We know Eve. The temptress seducing Adam to take a bite out of the apple in the Garden of Eden. Preston Sturges The Lady Eve, starring Barbara Stanwyk and Henry Fonda, takes this temptress and places her in America, whereby an affluent and naïve chap is the Adam to the money-hungry Eve.
The Lady Eve takes some of the memorable screwball comedy clichés of the era, including some pratfalls from the silent comedians, and mixes it together as a sprightly concoction of romance and wealth amongst the elite members of society.
He is the son of a successful ale merchant, travelling back from South America to New York after researching snakes. She is the daughter of a slippery-fingered card-player, expert at conning the upper-class out of their riches. Jean (Stanwyk) spies him before he sets foot on the boat, besotted with his money more than his charm. The quietly spoken Charles Pike (Fonda) has little interest in his father’s company but he does hold an interest in Jean. What wasn’t “on the cards” is her attraction to him, and the ticking time bomb that inevitably counts down until he finds out her original intentions. After a prolonged journey on board a cruise, it eventually arrives at its destination. But to catch her man, Jean has to become Lady Eve Sidwich. In disguise, she sets out to win his affections again and we’re left to dangle as we’re not entirely sure if it is love or money she’s after.
What places The Lady Eve in so many ‘Greatest Film’ lists (Ranked 110 in Sight & Sound’s 250 Greatest Films of All Time and 359th in Empire’s 500 Greatest Movies, etc) is the perfect balance between comedy and sexiness, powered by a leading woman who is stronger than almost every other man on screen. In comparison to the subservient women in too many rom-coms today, Barbara Stanwyck could eat them all for lunch. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and though falling for Charlie Pike, it is on her terms. She doesn’t flop into submission or become a sap, renegading on her own personality. Instead, she actively seeks to prove to him how nothing is ever what it seems. “You see, Hopsie, you don’t know very much about a girl! The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are, and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.” is one of her quick-witted, smart responses to his dopey love-lost thoughts.
The Lady Eve is also penned by the director too, though based on Two Bad Hats by Monckton Hoffe. His expert screenplay showcases intricate plotting and this fully fleshed-out and fascinating character in Jean. Preston Sturges had an enormous commercial hit with The Lady Eve, after The Great McGinty and Christmas in July, and it is easy to see why. It’s filled with laughs but has an enormous heart; Henry Fonda is a complete klutz but he’s a sincere, likeable chap. In 1941, strict rules forced filmmakers to censor scenes, but Sturges excelled in making such rules redundant. When Stanwyck’s leg is teasingly on show as Fonda, nervously places her heels on her foot, it is filled with intimacy and eroticism. As she holds his besotted head against hers and fondles his hair, for over three-minutes, it’s passionate and romantic. Roger Ebert even claims that particular scene is the “funniest and sexiest scene of all-time”.
Sturges became a tremendous influence on the Coen brothers and Woody Allen, and watching The Lady Eve, the influence on The Simpsons too, is clear: a personal or profound moment often being undercut by a ridiculous trip or fall. There’s no leopard here, in the manner of Bringing Up Baby, but there is a snake. There’s no dominating wedding, as seen in The Philadelphia Story (released the same year), but marriage is a core plot-point. It has more laughs than An Affair to Remember, McCarey’s powerful romance released over a decade later, but The Lady Eve still toys with the private affairs on board a cruise liner before everything changes when the ship comes to shore. The Lady Eve has the best elements of so many outstanding films yet it retains a charm and bite that is exclusively down to Stanwyk’s blistering performance.
This post was originally published for Flickering Myth