The Lady Eve (1941)
“Paramount’s vexiest picture!”
The Lady Eve (1941)
Director: Preston Sturges
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn
Synopsis: A trio of classy card sharps targets the socially awkward heir to brewery millions for his money, till one of them falls in love with him.
Preston Sturges was a writer and director who was extremely skilled at bypassing the draconian rules of filmmaking laid down by the Production Code. In fact, it’s easy to imagine him consulting a copy of the code as he wrote his scripts just so he could be sure that each scene stretched the boundaries of the Code’s diktats without breaking them. The Lady Eve is a perfect example of his mischievous style as well as illustrating just how the Code sometimes inadvertently nurtured a degree of creativity on the part of screenwriters of the era which might have otherwise never emerged.
In a sly updating of the story of Adam and Eve, Henry Fonda (Fail Safe, Once Upon a Time in the West) plays Charles Pike, a naive heir to a brewing fortune obsessed with the study of snakes, who appears in the cross-hairs of con-woman Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck – Double Indemnity). Grabbing his attention by dropping a half-eaten apple onto his head as he boards the cruiser on which she and her father (and accomplice) are travelling, Jean embarks on a concerted effort to ensnare Charles. While she succeeds with ease, she also falls in love with her mark, much to the consternation of her father (Charles Coburn – Heaven Can Wait). Her plans to go straight, however, are dashed when Charles dumps her after learning her true identity, and she swears to get revenge on him.
Sturges more or less drops the biblical references after the first reel to concentrate exclusively on the comic potential of the plot, and he succeeds in attaining a level of comedy that is frequently breathtaking. His clever and witty dialogue perpetually skirts around the edges of what the censors would find acceptable, and even when the story becomes so far-fetched as to be damaging, the quality of the writing somehow manages to pull it through. Sturges was as skilled at wringing laughs from childish pratfalls as he was from sophisticated or cynical witticisms, and he was clearly at the height of his creative powers here. A wonderfully talented cast all deliver note-perfect performances. In addition to Fonda, Stanwyck, and crusty old Coburn we have the rotund, foghorn-voiced Eugene Pallette (Steamboat ’round the Bend, The Adventures of Robin Hood) as Charles’s despairing father, Sturges regular William DeMarest (Mr Smith Goes to Washington) as his long-suffering companion and protector, and Eric Blore (Flying Down to Rio, Road to Zanzibar) as a conman specialising in English upper-class twits. All of them are at the top of their game here – and yet they all have to bow down to the brilliant comic timing of Barbara Stanwyck’s horse in the movie’s funniest scene.
(Reviewed 22nd April 2015)