenplay by Preston Sturges
“You see, Hopsie, you don’t know very much about girls! The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are, and the bad ones aren’t as bad.”
The above quote could probably be the theme of this movie, though a screwball comedy hardly needs a theme or excuse for being. The Lady Eve is one of the funniest, zaniest and wittiest films I’ve seen. It is such a mixture of clever lines, genuine and sizzling romance, and physical comedy that I hardly knew what to make of it the first time I saw it. However, many reviewers (including Leonard Maltin) seem to agree that it is a film that gets better with each viewing and it is now my hands-down favorite comedy.
Preston Sturges was both the director and the writer of The Lady Eve and in all his films he likes to explore ironic paradoxes. In this film, the irony is in the above quote and Barbara Stanwyck manages to embody both the good girl and the bad girl in this film – thought not exactly how you’d expect.
Preston Sturges was originally a writer of screenplays; however, he was frustrated with how he felt the directors were ruining his work and the only way he could ensure that his screenplays were properly protected was to direct them himself. While he was still only a writer he met Barbara Stanwyck, who was starring in Remember the Night, which was written but not directed by him him. Up until Sturges knew her, Barbara Stanwyck had been largely known for her dramatic and suffering roles. She played self-sacrificial mothers, prostitutes, and often the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. However, she had begun to do several lighter films and Sturges thought she could be a wonderful comedian and promised that he would write a script for her. The result was The Lady Eve.
Charles Pike (Fonda) is the naïve heir of a brewing business, but he really loves snakes. Returning from an expedition “up the Amazon” he runs into Jean Harrington (Stanwyck) and her father Colonel Harrington (Coburn) on board ship. She and her father are card sharks whose specialty is fleecing rich men at cards, who Jean reels in for them to fleece.
In this case, she sticks out a leg, trips him and whisks him off to her cabin to get a new pair of shoes to replace the ones with the now broken heel.
In her cabin – and later – she completely overpowers him with her perfume, her bare knee and her general presence. Charles falls hard, literally falls (falling is another theme in this film – perhaps as an allusion to the original fall at Eden?) and he manages to take six pratfalls throughout the movie.
And as Charles is falling all over himself, she falls unexpected in love with him and accepts his marriage proposal, telling her father she is “going to be exactly the way he thinks I am.” However, Charles discovers that she really is a con artist and rejects her. This prompts her to embark on one of the most extraordinary and hilarious acts of revenge you’ll ever see, as she shows up in his life again, this time as the supposed Lady Eve Sidwich…one of those “best girls” who “aren’t as good” as he thinks.
And in any other hands but Barbara Stanwyck’s, I think I would have considered the revenge a trifle cruel. The reasons it’s not is owing partially to the inherent humor and brilliance of the writing and partially to how much she makes the audience believe that she loves him. The film critic, Roger Ebert notes that “what is surprising is how much genuine feeling she finds in the comedy” which is what gives the movie a stronger emotional/romantic tone (other screwball comedies are not as overtly romantic), because these two really do want each other.
And I think that’s one of the reasons why the first time I watched it, I wasn’t sure what to think. What I saw first was comedy, wit and sexiness; however it took a second viewing for me to truly appreciate how romantic it was.
The rest of the cast is likewise marvelous. It was my first Henry Fonda film and it went a long way towards helping me get over the conviction that he was only an earnest actor in earnest movies. In The Lady Eve he is innocent and handsome and completely enthralled by her and their chemistry is sparkling. It almost seems, in some places, that Sturges was deliberately thumbing his nose at the censors – it’s amazing the innuendo he puts in this film.
Charles Coburn is her father, a virtuosic card-shark (virtuosity was his word, not mine). William Demarest (who appears in many Preston Sturges films) is Pike’s valet and body guard who is convinced that Jean and her father are up to no good and spends much of the movie trying to dissuade Fonda from falling for Jean/Eve: “It’s the same dame.”
Fashion Notes: Barbara Stanwyck’s clothes were designed by Edith Head. It was really the movie that made Edith Head well known (she went on to design the personal and/or movie wardrobes of Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Dorothy Lamour, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford) and it was the first opportunity for Barbara Stanwyck to wear glamorous clothes. Edith Head said of the two persons Barbara Stanwyck impersonated in the film:
“It was a complete metamorphosis…It wasn’t merely a change of costume. The way she stood and walked was different, her makeup and hair became more elegant to suit her character.”
“For her gambler character, I had used sharp contrasts – black on white, all black, all white – to make her appear a tad coarse. Naturally I chose much richer, more luxurious fabrics when she was supposed to be of nobler birth. I also used different colorations that would show up more subtly in black and white. I left the sequins and glitter for the lady gambler in the beginning.” (quotes from the book Edith Head’s Hollywood, by Edith Head and Paddy Calistro)
Edith Head also said she used a lot of Latin American touches in her costumes for the movie, which then set off a wave of Latin American fashions in America. From then on, Barbara Stanwyck had it written into all her movie contracts that Edith Head would design her wardrobe. For a look at how Barbara Stanwyck went from chorus girl to glamorous star, see here on Movie Star Makeover. For pictures on her costumes in the movie, see The Criterion Collection’s article “Dressing the Lady Eve.”
Preston Sturges was apparently quite nervous about the number of falls in the movie and he had been pressured to cut some of them out. He said, in his autobiography (quoted in this article from TCM):
“There are certain things that will convulse an audience, when it has been softened up by what has occurred previously, that seem very unfunny in cold print. Directing and acting have a lot to do with it, too. 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.”
Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck did three movies together (The Mad Miss Manton (1938), The Lady Eve (1941) and You Belong to Me (1941)), although The Lady Eve is by far their best, and it was also the only film either of them did with Preston Sturges (I suppose, technically, she did two, since he wrote the script for one). I wish they’d done more.
In the movie, there is a lot of talk about how the boats (or luxury cruisers) are no longer running, which puzzled me for a few viewings, until I realized that it takes place in 1941, when Europe was at war, so although America had not yet entered the war, it would have still been unsafe to take a trip to England. The only boats that are running in the film go to South America.
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