An Appreciation – The Lady Eve
While it is obvious to say that a great comedy needs to have funny people in it, what usually gets overlooked is the necessity of a great straight man as well. Henry Fonda does a great job as being the straight man in this movie. Fonda is a distinguished actor known for great dramatic work, including My Darling Clementine (1946), 12 Angry Men (1957), and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). One of his very best films, The Grapes of Wrath (1940), came out a year before this one. What makes his performance as Charlie/Hopsy memorable is that it was one of the very few comedic roles he ever took in his career. Fonda plays Charlie as such a lovable innocent, his old-time family values persona being used to great effect. It’s kind of endearing to see this young man, clearly naïve, getting put in the middle of a plot that he has no understanding of. His character is a great counter point to Stanwyck’s cool and confident Jean; we know that once the two meet, Charlie doesn’t stand a chance.
Another great aspect to Fonda’s character is how much physicality the role calls for. There are a ton of pratfalls, slips, and trips throughout the movie, mostly coming from Charlie himself. I find odd enjoyment in seeing Henry Fonda continually tripping over things, from Stanwyck’s leg, to a couch that hasn’t moved in fifteen years, and over a curtain that he tears in half. He gets a ham dropped in his lap, coffee spilt over his white coat, and a piece of luggage dropped on his head. Fonda must have had a fun time with this movie, seeing as how he finds himself in all of these silly moments in almost every scene. It’s fun to see the young man who will go on to be known as one of the most respected actors ever slipping and falling into a pile of mud with his pajamas on. During the scene where Charlie pours his heart out to Jean/Eve, he constantly gets interrupted by his horse nudging his head while he tries to seriously lay out his emotions. Poor Charlie, his character goes throughout the entire movie not realizing what’s really going on, being played by others with secret motivations, all the while gaining bumps and bruises along the way.
The supporting cast all do a great job with their roles. In fact, I would say that one of the great highlights of the film is the character actors, and what they do throughout the course of the story. The first is Charles Coburn as Jean’s father, Colonel Harrington. Coburn exudes an aura of class and decorum; yes, he is a thief, but not a petty one. He loves his daughter dearly and cares about her well-being, which makes it surprising that he would teach her the ways of being a con artist. A memorable scene of the film involves the Colonel playing poker with Charlie, Jean seated between them. Notice what the Colonel does with his hands, how he is able to switch his cards so quickly, even when Jean tries to prevent him from winning the game. It’s done so subtly that we barely notice how it was accomplished. If Coburn’s performance works as one of grace, then Eugene Palette’s work as Charlie’s father works as the complete opposite. I remember Palette as the crazy father in My Man Godfrey (1936), and he brings a lot of same kind of quality to his role as Mr. Pike. He is loud, big in both his physical presence and in his personality. Many times throughout the movie we find Mr. Pike frustrated that he hasn’t been brought his food yet. He provides a lot of the film’s best lines, many times questioning his son’s clumsiness. But, like the Colonel, Mr. Pike truly cares about his son and wants the best for him, and when Charlie and Eve break up, he is the one on the phone making sure everything works out well for everyone.
The supporting actor who really steals the film is William Demarest as Muggsy. With a mean, cautious grimace on his face, Demarest plays Mugsy as a man whose sole purpose is to make sure that Charlie doesn’t get swindled by any potential con artists. His character is the audience; he along with us knows what the situation is, and he constantly tries to tell Charlie that Jean and Eve are “the same dame,” but unfortunately his own ineptitude prevents him from revealing the truth. This results in some great comedic moments, in particular during the dinner scene when The Lady Eve is first introduced to Charlie. I love the way Muggsy slinks around, spying on Eve from outside when he doesn’t really need to be there, since he is an employee to begin with. He climbs across the windows only to lose his footing and fall through a garden patch. He takes a food tray out to the dinner table to get a closer look at Eve, only to accidentally drop the food all over Charlie. Whenever Muggsy is on screen, we can anticipate some kind of comedic line or physical gag to happen, each done to great effect. It’s safe to assume that Sturges loved this character as well, as he gives him the last, and best, piece of dialogue of the film.
The Lady Eve is a great film, a true joy to watch after so many repeated viewings. It has a style and wit to it that is rarely seen today, while having all the slapstick you could ask for in a screwball comedy. It’s amazing to think that Preston Sturges, who wrote and directed a number of films in his time, had two of his very best come out in the same year. Along with this, his other great film Sullivan’s Travels (1941) was released as well (in fact, 1941 can arguably be seen as one of the best years in movies overall). There have been many filmmakers who have released multiple projects in the same year, but very few have been able to release two that are as well made and enjoyable as these. This film is a fun time, a story that I would recommend to anyone looking for a great comedy from a different era.