The Lady Eve (1941)
Director: Preston Sturges | Runtime: 1h 34mins | Comedy, Romance
Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) and her card shark friends plan to a hustle the young and naive Charles (Henry Fonda), the heir to a million dollar brewery company. When the plan fails and leaves Jean heartbroken, she decides to get her own back by infiltrating the young millionaires personal life with a new identity.
Preston Sturges is a name that circulates the golden age of Hollywood a lot, not quite reaching such critical success as Hitchcock or Ford, but in some respects this gives you a reason to cherish his work even more, becoming a unsung hero’s of his period. With films like Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Down Went McGinty (1940) in his catalogue (the latter winning him an Oscar), you could argue that Sturges has become one of the more overlooked directors of the time. But it’s safe to say his most recognisable film, if not for the fact its boasts the coupling of Stanwyck and Fonda, has to be his Screwball Comedy, The Lady Eve.
The film is split between two major parts, the first is set aboard a ship sailing back to America, in which Stanwyck’s iconic deceitfulness is on full display, as she quickly seduces the naivety of Charles but eventually succumbs to his gentle charm and genuine likability (something that Henry Fonda is all too good at portraying). In some respects this is the most genius part of the film, with Stanwyck’s con artist character hinting more towards a ‘femme-fatale’ than a leading lady, it’s easy to paint her as the films initial villain. But by the end of the sail it’s her that’s left heartbroken by Charles, who’s ‘head over heels’ infatuation with her eventually becomes her downfall. It’s made pretty clear as to why the couple don’t end the boat ride together, but in retrospect you can’t help but feel that for all of Jean’s concocting and hustling, she is the one who is left emotionally conned. It’s really a stroke of genius, and while it’s unclear if it’s an intentional one it’s a genius move nonetheless.
The second part of the film sees Jean acting out her plan of revenge, as she finds away into a party at Charles’ family mansion, under a new identity (and where the film gets it’s name from) of Lady Eve. It’s around this point that film starts to take a slow walk into ridiculousness, and the premise really starts to test your patience. As with no physical alterations and just a half-cocked British accent she manages to fool, not only the party members, but Charles himself into believing her newfound persona. But despite this film reaching the peak of it’s silliness, Sturges is still walking the fine line between ‘tongue n cheek’, and over the top. In fact, most of the party scene is where you’ll see the the majority of laughs come from, as Charles tries to place her in his memory and is continuously walking into things and falling over every chance he gets. This second part to the film may not have that underlying intelligence (in fact it has the polar opposite), but it becomes the most entertaining part of the film.
By the time the film reaches the end though it begins to to test your patience, which unfortunately brings the quality of it down. But throughout the film such a fine line is walked by the script that you can’t help but be impressed. At it’s top moments it’s Screwball Comedy at it’s finest, with two of the most legendary actors of all time lending their unstoppable charisma to help boast the already electrifying chemistry between them. This may throw you off at any moment, but it’s worth sticking with just for it’s little moments of wit, intelligence and most importantly, it’s humour.