When I first saw The Lady Eve (1941), in my teens, I was certain I had never seen a comedy more perfectly constructed, a judgment that the subsequent decades have not revised. I had also seen none more acutely witty, more sexually playful, or more unexpectedly moving, for all its cold-eyed refusal of sentimentality. Its edge persists, a delight seasoned ever so lightly by cruelty, as we are invited from the start to relish the process by which the virginal, humorless, painfully sincere brewery heir Charles “Hopsie” Pike (Henry Fonda), fresh from a snake-hunting expedition in the Amazon jungle, is to be sized up and despoiled by the trio of shipboard card sharps consisting of Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn), his daughter, Jean (Barbara Stanwyck), and their confederate Gerald (Melville Cooper), later to be joined by their fellow crook Sir Alfred (Eric Blore). When Jean and Charles go off script by falling in love, a more conventional Hollywood development seems to be in view, but for director Preston Sturges, this provides the occasion for an unexpectedly painful turnabout and then the elaborate, delightfully appropriate payback that constitutes the film’s second half.
The cast assembled for The Lady Eve was exceptional even for Sturges. Coburn, Cooper, and Blore—as ripe a set of old troupers as one could imagine—consummately incarnate the venerable tradition of well-spoken con men with their own code (“Let us be crooked but never common”), aristocrats of deception, a class apart to whom “a mug is a mug in everything.” Fonda, most strongly associated at the time with his portrayals of Abraham Lincoln and Tom Joad, brings an aura of good-hearted sincerity that makes him almost too easy prey; and Stanwyck, in a dual role, pulls everything together with a performance of stunning variousness that reveals the concealed depths in what Sturges too modestly described as “simply an amusing story.” In fact, the director’s flawlessly engineered farce, while reveling in absurdity and clownish mayhem, never sacrifices the humanity of his characters to the machinery of the plot. We continue to accept their reality even in the most outlandish circumstances, as Jean assumes the role of the terribly British, terribly aristocratic Lady Eve Sidwich. Reviewing the film on its release, Otis Ferguson, the New Republic’s astute film critic, zeroed in on The Lady Eve’s paradoxical merging of the ordinary and the fanciful: “The lines are what people might say, and in spite of comedy’s formalization, most of the things are what people might do.” It may have come down to the fact that Sturges readily discerned in life itself the mechanisms of traditional farce, in all their fundamental pitilessness.
The year before, Sturges, age forty-two, had become a sudden celebrity with the back-to-back hits The Great McGinty and Christmas in July, and the first Hollywood screenwriter to take full control of his scripts as a director. And with the tremendous success of The Lady Eve, he reached the highest plateau of his career. For a time, he seemed to have attained an unheard-of creative freedom. The string of eight features he made for Paramount between 1940 and 1944—seven of them enduring masterpieces—established him as the most radically original comic genius of his era. Yet his winning streak would give way precipitously to a leaner and increasingly disappointing decade. The commercial fiasco of The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949) was followed by the failure of two Broadway musicals he had written. His third marriage had collapsed, and his finances were a shambles. He was to make only one more, quite lackluster, picture—Les carnets du Major Thompson (1955), shot in both French and English versions—before his death at age sixty in 1959.
The dazzling but transient triumph of that forties stretch was just the sort of unlikely phenomenon on which Sturges’s imagination had always fed. Wealth and success and domestic happiness take on a chimerical quality in his movies, coming and going capriciously. His pre-Hollywood life had been in some sense a dress rehearsal for the vision he would put on film. The chaotic disruptions of his childhood—as he went back and forth between the Chicago-based, business-minded world of his adoptive father, his mother’s husband Solomon Sturges, and the European circles of his flamboyant, much-married mother, Mary Desti, close friend of Isadora Duncan and sometime lover of Aleister Crowley—had at least acquainted him with an extravagant variety of characters and milieus. He had known peculiar destinations and abrupt changes of course, and a world of behavioral oddities he could store up for future use. But those early vicissitudes also instilled the discontent of a child often shunted about and taken for granted. To the world, he would display the mask of the exuberant and fantastical persona he invented for himself, always at the center of frenzied activity, whether making movies, owning and operating restaurants, building yachts, or falling in and out of marriages.
In his twenties and early thirties, he had worked as a runner for Wall Street brokerages, managed his mother’s wholesale cosmetic business, dabbled as a songwriter and an inventor (famously creating a kissproof lipstick), written a hit Broadway play (Strictly Dishonorable) and a series of Broadway flops, and married two heiresses, both of whom walked out on him. Since his life was already as full of zigzagging plot turns as many an early-thirties movie, there was a certain inevitability in his settling in Hollywood once he found himself there in 1932, making his mark with the wit and brilliant plotting of such scripts as Easy Living (1937) and Remember the Night (1940). But he wanted a more total control and, when he got his chance, effected something rarely seen in Hollywood: a series of films seemingly sprung entirely from the imagination of a single inspired trickster into raucous and hyperverbalized life—none of them more fully realized than The Lady Eve.
“Fundamental to The Lady Eve is Sturges’s frenetic capacity to soak up all levels and variants of language and then subject it to further blendings and mutations.”
“In the era of the Production Code, Sturges gets away with making comedy out of sexual arousal.”
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