#24 Golden Age of Hollywood Series
There are many good films, fewer great films, and fewer still that are masterpieces.
The Lady Eve is beyond even a masterpiece—it is a perfect film.
If I had a magic wand, I wouldn’t change a thing in writer/director Preston Sturges’ crown jewel of the screwball comedy. I wouldn’t eliminate any of Henry Fonda’s falls, or soften Barbara Stanwyck’s revenge. I wouldn’t add in explicit love scenes or four-letter-words forbidden by the production code.
And I’d cut off the hand of anyone who tried to change one word of Preston Sturges’ sparkling script. It delights in making a fool of Henry Fonda and using innuendo-laced dialogue to subvert every rule of the censors.
The setup is simple enough: Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father (Charles Coburn perfect in his supporting role) are card sharps out to fleece the rich but naive Charles Pike, an absent minded scientist who studies snakes and is a reluctant brewery heir.
Charles doesn’t have a chance against Jean’s conniving, but the trick is on Jean when she falls in love with him.
Thus far it’s a standard romantic comedy plot, though there is nothing standard in Barbara Stanwyck’s tough girl melting in the face of love performance.
Before she can confess and go straight, Charles discovers her duplicity and calls off their engagement.
And here’s where things get interesting.
Jean’s heart hardens right back up—or does it?—and she crafts a revenge plot of bold brilliance and exquisite simplicity. She’ll don a fancy wardrobe and a British accent and convince him she’s Lady Eve Sidwich, his perfect mate. And then once she has him on the line, she’ll dash his illusions about the lovely and virginal Lady Eve.
It’s impossible to pick the best moment in the movie. Every scene is a present unwrapped before the audience to reveal a brilliant cut diamond of humor, wit, and star power.
The film opens with Jean bonking Charles on the head with an apple, a moment loaded with the biblical implications of temptation.
Then there’s the iconic scene of Jean scoping out Charles in her compact mirror and giving a mocking play-by-play of the fortune hunting women who strike out with the shy bookworm. Stanwyck plays it with just the perfect dose of cynical amusement.
There’s Jean seducing him in her cabin with the description of her ideal mate, falling in love during a moonlight walk, and Jean cheating her father at cards to keep him from cheating Charles.
Jean ends the first act crying with heartbreak and begins the second vowing her revenge with the line, “I need him like the axe needs the turkey.”
She orchestrates an invitation to the Pike mansion as Lady Eve and completely befuddles poor Charles. Her brazen confrontation is better than the best disguise.
On top of that, you’ve got Charles ignoring his manservant who correctly insists, “it’s positively the same dame.” And a wayward horse who keeps interrupting a tender moment Charles has planned with Eve.
And then there’s…oh, watch it yourself, why don’t you?
And then tell me if you find a false note. I sure didn’t.
Writer/director Preston Sturges wrote the part specially for Stanwyck after working with her on Remember the Night. Jean Harrington was based on the antics of his own mother, and being raised with a woman even remotely like Jean Harrington meant that Preston Sturges lived a colorful life and was full of stories. Stanwyck, Fonda, and Sturges all reported having a blast on the set of The Lady Eve, and I think that playfulness shines through in the finished film.
Stanwyck hadn’t done comedy before. She typically played gold diggers, or tough young girls pulling themselves up in the world by the force of their will. The Lady Eve opened up a whole new genre for her, and she was ultimately nominated for an Oscar for her screwball comedy Ball of Fire, made the same year.
She’s great in Ball of Fire, but The Lady Eve is in another league. It’s a cut above the other comedies of the 1940s, and a cut above the comedies made today. She lost the Oscar that year to Joan Fonatine in Hitchock’s Suspicion. There’s no shame in losing to Fontaine, but I have my own suspicion that if she’d been nominated for The Lady Eve she would’ve won.
By 1941, Stanwyck was proving herself one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses. She’d been hard as steel as Lily Powers in the pre-code Baby Face, break-your-heart vulnerable in Stella Dallas, and laugh out loud funny in The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire.
She already had a career that would cement her place in Hollywood history.
Yet she was cruising toward her most famous role at ninety in a state with a speed limit of forty-five miles an hour.