An Appreciation – The Lady Eve
If someone were to ask me to suggest a film for the sheer enjoyment value, I would point them toward Preston Sturges’ great comedy, The Lady Eve (1941). It is so fun, so witty, and so clever, that it is just a pleasure to watch. I’ve seen it many times, but every time I watch it I get caught up in the romance and comedy; it was made decades ago but continues to feel fresh and undated. The story of a con woman and the naïve young man caught in her sights is the perfect set up for great screwball antics, but somehow it is able to transcend above the level of mere farce. There are twists and turns throughout the plot; motivations that at first are steadfast get caught up with an emotional detour. It surprises us constantly; we have an idea where the story may be heading, but we aren’t exactly sure how we’ll get there.
There are many elements that make this film great, but the key factor is the performance of Barbara Stanwyck. The great actress most known for her role as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944), Stanwyck’s work here as Jean Harrington is one of subtle complexity. While many characters in screwball comedies are played as exaggerated, over the top caricatures, Stanwyck’s character is one that doesn’t quite fit the mold. To me, it seems Jean is a person who moves and works within a logical world; even though this is a reality that couldn’t possibly exist, she is a person who lives in it believably. Her role calls for a wide range of emotional points: Jean is at the same time funny, classy, romantic, devious, and attractive, and somehow Stanwyck pulls all these off amazingly well. She is a con woman who can readily steal a person’s money, but can easily fall in love with the very person she is stealing from. This makes her a unique puzzle: we’re never quite sure where she is emotionally, or how she plans to make her next move. She is a great guessing game of a character, and Stanwyck fills the role with both humor and sensuality.
This is probably best exemplified in the most famous scene of the movie. On an ocean liner, Jean has run into a young, rich, and handsome snake expert by the name of Charlie Pike (Henry Fonda). After setting him in her sights with a clever use of a handheld mirror, Jean maneuvers herself into Charlie’s (whom she calls ‘Hopsy’) presence. The scene takes place after Jean gets scared of one of Charlie’s snakes and runs back to her room, with him following her. She falls into his arms, and they both land in a seat, her laying flat and him sitting on the floor next to her. In one unbroken shot, Jean talks and flirts with Charlie, playing with his ear and tossing his hair around, him frozen in place out of sexual intimidation. This scene is great because of the way it plays two faces at the exact same time. The first is how erotic it is: the way Jean plays around with Charlie and the slow way she talks, culminating in a sigh that sounds more like a moan, is smoldering, especially taking into account the time the film was made. The second is how funny it is. Look at Henry Fonda’s face throughout the duration of this exchange, the way his eyes are literally crossed under Jean’s spell, and how afraid he is to even move a muscle. I find myself laughing just thinking about it. And that’s the effect that Stanwyck’s performance has; she may have been one of the few actresses who can seduce us and make us laugh simultaneously.
Somewhere in the middle of that scene, Jean accidentally falls in love with her target, and that’s where the main tension of the film lies. Charlie is the rich son of an ale maker, and after spending a year in the Amazon studying snakes, he hops aboard an ocean liner on its way back to the States. He is a well-known bachelor, and many of the single women on board see a profitable future in being his wife. While many fail in their attempts to draw his attention, Jean gains it in the best way possible: physically tripping him with her leg. She is an accomplished con artist, and with her father ‘Colonel’ Harrington (Charles Coburn), has made a good living stealing from the very rich. Jean knows that the best way to take Charlie’s money is through his heart, and right from the start she has him staring at her, his vision blurred out of passion. However, while she easily seduces Charlie (including a moment where she makes him kneel down in front of her to put her shoes on), she doesn’t anticipate herself actually falling in love with him as well. That’s where the twist lies, where Jean’s emotion gets in the way of her goal of robbing him. She becomes vulnerable to his very innocence, and has her heart broken when Charlie learns of her scheme and rejects her.
But things aren’t as easily resolved as they originally seem. Upset that she allowed herself to open up to another person, Jean decides to continue her pursuit of Charlie after they leave the boat. Disguising herself as a wealthy heiress, sporting a fake British accent, and adopting the persona The Lady Eve, Jean infiltrates Charlie home, weaves her way into the company of his family and friends, wins their approval, and once again wins his heart, much to the dismay of Charlie’s valet Muggsy (William Demarest). With everything seemingly in place, Jean finds herself in the ideal position to take Charlie for everything he is worth. But if Jean allowed herself to fall in love with Charlie while they were at sea, could that possibly mean that love will once again get in her way a second time? As the film builds to its great comedic climax during the train sequence, where “Eve” tells Charlie of her past loves in an attempt to have them divorce, we wonder where Jean’s heart truly lies, and we wait anxiously to see if she follows through with her plan, or if she ends up with the man she knows is really meant for her.