Preston Sturges’ best movies, during the 1940s before studio control put him at odds with himself, are marked by a nervy energy, almost exultancy.
Just take a look at an inspired Barbara Stanwyck in “The Lady Eve.” As Jean Harrington, the card-shark cutie who falls for Henry Fonda while preparing to fleece him, Stanwyck is a picture of shimmering appetite–at first, Jean can’t wait to take a bite out of this wealthy rube, and later, it’s as if she can’t stomach how much she yearns for him.
Jean is a Sturges heroine throughout, the foil and front for his ironic handling of romance. Stanwyck, with no small help from the haltingly reactive Fonda, gives the movie its luster, but Sturges, a director known for keeping a firm grip on the set, is the one shining the light that reflects off her performance.
“The Lady Eve,” made in 1941 when Sturges was near his peak, happily working for Paramount, is a fine example of his ability to mix humor both blithe and impudent. It may lack the humanist satire of “Sullivan’s Travels” (1942) or the unorthodoxy of “Unfaithfully Yours” (1948), but it has a style that rarely lowers the audience through conventional wit.
Credit that to Sturges’ writing. “The Lady Eve” is constructed so well it unfolds like a practiced card trick. The offhand gab of the characters–usually delivered with a customary Sturges spin–are the exclamation points to many scenes.
Stanwyck knows what to do with Sturges’ dialogue, using it like a billboard to reveal the breezy cynicism Jean brings to her job. Shortly after the movie begins, we see her leaning over the boat railing with her father, Col. Harrington (the unflappable Charles Coburn), musing excitedly (“Gee, I hope he’s rich . . . I hope he thinks he’s a wizard at cards”) as Fonda’s Charles Pike unknowingly comes aboard.
Jean’s hook is already baited, but just to drive home the point, she drops the apple (the first of many visual puns on the Adam and Eve story) she’s been eating. It hits Fonda on the head, and he looks up, not knowing what hit him. He never does.
Stanwyck was an actress who could appear vulnerable without seeming weak, which Sturges angles in on after Jean finally succumbs to Charles. Her father still wants to con him and, when the three finally play cards, it’s Jean who protects Charles, matching her father’s maneuvering with plenty of her own.
Jean deals Charles four queens, and Fonda, amazed at his good fortune, beams momentarily. Stanwyck beams too, just watching him. If we didn’t know before, we know now that Jean is not the toughie she makes out to be. Stanwyck, always good at playing the spirited woman, is the dame who never forfeits her femininity.
Fonda’s Charles is even more translucent, the blank-looking guy with a goofy interest in snakes. He’s just spent a year up the Amazon doing his research and arrives on the boat taking him home to New York in khakis and a pith helmet. Charles has no time for women–until he meets Jean. Then he’s transformed, still the bumbling innocent, but now with a beautifully complicated horizon in front of him. As Sturges historian James Harvey described Charles, “He is the bumpkin in excelsis. “
Of course, the wry Sturges wouldn’t leave his movie with only one level. He tosses pepper into the cake by having Charles learn about Jean’s past. Hot with shared hatred, they go their separate ways, with Jean planning revenge. She gives her father a killer look and mutters, “I need him . . . like the ax needs the turkey.”
We intuitively know this is all bluff and a reunion will end “The Lady Eve,” partly because it’s a ’40s movie and an upbeat ending is as predictable as the rolling credits, and partly because Sturges has set the couple up as an archetype of romantic love. But the nasty verve that Sturges and his actors bring to the rest of the story is funny and bracing.
Jean, hoping to ruin Charles’ life, now masquerades as Eve, an English aristocrat visiting America. In a cockeyed but acceptable plot development, Eve marries Charles and spins her revenge. There’s a hilarious honeymoon scene where Stanwyck, using that bold self-possession she’s known for, turns Fonda, using that almost unbearable decency he’s known for, into an emotional mess by telling him of a fabricated series of lovers she had before the marriage.
With punchy cutaways–the train hurtles into a tunnel each time Eve brings up another man–Sturges derails the notion of idealized love but then raises it up again in the pleasing but, of course, too neat conclusion that eventually comes when the two are reconciled. Charles, not so wonderful with Eve, is wonderful again as soon as he finds Jean, who is likewise rejuvenated. It’s a kick the way they exult over each other, and Sturges encourages us to enjoy their giddiness
.Author’s note: If you enjoyed this article, you may also like A Fresh Look at Casablanca.