Things have been rather serious here at Fan With a Movie Yammer of late. Deep, arty examinations of the soul, destitute farmers suffering without escape, and hell, even the more comedic flicks were filled with war, oppression, murder, and Nazis. So thank goodness for The Lady Eve (1941), writer/director Preston Sturges’ screwball comedy of sexy banter and undignified pratfalls. Sturges was one of the first auteurs in Hollywood, putting out a string of smart comedies that he both wrote and directed — an unusual combination during the days of the studio system. In The Lady Eve, Henry Fonda stars as a reedy, awkward snake expert who happens to be the heir to a brewing fortune. Barbara Stanwyck is a grifter who charms Fonda in order to rip him off at the card table, but ends up inadvertently falling for the big dork. As is the case in pretty much every romantic comedy, misunderstanding and pride cast our two leads asunder, but what sets The Lady Eve apart from its ho-hum rom-com brethren is its willingness to be positively ludicrous. It also doesn’t hurt that Stanwyck’s forceful con artist and Fonda’s dopey scientist have a lopsided chemistry that burns with sexual tension. (94 min.)
S. – It seems like an age since we were treated to some pure fantasy that pretty much ignores the pressing social issues of its day (although they do mention the war!) and instead lets the viewer escape into glamorous make-believe. Everyone is impeccably dressed, perfectly groomed and living the high life with the occasional hurdle of not quite getting exactly what they were hoping for. The performances are terrific in this film. I really enjoyed that Stanwyck’s Jean was the driving force, with the socially-naive Charles Pike in her sights. She has the smarts, sass and sizzle to knock him off his feet, and does so repeatedly. The performance runs slightly off-type for a screwball comedy with the Jean character never resorting to outright looniness in her bid to get what she wants, she always has a plan and keeps her composure despite the ground ever shifting beneath her. Even a tendency to talk aloud to herself, which drove me up the wall from Miss Scarlett, was witty and fun coming from Stanwyck. “Hopsy” Pike is a world away from Fonda’s grim Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, but he is just as convincing in this role. One of my favourite moments is the look of pride on his smiling face when he performs his card trick for card sharps Jean and her father. It captures his lack of guile as he strolls happily into the trap that has been set for him. But what really makes this all work is the dialogue, it is sharp, frequently risqué and always delivered perfectly.
J. – It was great to see Fonda in a role that wasn’t so deathly earnest. I stress the deathly, because his Charles Pike is still a thoroughly earnest character. There’s definitely some excellent comedy that comes from the telling of jokes or having characters knowingly act ridiculous (see, the Marx Brothers), but much of the best comedic work involves characters who are never in on the joke. Pike is never, ever in on the joke, and generally is rather resentful when the world plays him for a fool. And that’s why he’s so excellent a character, and why Fonda’s performance is so great. When a motley fool falls down it might be amusing, when an earnest intellectual faceplants over the couch — well, now you’ve got something. This is the sort of role for which you could imagine most directors casting someone more overtly comedic, like Cary Grant. Indeed we’ve already seen Grant flail and whine as a hapless scientist in Bringing Up Baby. But casting Fonda is an inspired choice, and his everyman aw-shucks-ness works great in a role that requires a man who understands life in high society but was always too awkward to take part. Pike is a klutz, but not a clown, and Fonda’s performance makes him one of cinema’s most buffoonish straight men.
But for me, the movie belongs to Stanwyck, who is probably my favorite actress from Hollywood’s golden age. She’s so on point throughout The Lady Eve, just tearing into the material with a brash confidence that makes her more vulnerable moments hit that much harder. I like what you were saying, S., about how Jean engages in a measure of narration much like Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara. But I think the reason you don’t mind it with Jean is that she isn’t making declarations, she is providing commentary. Scarlett is constantly vocalizing her emotional state, Jean is analyzing and humorously deconstructing everyone and everything around her. She’s not just in on the joke, she’s the one with all the punchlines, and Stanwyck does a great job of broadcasting her self-satisfaction at being the smartest person in the room. I could go on, but I’d like to have you flesh out your thoughts on the dialogue in the film, because this is a seriously talkie movie.
S. – While we have been treated to a couple of talkfests from Hollywood in this era, I’m thinking His Girl Friday and Bringing up Baby in particular, what sets The Lady Eve apart is that the bulk of the verbiage is left to Jean. Many of the superb supporting cast also get the chance to chime in with some great lines but the head-spinning, fast talk is all Stanwyck and she is more than equal to the task. Jean is able to sum up a situation, lay out the possibilities and throw in a few twists for good measure without seeming to draw breath. The significantly more reserved Pike is the perfect foil for her rapid-fire speech, but with his body language and insightful replies you know he is able to keep pace with the verbal whirlwind. In addition to the impressive delivery, the wit on display is sharp and not limited to the romantic leads. This movie is worthy of repeat viewings just to collect the many wisecracks that are exchanged between the various characters throughout. While it may not be a film that delivers a serious take on the problems of the world there is a significant seam of social commentary throughout the dialogue.
J. – I wouldn’t say the fast talking is all left to Jean, as Charles’ valet/bodyguard Mugsy (played by Sturges regular William Demarest) has his fair share of rapid-fire tough-guyisms. You’re definitely right that the film is very generous with its excellent supporting cast, as many of the best lines do come from the sideline players rather than the leads — indeed, Charles is never intentionally funny throughout the whole movie. And it’s certainly the case that The Lady Eve doesn’t have the same sort of frantic pace that earlier screwball comedies had. I think part of that is because, even with the pratfalls and the ridiculous plot, it is more focused on character than other screwball setups. You really get time to dig into the characters of Jean Harrington and Charles Pike. And this allows for actual arcs for these characters. In Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, the characters are exactly the same at the beginning and the end. That’s fine for loopy comedies, but it also means that there isn’t any room for genuine emotion. When characters get upset in other screwball works, it is played up for laughs. But people actually get hurt in The Lady Eve, which I think gives the film more resonance and provides some genuine drive to Jean’s vengeful antics as Lady Eve in the second half of the film.
I think a lot of that comes down to the film’s vision of love, sex, and marriage. I suppose the most noticeable aspect compared to other American comedies from the period is how overtly sexual the film is. Jean is in no way depicted as a virginal heroine and her forward assault on the hapless Pike is well beyond flirty. The scene in her cabin on the night they meet may end with them sleeping apart, but the sexual dynamics are cranked up to 11 the whole time — it basically is a sex scene. And a convincing one at that, seeing as there’s no way that Jean should fall for a sucker like Pike, but you can feel a strange union being formed in that scene (depicted in the still at the top of the yammer). I’m a bit more confused by The Lady Eve‘s vision of marriage. The breakdown of the initial, short-lived engagement between Charles and Jean seems to suggest that you should accept the pasts of those you love and move forward together. I say this because the picture very much puts you in Jean’s corner, with Charles looking like a prick. But the marriage between Charles and “Eve” is more complicated, because in this instance it is the sexual history that Jean invents for Eve that leads to the breakdown. Once again the past of one of the partners is the problem. But somehow, this one makes Jean to be the bad guy. Hopsy apparently hasn’t learned a damn thing, except maybe that its better to be hitched to a crook than a slut. That bit has never sat well with me and generally confuses me in a movie that seemed to be so comfortable with sexual expression. Maybe you can explain it all to me, S.
S. – I guess my take on it is a little different from yours, J. I didn’t really see it as Pike choosing a criminal over a loose woman. Perhaps because the film was so open about female sexuality I felt both of those traits were presented on equal terms as challenges to the “ideal” wife concept. Is it noble or right to sacrifice your future happiness because the person you care for does not conform to a stereotype or does that just make you a fool? I felt the story highlighted that the social structures around marriage are quite empty if there is no true commitment between the couple and for there to be a genuine commitment you have to accept each other for who they are. Charles might have been officially married to Eve, but she wasn’t real so it was meaningless. On the other hand Charles and Jean were in love with each other and, despite them not quite measuring up to each other’s ideals (grifter & ophiologist), this bond means far more than a piece of paper. Plus after all the messing around I really enjoyed seeing them ignore the politics and rush together again at the end, seems I am a sucker for slightly twisted romance.
J. – I agree with everything you are saying, S. So, I don’t think they we actually have a different take on things here. I definitely think that the film is saying that love must include not just acceptance but an actual embracing of your partner’s imperfections. And also that divides in the social standing of two people shouldn’t — and ultimately don’t — mean a thing if you really want to be with each other and are willing to play nice. So I don’t think Charles Pike is making any sort of conscious choice of preferring the criminal over the loose woman, but it certainly is what happens in the film. I suppose I just find it strange that Sturges seems so comfortable and accepting when Jean uses sex as a weapon in the first half of the film, but then is quite condemning when she uses it as a weapon in the second half of the film. I guess the big difference is whether you are using sex to attract or to repel. And in the honeymoon sequence Jean (as Eve) is spinning tales of crass sexual misadventures aimed at shocking and disturbing the man who spurned her. In doing so she’s ignoring her father’s awesome advice from the beginning of the film: “Let us be crooked, but never common!” But it still bugs me that these misadventures of a woman are considered an affront, while Mugsy’s obvious philandering around the world is just a joke. Ah, well, it’s still a pretty progressive flick for 1940s America.
But more importantly, it’s just plain funny. One of the funniest films of the era, and one that I return to all the time for the humor and the chemistry between the two leads (I also love the impulsive ending). We’re going to get to see a few more facets of Henry Fonda’s career as we move forward with this experiment, which is excellent, but I think this is going to be our only step into Barbara Stanwyck’s filmography. And that’s a real bummer because she’s amazing, particularly in what is probably the definitive femme fatale role in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. I still cannot understand how that noir classic didn’t make the Sight & Sound list.