The Lady Eve: The Joke’s On Her

11 Jan

I’ve been thinking about the adage that the best screwball comedies have leads who are roughly equal, able to give-and-take and be worthy opponents: Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. But my favorite screwball comedy, The Lady Eve, seems to defy that adage as Barbara Stanwyck appears to run all over the hapless Henry Fonda. So why do I love it so much?

I think it’s because everything is not as it seems. Director/writer Preston Sturges has deceived us, because his subtle joke is that the joke’s not on Henry Fonda at all; it’s on her and she’s the only one who’s in on it.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a tough, hard-boiled, unsentimental card sharp who takes advantage of poor suckers and then, like a sap, falls in love herself. She lays down her defenses and is rejected and humiliated. It’s the ultimate humiliation and she loses her self-respect. Because although it looks like she’s always in total control, manipulating Fonda at will, he’s the one who really is in control (though he doesn’t have the faintest idea that he is). She can captivate him, but because she’s so in love, he’s the one who can reject her or accept her.

That’s why she’s so bent on revenge; to regain her own personal self-respect. But she can’t help it; she still loves him. I think it’s that depth of emotion that I like so much about The Lady Eve (besides how hilarious it is). Her sincerity in love makes it clear that if her character doesn’t get her man, we’d be watching a tragedy instead of a comedy. Beneath the cynicism, the battle of the sexes, the ironic jabs at marriage and love and the rich, is a deeply romantic film because of how crazy the two leads are about each other. The Lady Eve has one of the most satisfying endings of any screwball comedy I’ve seen.

So basically, all the pratfalls, the humiliation that Fonda must go through is to make his humiliation equal to hers.

Random Note – in a fit of Sturges enthusiasm I named my cat Lady Eve, but sometimes I think I should have called her Buster. Lady Eve (the cat) has the most perfect stone-face as she watches life go by. She also needs to work on her sultry look.


Posted by on January 11, 2016 in Movies


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11 responses to “The Lady Eve: The Joke’s On Her

  1. Andrea Lundgren

    January 11, 2016 at 11:02 am

    Aw! She is so adorable! Great picture!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      January 11, 2016 at 11:06 am

      Thanks! I took that picture so I could look at it while I was on vacation! 🙂


  2. BNoirDetour

    January 11, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    Very much enjoyed the post. I’d add non-equals Stanwyck and Cooper in Ball of Fire and Grant/Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. Equality may be a faulty criterion; I think it’s complementarity that brings the happily-ever-after. How else to we explain My Man Godfrey? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      January 11, 2016 at 4:06 pm

      Very true! Complementarity is a much better criterion for happy endings. There has to be some sense in which both actors are able to stand up against the other in terms of not disappearing in the other’s shadow, but you’re right – equality isn’t exactly the term for that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • BNoirDetour

        January 11, 2016 at 5:02 pm

        And the reason equality is not as often in the picture as complementarity, I’d posit, is Hollywood-style sexism. For example,
        Cary Grant’s character did lie to Irene Dunne’s in The Awful Truth; he may even have cheated on her. But she never lies to him. Can it ever be truly equal, no matter how much shenanigans go on between them?

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          January 11, 2016 at 5:46 pm

          Yeah, I know what you mean. In some films it’s really overt – like The Philadelphia Story, which I confess I’ve always had trouble with. That’s partly why I enjoy Ball of Fire, where Gary Cooper’s character honestly doesn’t seem to have any problem with the fact that she is a stripper or the girlfriend of a gangster…only that she used him and he gets over that.

          Liked by 1 person

          • BNoirDetour

            January 11, 2016 at 6:21 pm

            Yes, I so agree (and am enjoying this conversation)! I like Holiday much better for Grant/Hepburn.

            Liked by 1 person

            • christinawehner

              January 11, 2016 at 9:17 pm

              I need to see that one again! I watched it early in my classic movie discovery phase (because my library had a ton of Cary Grant films!), but I don’t remember it as well (I’m enjoying this conversation, too!). I always really enjoyed Claudette Colbert as a screwball comedian, too, though she does seem to dominate her films more and I don’t usually think of her in connection with a team, like Grant and Hepburn.

              Liked by 1 person

              • BNoirDetour

                January 11, 2016 at 9:38 pm

                Do see Holiday again. It holds up well.

                Agreed re Claudette Colbert. I also enjoy Constance Bennett.

                Liked by 1 person

                • christinawehner

                  January 11, 2016 at 10:04 pm

                  Oh, yes! That reminds me of another film I’ve been meaning to re-watch: Topper.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • BNoirDetour

                    January 12, 2016 at 9:29 am

                    Topper is bizarrely delightful. While Billie Burke plays an annoying nag of a wife, everyone else has a lovely time, even after death! Do see it.

                    Liked by 1 person


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