The Lady Eve (1941)
Written & Directed by Preston Sturges
Preston Sturges may not be a name you know, but the influence of his work is still felt in movies to this day. He began his career as a screenwriter and successfully transitioned into directing, he’s considered the first person to do this. His characters show a sharp wit yet also execute a pratfall in the same scene, Sturges found humor in seeing bright people “hoisted by their own petard.” While the screwball comedy came about in the 1930s, it was Sturges who formed and refined the key tropes that made it up. The Coen Brothers are one obvious continuation of Sturges’s work, but even Pixar has cited the writer-director as someone they look to when developing their films.
Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) is the son of a wealthy beer magnate who is more interested in reptiles than the brewing business. On his way back home from an expedition in the Amazon, he boards a cruise ship and becomes the target of Jean (Barbara Stanwyck), a card shark. Jean and her father regularly travel up and down the Atlantic wooing dumb young millionaires and swiping their money in card games. But Jean falls for Charles and his earnestness to the point that she manages to stop her father’s schemes. However, a snag happens as the boat pulls into port in NYC that begins a battle of the sexes between these two would-be lovers.
The Lady Eve builds the prototype for the Battle of the Sexes movie that continues into cinema today. The couple has fantastic chemistry, and the audience knows they should be together, but through a series of circumstances, they are not just kept apart but actually turned against each other for a bit of the story. Stanwyck is the shining star of this production, with Fonda happily playing the fool. She is the kind of loveable scoundrel that audiences become enamored with so quickly. There’s a fantastic early scene as Jean uses her compact mirror to scope out the other women on the boat attempting to reel in Charles Pike. We get to know everything about her character as someone who believes she knows the score and stays calm, relaxed, and collected.
Sturges, much like the Coens who would be deeply inspired by him, would have a regular troupe of character actors to fill in those essential supporting roles. While Eric Blore only appears in two of Sturges’s movies, he steals the show here as Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith, a fellow con artist acquaintance of Jean’s. Blore reminded me immediately of Kevin Kline’s goofily smug & erudite character. William Demarest appeared in over half a dozen Sturges’ movies often playing a gruff but loveable role, which he does wonderfully here as Charles longtime bodyguard/nanny. While not a Sturges’ regular, Eugene Pallette is an unmissable presence as Mr. Pike, the weighty gravel-voiced patriarch of the Pike family.
The humor comes out of how absurdly she seduces Charles and how she suddenly finds herself genuinely in love with him. That is subverted at the halfway mark when her criminal past comes out, and Charles tries to call her bluff and act above the hurt he feels. Eve’s plan to get revenge is entirely ludicrous, yet Charles is so naive he plays along for the duration. The punchline of the final scene reinforces the young man’s over-believing nature and proves to be a perfect note to end the movie on. While many modern romantic comedies try to mimic pictures like The Lady Eve, they rarely reach those heights. I think there’s such cleverness in the script, and smart choices by the actors, the kind of things it is hard to recreate without a lot of care going into the movie.