The Lady Eve (1941)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Preston Sturges was one of the great talents to emerge in the 1940s. One of the first writer/directors in the Hollywood studio system, he made a string of great films over the course of about four years starting with his debut The Great McGinty in 1940, The Lady Eve and perhaps his masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels in 1941, The Palm Beach Story in 1942 and taking 1943 off he wrote and directed three films in 1944: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero and the atypical and unremarkable The Great Moment (which was filmed in 1942, taken out of Sturges’ hands and re-edited by the studio). He didn’t make many more pictures after that, but he did have one final great one in him: 1948’s Unfaithfully Yours.
For The Lady Eve, Sturges took a fairly standard idea for a romantic comedy, that of two people falling in love on a ship, and added the element of con artistry into the mix.
For The Lady Eve, Sturges took a fairly standard idea for a romantic comedy, that of two people falling in love on a ship, and added the element of con artistry into the mix. Barbara Stanwyck plays Jean Harrington, a con artist/card sharp who works with her father ‘Handsome’ Harry (played by my favorite character of the time, Charles Coburn, who didn’t start making films until 1937 at the age of 60 though he’d been a Broadway actor for many years before). Their mark is Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), the heir to an ale fortune who spends his time studying reptiles instead of in the family business, which he has no interest in. He’s returning home after spending several months in South America studying reptiles in the rain forest.
All of the single women on the ship are vying for Charles’ attention, of which he pays them none. It isn’t until Jean, who has expressed no interest in him, trips him does he finally pull his nose out of his book. The pair start to work on him, feigning to lose at cards while building his confidence in them. Then something happens that wasn’t anticipated. While Jean figured she could get Charles to fall in love with her, she didn’t anticipate falling in love with him. Once that happens, she sabotages her father’s plans to fleece Charles.
When Charles is alerted to the fact she’s a con artist, he breaks off contact with her. Now in the U.S., Jean and Harry meet up with a con friend of theirs who is masquerading as an English Lord and regularly goes to the Pike’s. Jean decides to become his niece and go there to get even with Charles. That’s when the fun really begins, so I won’t go into it.
Then there is Barbara Stanwyck. Many people point to her performance in Stella Dallas or Double Indemnity as her best and while they are both great performances, The Lady Eve lets her shine brightest.
Sturges structured the film in two distinct parts: the boat and after. The shift is a little jarring at first, as the two parts don’t feel like they fit together that well upon first viewing, but that is a misperception. The two parts are completely necessary and the shift in tone, from romantic to screwball comedy, is masterful. Sturges takes the romantic comedy, already filled with cliché by 1941, and turns it on its ear by making the woman vindictive and the man wistful and forlorn after the initial break-up. All of his characters are fully realized, even his side players that would normally have been one note and irrelevant, Sturges fills with personality and makes them indispensable. His screenplay sings with wit and charm to spare, even when Jean is getting even with Charles there is never a feeling that he dislikes her nor does he want the audience to dislike her.
All of this sets the stage for two brilliant performances from the two leads. Henry Fonda didn’t do many comedies, and that is a shame because he had such a knack for them. In Charles Pike, he was able to convey a total aloofness to the world at large, never realizing that there were things outside his fascination with reptiles until he meets Jean. He falls hard for her, so when he decides to break it off due to her not telling him of her profession, he goes into deep depression. The real brilliance in the performance is in the second part, when he meets Jean as Lady Eve. His bodyguard/valet Muggsy (the always amazing character actor William Demarest) continually tells him “It’s the same dame”, while Charles contends that Eve looks too much like Jean to be the same person. It’s this cluelessness that makes Fonda so endearing throughout the picture not just for the audience, but for Jean too.
Then there is Barbara Stanwyck. Many people point to her performance in Stella Dallas or Double Indemnity as her best and while they are both great performances, The Lady Eve lets her shine brightest. Stanwyck also didn’t get to do many comedies, though when she did, like Ball of Fire and this film (made in the same year), she demonstrates she should have been allowed to do more. Stanwyck carries the film off into a direction that it wouldn’t have gone with another actress. Not because another actress couldn’t have done the lines, but because Stanwyck lets us see Jean’s evolution from considering Charles a mark to falling in love with him. She doesn’t make it seem like most movies where the two meet and instantly they are in love and speaking of marriage. You can tell she comes to this realization gradually as the boat makes its way up the south Atlantic over what would have been several weeks to a month or more. Sure, the brilliant Sturges screenplay sets this up, but it’s Stanwyck that delivers it. Another actress may have put on the love light too early, while Stanwyck lets is flicker on. Then, when she is essentially jilted, her love turns to hate and a want to see Charles suffer. She so expertly turns on him that it’s easy to see she did love him even while she was trying to hurt him, both emotionally and physically since she keeps instigating Charles’ falling over things like the sofa (one of the best lines is just after when Eve states people trip over things all the time, Charles’ father, played by another great character actor Eugene Pallette (who had a knack for playing rich fathers, you may remember him as Claudette Colbert’s father in It Happened One Night) says “That sofa’s been there for 15 years and no one’s tripped over it yet”). She doesn’t let Jean break character as Eve until near the end, when she’s desperate to explain but Charles won’t speak to her. Stanwyck earned an Oscar for this performance, unfortunately the Academy didn’t see fit to award her with it or even a nomination (she was nominated that year for Ball of Fire, though).
The thing to always remember about a Sturges picture is that he liked to inject a significant amount of pathos and drama into his comedies. He liked to test how dark a comedy could get while still remaining funny and still retaining the integrity of the characters. The Lady Eve goes pretty dark when Jean decides to basically emotionally torture Charles for breaking up with her on the boat, but Sturges makes that the funniest part of the film by making Fonda constantly do prat-falls and keeping him hilariously unaware that Eve is Jean. Sturges pulls off this balancing act between dark and light expertly and produces one of the best comedies ever made.
Sturges pulls off this balancing act between dark and light expertly and produces one of the best comedies ever made.