From Paramount Pictures
Directed by Preston Sturges
Faithful readers likely realize that not too many comedies are showcased in these pages... and for a very good reason. As a genre, it falls woefully short on funny and smart and original. Comedies are usually not done very well, no matter how well-intentioned. Before you cry out but what about..., I agree there are exceptions and here is one of them.
Director Preston Sturges was also a writer and brilliant at comedy. Whatever he had too bad he didn't leave it in some DNA
for others to use today and perhaps the eternally-shunned genre at the Oscars and most other awards would gather some light. Some history on Sturges was served up in the review on Sullivan's Travels, the film he made immediately after this one. That film and the one that came after, The Palm Beach Story, bring a full understanding of the magic this man had toyed with in his brilliant comedy mind. The Lady Eve, could be his best.
Another reason that is so is because of his leading lady. He had promised Stanwyck for some time that he would find a property for her. Though highly regarded (always) as a dramatic talent, in 1941 her comedic skills were largely unsung. She would go on to make us laugh in Ball of Fire (1941) and Christmas in Connecticut (1945) but her impeccable comic timing is never more apparent than in this film. What an actress!
The premise of The Lady Eve deals with deception interrupted by unexpected romance and dishes it up via much physical comedy. Sturges loved his actors to do pratfalls and there are three good ones here.
When the film opens, elegant card shark and swindler Jean Harrington and her equally scheming father, Col. Harrington (Coburn) are standing at a ship's railing. They immediately spot Charles Pike whom they come to find out is the scion of a brewery empire. In no time at all, Jean will call him Hopsey. That is, at least while she is Jean. (Oh, hold on...) He is returning from South America with his trusty manservant-bodyguard (Demarest) on an mission to collect some snakes.
Jean says... is he rich?
The colonel responds... he'd almost have to be to stop a boat. He's been up the river somewhere.
Haven't we all, Jean pronounces.
They immediately decide he's a prime sucker and they will fleece him at cards in the ship's main salon that evening. But first they have to meet. A memorable scene in the salon ensues when at different tables in the salon, Jean watches the future Hopsey through her compact mirror. She marvels at all the female attention that he engenders. Such amusing writing comes from Sturges where he has Jean imagine out loud (for her father's benefit) all the conversations that Hopsey and the female traffic are having.
She finally meets him by tripping him as he walks by her table. He's actually fleeing the room, perturbed as he is at all the unwanted attention, and now he's on the floor covered in the food the waiter he knocked down was carrying.
In the melee, she has broken the heel of her shoe and she coaxes him to hold her up as she hobbles to her room. There comes one of the most charming and amusing seduction scenes I can remember. They recline on a chaise. He's already so over-the-moon for her that he is slack-jawed and tongue-tied and his head in cradled in her arm as she curls his hair around her finger and whispers sweet nothings. What she doesn't reckon for, lounging and cuddling as they are, is that she is falling for him.
The scene lasts a delicious three minutes and 51 seconds. It is performed by these two pros. Having just watched it again, there was a reminder of how easily Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant could have slipped into these roles. Ditto Myrna Loy and William Powell. One of the great takes on this scene is that, for a change, the woman, shall we say, comes out on top. She's in charge. It's done here rather sexily but no one is short-changed on the comedy. (Think Monroe and Curtis years later in Some Like It Hot... that scene could have been an homage to this one.) Stanwyck and Fonda are nothing short of sensational.
A scene or two later they are back in the lounge and he says...
Do you think they're dancing anywhere on board?
Jean: Don't you think we ought to go to bed?
Hopsie: You're certainly a funny girl for anyone to meet who's been up the Amazon for a year.
Jean: Good thing you weren't up there two years.
The 1941 censorship board must have gone out to lunch together. I have always suspected they turned a deaf ear to most of Sturges' bedroom bon mots. It may have a little something to do with why his films were so popular.
Anyway, now that she is in a state of amor, she no longer wants to follow through on their scheme to separate the sucker from his wallet but the colonel is having none of it. Well, of course, it works out more how the colonel wants than Jean and the poor sucker ends up loosing $32,000. He writes the colonel a check but after the couple tells the old gentleman they're now smitten, the colonel wads up the check and puts it in his pocket.
When the ship's captain reveals to Pike that Jean and the colonel are crooks, to save face Pike tells her that he knew all along and was playing her for a sucker as well. They leave the ship separately with each disgusted with the other.
Later Jean invites herself with her "uncle" to a huge Pike social gathering. She plans to get even. She poses as an English aristocrat, The Lady Eve, although she looks not a single bit different from Jean but is a little more restrained and speaks with a British accent. Pike's manservant isn't buying any of it but Pike says she looks too much like Jean to really be her.
Jean and Hopsie marry but on the honeymoon she tells him how many love affairs she's had and he leaves her. The following scene shows the colonel pulling out the crumpled-up $32,000 check which they will now cash. And off they go laughing like hyenas on another cruise.
Now the duplicitous Jean gets a case of the vapors or conscience and can't go through with any more of it. She confesses everything to her beloved Hopsie and all is forgiven. C'mon, it's an American comedy. You knew it was going to end well.
What movie wasn't a little more fun with rascally Charles Coburn in it? He excelled at playing rich, snobby folk who always seemed to have a little con going. He and Stanwyck played off one another so well with just this kind of exchange:
Jean: Boy, would I like to see you giving some old harpie the three- in-one.
Colonel: Don't be vulgar, Jean. Let us be crooked but never common.
William Demarest, a Sturges regular, always excelled at playing parts where he is perennially irritable and bossy. Eugene Pallette, making the most of his extensive girth and gravelly voice, is persuasive as Fonda's father. He delivers a particularly funny scene sitting out on his expensive patio waiting for the help to get him his too-long-awaited breakfast. Character actors in Sturges flicks were always exceptionally talented and used well.
Seeing this again reminded me of something I saw in other Preston Sturges movies. His editor has to be very good. I'm not talking close-ups and long shots and such but the piecing together of everything. Most Sturges work, I think, is hectic. There is much cutting back and forth between all sorts of things with only one intent. To make us laugh. He succeeds at it so well.
Kudos, too, to the adorable opening credits ... an animated Eve and snake in the Garden of Eden. Most appropriate since a snake has a pivotal scene in the story.
In 1994, the Library of Congress selected The Lady Eve to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry as being culturally, historically or aesthetically significant. It is most certainly one of the great comedies of the 1940s. Here, for your briefest of looks: