The Lady Eve – 1941
Director – Preston Sturges
Starring – Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, and Charles Coburn
Screwball comedies are a tricky mixture of absurdity and reason. The absurdity gives these films their energy, their source of conflict, and it keeps the plot moving forward. This is the defining element of the screwball comedy, and while absurdity can go a long way to tickling our funny bones, it ultimately can fall flat or fail outright if there isn’t some grounding element, some person, or people who play it straight.
Howard Hawks apparently once said that the flaw with his famous screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby, was that everyone was a screwball. There was no gauge by which the audience could compare the antics of the crazy characters with those of a normal, functioning, human being. Despite, or perhaps because of, it’s inclusion in the screwball genre, The Lady Eve works very hard to ground the film squarely on the shoulders of the straight man, Henry Fonda. He is the lens through which the audience can clearly see, appreciate, and enjoy the madcap antics of the family of con artists and ne’er-do-wells that populate The Lady Eve.
The story is fairly simple, a young, rich, handsome, young man, Charles Pike (Fonda) who prides himself on his zeal for new experiences and adventure, begrudgingly learns first hand how naive he really is when he encounters a group of traveling hucksters (Stanwyck and Coburn primarily) on a steamship back from the jungles of South America. Friendly, shy, and the object of desire of all the single women on the ship, he makes an ideal mark for Jean Harrington (Stanwyck), the devious, whip-smart, and capable con-woman who is determined to relieve him of his money.
She and her father, the delightfully underhanded (Coburn), go work almost immediately, isolating, charming, and seducing Pike in short order. The surprise comes for Jean with the sudden realization that she has fallen for Pike’s subtle, earnest charms. All that remains is to gently break the news of her background as a card-shark, and that is when the trouble starts.
While he is the foundation upon which the premise is based, the least engaging character is Fonda’s Pike. He is by and large just another set-piece for the more interesting grifters to play against. He is used as prop almost like someone might use a gun or a hat, to build upon and explore their character.
Stanwyck on the other hand, really has room to spread her wings. Her role in Double Indemnity, as the murderous, money, hungry wife, may have been more iconic, but this one is far more developed and way more fun to watch her work. During a con, Jean wears a mask, a different personality to blend in and follow the script that’s been written, never able to show her true self. The irony is that the face she wears when she is being herself is also a mask to hide and protect herself from danger, like falling in love and getting hurt. It’s when she finally realizes that she’s fallen in love with Pike that she starts to show her real personality.
When Pike learns of her past, and her deception, she has to develop yet another character, so she can win him back, and there you have the titular, Eve. The gusto that she brings to the role of Jean/Eve is infectious, and quite frankly the best part of the film. The longer we watch Jean work, the more we want to see, and the more we see, the more we like her.
The Lady Eve is packed with gags, all vying for the audience’s attention. From Pike’s rough around the edges bodyguard mixing with high society, to the slap-stickish food based humor in the second half of the film, Preston Sturges really throws everything including the kitchen sink at us hoping to connect. While that stuff is funny, it’s really an after thought as compared to the interaction between Stanwyck and Fonda, so much so that it can almost be distracting, and take you out of the movie. Almost, but thankfully, not quite.
The Lady Eve gives me hope for screwball comedies. It joins the ranks of “His Girl Friday” as being madcap, exciting, and genuinely funny, without seeming ridiculous and un-restrained. The characters, while bigger than life, aren’t too big, too crazy, and they never become unbelievable, which is death for any movie character. Definitely a good example of Screwball Comedy that is, itself, good.
“Men are dumb.” – Ashley