Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve is some kind of great movie. And yet, like most of the best Hollywood movies of its time, its emotional range is narrow, it makes almost no pretensions to observation of American life or to social satire, its characterization is almost nil and its conflicts a clash of stereotypes. It is, in short, “classic” Hollywood and so has none of the features by which we are accustomed to recognize serious art or dramaturgy. And yet it can surely be argued from the experience of this wonderfully funny movie that its effect on us is somehow serious—that it has the richness, completeness, and resonance by which we recognize something fully and seriously done, whether we can explain it or not—and no one has yet quite accounted for or settled on a way of explaining the power and force, the peculiar beauty of the Hollywood studio film at its best. But The Lady Eve gives us some leading clues to the whole Hollywood achievement. Though it might be objected that this Hollywood movie is a poor example of the studio film, since Sturges was unquestionably an auteur, one of the first within a major studio, an independent artist with a coherent body of unmistakably personal work. But unlike Welles and Chaplin, Sturges was an artist who not only did not fight the Hollywood system, but who hardly seemed able to function without it. And he was happiest, most secure as an artist, when he was dealing with the formulas and stereotypes that the great studios had long ago established and imposed on the imagination of the world. But since his response to those formulas, happy and whole-hearted as it was, was also relatively sophisticated, his work gives a specially helpful insight into the way these formulas—the charms and totems of the so-called Hollywood magic—work on us.
They work, of course, on our feelings, first of all. And the tough, independent hero or heroine represents a choice in life, a choice of character and attitude, that we probably feel in some way at some time or other open to us all. And in a Cagney or a Hepburn, in Bogart with Bergman, or in Rogers with Astaire, we see this choice raised to a pitch of glamour and lyricism that makes it seem very seductive indeed. But the sense that skepticism and common sense and the habit of seeing things as they are and without illusion can also be a constraint and a limitation, even a tyranny, is something that the most interesting of these figures always carry. So that those marvelous luminous images of tough-mindedness that the golden age of Hollywood offers in its great stars are at their best ambivalent. There is perhaps no better example of this ambivalence than the figure of Barbara Stanwyck, one of the most dependably good and longest-lived of all the stars. And as much as Garbo in her way, she embodies the mystery of the star. Familiar as she was, her peculiar quality (at least before she became typed as villainous and domineering)—the unstated expectations that audiences of the thirties and forties brought to a Stanwyck film (of which there were many in almost all the genres)—remained elusive, hard to pin down. Partly because her effects were so plain and undecorated, so forthright and down-to-earth. But not the flourish and rococo of down-to-earthness that Jean Arthur perfected so attractively—nor the corrupt imitation of it, the affectation of non-affectation, that characterized Jimmy Stewart, or Gary Cooper in his Frank Capra phase. Stanwyck’s communication with camera and audience was peculiarly direct and unmediated. And yet just because of this she illustrates Norman Mailer’s insight into the star-personality perhaps better, more simply and clearly at least, than anyone: the sense the star gives us of having other things on his mind. Stanwyck always seemed very sensible, and rather sad. And in The Lady Eve, all her energy and activity—her flights of comic enthusiasm, her self-delighted feats of impersonation and deception—seem superimposed on an essential reserve, something final and deep held back. Her voice is both flat and eloquent, oddly both nasal and husky, and most at home perhaps in assured declarative statements. But its huskiness suggests not so much whiskey or disillusion or sexual provocation as it does the quite unsentimental sound of tears—which have been firmly and sensibly surmounted but somehow somewhere fully wept. So much so that her actual crying on screen (which was frequent) almost always seems an anti-climax, an unnecessary emphasis. Her range for a star was incredibly broad, but one thing she absolutely could not do is illustrated by Anatole Litvak’s Sorry, Wrong Number, in which she plays a whining, self-pitying, silly woman, a rich hypochondriac wife. The effect, in spite of her skill, is so flatly and weirdly at odds with her personality that almost nothing else in that movie succeeds in making sense either. But of the tough independent heroine in comedies of the thirties she was almost a definitive embodiment: no one could seem more independent or intelligent in a healthy, confident, unshowy way. And yet she also unfailingly suggests the ambivalence of this health and sense, in ways and moments that can be startling. When in The Lady Eve she threatens to beat her card-shark father at his own game—“I can play some cards, too,” she says angrily, and adds: “I’m not your daughter for free, you know”—the moment is a nearly perfect instance of Mailer’s point about the star. An otherwise ordinary line comes to surprising life, carries suggestions of pain and experience beyond itself, echoes of a really felt self-judgment.
The formula character Stanwyck plays is of course a hallowed one: the wandering lady card-cheat who lives by her wits and her sex. She is also a comic variant of the Camille figure: the erotic cynic who is seduced into new life and sexuality by male innocence and inexperience. When I say that Sturges sophisticates the formulas here I don’t mean that he makes them more “real” (as Philip Barry does in The Philadelphia Story). If anything, he makes them more outrageous. Stanwyck’s con-woman is even more a daydream embodiment of feminine power and allure than the stripper in Ball of Fire. And this intensification—and of course Stanwyck’s power to make the exaggeration real—is what to begin with involves our feelings. It also makes clear the nature of those feelings: the delight in aggression, in putting down and beating out the other guy that characterizes the energy and happiness of these films in general. But Sturges’ exaggerations in The Lady Eve make explicit what has been only implicit in the heroines of The Awful Truth and Shall We Dance?: the element of potential destructiveness in their authority and style. What was an underlying complexity in those other screwball comedies is here an overt meaning—the special tone of this film is a kind of energetic cruelty, a malicious exuberance, reflected in Stanwyck’s treatment of the Henry Fonda character: a kind of relentless and systematic humiliation. Their relationship begins when she trips him; it ends when he steps off a train in his pajamas and slides into the mud. By the time she is done with him, he is tripping himself. And their reconciliation is signaled by her tripping him again. But all this is only secondary to the moral and psychological punishment. The famous wedding night sequence, in which she treats him to a protracted and ingenious mental torture: even when she is first seducing him, she does it with casual, happy, open contempt. And the movie rarely lets us forget this destructive element in the heroine’s character. “I need him,” she says, her face in close-up filling the screen, “like the axe needs the turkey.” This moment is certainly odd for a romantic comedy, ambiguous and troubling—but, like the film itself, not really unpleasant. For the oddest thing of all is that the effect of this anarchic, coldly brilliant comedy about the humiliation of a man by a woman, far from being unpleasant, is not only exhilarating but positively good-natured.
The striking thing about the Fonda character is that he is really three different characters, all of them stereotypes, corresponding to the almost three-act structure of the movie. It is on the whole a part that ought to be incoherent; it is certainly by ordinary standards inconsistent and implausible. The first Fonda is the absent-minded scientist formula, the male virgin with intellectual interests. (“Snakes are my life...in a way.”) He is boyish, innocent, naive—and, in the cartoon style of the formula, quite unbelievably stupid. He has, as we are often reminded by the film, “been up the Amazon for a year.” So much for motivation. What is also striking is his unshakable equanimity, as he is cheated, mocked, swindled, tripped, dragged down three flights of stairs and, in the midst of swelling passion of Stanwyck, bumped onto the floor. But he is always ready for more and is particularly proud of his card tricks. The second Fonda, who begins when Stanwyck is exposed as a con artist, is still another stereotype. The stuffed shirt, the prude and hypocrite—oddly close for a hero to the Other Man formula, the Ralph Bellamy role, or “Kittredge” in The Philadelphia Story, or “Jim Montgomery” in Shall We Dance. He is still a bumbler, but now the bumbling suggests not innocence and inexperience, but smugness and calculation, self-deception and phoniness. And for this different Fonda, the still consistent Stanwyck assumes a different disguise: the “Lady Eve Sidwich,” designed to appeal to his snobbery. Finally, the third Fonda, who appears briefly and triumphantly at the end, is more like a conventional romantic hero. This time he drags Stanwyck down three flights of stairs, manfully ignoring her father’s protests, and disappears with her into a bedroom.
So that even within the formula terms he is a strikingly discontinuous figure. And yet no one, to my knowledge, who knows the movie feels his character to be a problem with it. The fact is that these transformations, unbelievable as they are, are something we “believe” as we watch the film—they feel right to us, and we don’t register him as discontinuous. This is partly because the three stereotypes are united by an idea that is both interesting and true: the observation that Tom Sawyer does in fact and in life turn into Ralph Bellamy—that a certain kind of innocence sustained past a certain age inevitably hardens into conventionality, self-righteousness, emotional fakery. And it is an idea that the movie is in perfect control of. Notice, for example, that the second Fonda lives at home with his parents (his father contemptuous, his mother protective and concerned)—and expresses all the ungenerosity and reactionary spirit that a person who lives and stays entrenched in a family circle as a fundamentally childish member of that circle is likely to feel and express. Notice too, that Fonda’s second formal love scene with Stanwyck involves his repeating the same lines he has used to her before—only that what had first sounded ingenuous and naive now sounds calculated and self-congratulating: we hear the words both times just as Stanwyck herself hears them.
But if Fonda’s sudden transformations make sense as an idea, that doesn’t make him any more humanly believable. As a character in action, he is still unbelievable. But it is neither as a character nor as an embodied idea that we experience him in the movie. If everything that he does or turns into feels right as we watch, it is because of his peculiar relation to the Stanwyck character, who is the center of our experience in the film. He is less a character, even a coherent formula one, than a reflection of her character, which is to say her star-quality, with its intrinsic ambivalence and complexity.
Because the delight in the exercise of unrestrained personal power that the movie invites us to share through Stanwyck has a significant catch. Our collusion with her in the film’s humiliation of Fonda tests the moral limits of that delight by insisting on the humiliation, on something destructive and even rather sinister in her and our pleasure. The pleasure of self-assertion, of growing up and beyond childish illusions, of finally knowing your way around and seeing things as they are with no bullshit, is also likely to involve a wistful, nostalgic relation to your own lost innocence. It’s nice to know about the world, but surely nicer in a way not to. So that it’s perfectly right, in these terms, that Stanwyck should fall in love with Fonda—not only in spite of his imbecility, but in a way because of it. And it is also right, in terms of our experience of the movie, that his innocence should be rather suddenly transformed, once love and nostalgia are unequivocally declared, into fakery and insincerity. It has to be this way precisely because his presumed innocence has threatened to undo her, to make her (as she says in the film) cheap and humiliated, to deprive her of her energy and style. So that his exposure as a phony, his transformation into the second Fonda of the stuffed shirt, justifies the moral risk of her behavior toward him—and justifies our delighted collusion with her in all the wit and energy of that punishment, that triumphant exercise of intelligent power. Childishness in maturity is an illusion after all, though a hard one to fight down. And the energy of cynicism that we see and feel in The Lady Eve and movies like it comes partly from a sense of winning that battle.
Which leaves Fonda’s third transformation. It seems he has been punished into maturity, into becoming a grown man in the last reel, when he and Stanwyck finally get together. It would be hard to imagine a less plausible or realistic resolution—or a more ill-starred couple. Of course it is a resolution dictated by the formula, not by “reality” at all. And the formula is right. The ending is as inevitable in its terms as a tragic one. It would be not only a hollow victory for Stanwyck merely to have exposed the limitations of Fonda’s character—but a self-defeating one.
Her image, her sense of herself and attitude toward her own strengths, is too ambivalent. And so the meanings of the movie have not prepared us for a simple endorsement at the end of worldliness and sophistication—or of cynicism. Quite the opposite. It is just the fact of Stanwyck’s having exposed Fonda and having seen him as he is that enables her to take him back—on her own somewhat modified terms. Because this emblem of innocence and idealism, shaky and ambiguous as it is in his case, has reminded her, and us, of the limitations of her own cynicism. And if The Lady Eve, for all its hardness and brightness, ever threatens to become moving for a moment, it’s in the expression of empty satisfaction on Stanwyck’s face as she slowly pulls the shade on her Pullman window, after watching Fonda take his next to last pratfall off the train and into the mud.
It is often said that these movies are “about nothing”—and in a sense that is true, and it is part of their freedom. But it is also true that their combinations of formulas and stars not only have meanings of their own which we all recognize, but at their best these movies become metaphors for some of the most serious meanings of our lives. And the delight that a movie like The Lady Eve gives, a delight that goes beyond and deeper than mere pleasure or diversion, is inseparable, I think, from a recognition that its tensions of tone and feeling are very real tensions in us. That its brilliance is more than superficial, but a very real resolution of these tensions. That a movie like this is a witty and even moving counterpoint to our own very real experience not only of having to grow up, but of having to regret it too.
James Harvey is a playwright, essayist and critic. He is the author of Movie Love in the Fifties and Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges. His work has appeared in the New York Review of Books and the Threepenny Review. He lives in Brooklyn.