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.”
That raucousness led Manny Farber to compare the surface effect of a typical Sturges film to “the inside of a Ford assembly line smashed together and operating during a total war crisis.” Indeed, although it is nobody’s idea of a war picture, The Lady Eve—which opened nine months before Pearl Harbor—emerges palpably from that moment of impending crisis. The boats between America and Europe have stopped running, the luxury liner on which Jean Harrington and Charles Pike collide is en route from Brazil to New York, and when the Lady Eve surfaces in Connecticut in the midst of the Blitz, she is said to have traveled to America by battleship—or perhaps a submarine, as one credulous dinner guest suggests. The film might almost be taken as a premonitory farewell to the luxurious insouciance of an imagined prewar life: an ocean voyage, a day at the races, a banquet in a suburban mansion, a romantic horseback ride, a honeymoon journey in a first-class railway carriage.
Sturges took a certain pleasure in evoking such comforts, all the better to subject their decorum to rapid, unrestrained jostling. Nothing is ever very firmly fixed on its foundation. Ceremonies devolve into their underlying tumult. Functionaries run about, collide with one another, trespass on one another’s domains, exchange loud and pointed volleys of ornate vituperation. All of that, in Sturges’s world, is merely the ordinary level of background activity. What for another filmmaker might be central action often functions in The Lady Eve as peripheral punctuation, whether it’s the ship’s steward and his staff’s noisily fending off orders for the drink they’ve run out of (“They want the ale that won for Yale . . . Rah-rah-rah . . .”) or a head butler grandiloquently instructing an outraged chef in the heraldic symbols required for a cake welcoming a British aristocrat (“Crest: a lion couchant guardant, or, holding between the paws an escocheon sable, charged with a cock proper”). Any apparent pause or digression is there only to allow glimpses of other potential movies along the sidelines, moving at the same reckless pace, a pace that was perfectly matched to the adrenaline of the war years.
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. Rapid-fire dialogue abounded in thirties cinema, but there was no precedent for his unmistakable dialect. Sturges’s special pleasure in the nuances of every variety of linguistic fakery, homiletic banality, maudlin baloney, oily politesse, and officious pronouncement was offset beautifully by his flair for the deflating vernacular of the American street corner. We ricochet between the avuncular formality of Coburn’s gentleman swindler (“Why, my dear boy! You see me astonished!”) and the rasping outbursts of William Demarest as Charles’s rough-edged bodyguard, Muggsy (“Don’t take no wooden money!”). Each character, no matter how peripheral, employs a personalized dialect full of freshly minted turns of speech. Consider Eric Blore, as the suavest of frauds, when asked if he knows the Pike family: “Know them? I positively swill in their ale.” Every piece of dialogue defies expectation by coming in at an angle slightly askew, in a sort of cubist discontinuity. It’s as if all these places and situations exist to provide an occasion for such lines—words that Sturges, as director, insisted on being delivered exactly as written. The wild music of it already existed fully in his head.
“In the era of the Production Code, Sturges gets away with making comedy out of sexual arousal.”
The Lady Eve is an outlier among Sturges’s films in being based on someone else’s story, “Two Bad Hats,” by Monckton Hoffe (a name almost worthy to figure in a Sturges cast of characters). On closer examination, the evolution of the screenplay thoroughly demonstrates the alchemy by which Sturges transformed a convoluted tale—about twin sisters, one of whom dies in infancy, born to a wayward British aristocrat and the alcoholic horse dealer she runs away with, and a subsequent conspiracy to ensnare a wealthy Englishman by having the surviving sister impersonate her dead sibling—into the most elegant of his screenplays, retaining the dual female role and the duped suitor but changing squalid extortionists into amusing con artists, clueless British aristocrats into a clueless, Anglophilic American brewing dynasty, and, in an ultimate personalizing touch, managing to hinge the whole thing on a snake, “coiled amiably in her box,” in Sturges’s description of the opening shot. The result is a story line as rigorous as a theorem. A woman of crooked vocation but sincere feeling, jilted by the virtuous man she loves when he discovers her past, gets her revenge by seducing him all over again in the guise of the unimpeachably respectable woman he imagines he wants—all the better to rip his prim notions to shreds in the most hilarious of honeymoons, only to scoop him up again in a happy ending that is the ultimate blackout punch line.
There is no better instance of Sturges’s genius at exposition than the miniature movie within the movie by which he establishes what Charles, newly arrived on shipboard, is up against. As Jean observes him and those around him in her pocket mirror, we catch glimpses of him while he dines alone, impeccably attired in white dinner clothes, reading Are Snakes Necessary?, indifferent to the women in the lounge who are strenuously making a play for this most eligible bachelor. The oblivious Charles is already a victim, being framed unknowingly in Jean’s mise-en-scène. Her running commentary on every failed attempt to catch his attention (“The dropped kerchief! That hasn’t been used since Lillie Langtry”) tells us everything we need to know about her superior grasp of human behavior, right up to the point where it culminates neatly in her own successful maneuver: she extends her leg to trip Charles as he passes, conveniently breaking the heel of her shoe in the process.
From there we are pitched without interruption into the prolonged sequence that begins with Charles kneeling awkwardly at Jean’s feet to replace the broken shoe with one from her apparently limitless wardrobe (“Doesn’t seem possible for anybody to wear anything . . . that size,” he blurts out as he contemplates an exquisite piece of footwear), while Jean teasingly leads him along. In the era of the Production Code, Sturges gets away with making comedy out of sexual arousal, as Charles loses his composure amid Jean’s ministrations (“Why, Hopsie, you ought to be kept in a cage”). Amid the broad comedy of Charles’s pratfall and Jean’s exaggerated screams of terror when Charles’s snake gets loose, we are persuaded that even as Jean proceeds with her calculated seduction, she is tenderly affected by the forthrightness of his attraction to her. Sturges’s knack for mixing delicacy and dissonance is nowhere more on display.
Charles’s inability to conceal his feelings for Jean makes her tender response more plausible, while his physical awkwardness lends him a childlike vulnerability. As the film progresses, his character will begin to reveal less attractive qualities: his attempt to instruct Jean on the supposed unevenness of her father’s card-playing (leading to her marvelous rejoinder, “He’s more uneven some times than others”) is a first glimpse of the rigidity and condescension that will emerge fully after he realizes he has been deceived. By the subtlest of transitions—and by drawing on aspects of Fonda’s screen personality that had not yet been accented—Sturges leads us from pitying Charles for his humiliation to being appalled by his judgmental priggishness. In this comedy of dupers and duped, the progressive revelation of Charles’s hidden side raises the question of who has been most duplicitous.
As for Stanwyck—by turns hard-boiled, tender, vengeful, and resigned to an essential loneliness—her character is the heart of a movie in which everyone else comes up sooner or later against the limits of their empathy. In the midst of her own emotional volatility, Jean is always capable of understanding more than those around her. Her reentry as the Lady Eve in the second half—set on punishing Charles while bowling over his family and their guests with her parody of upper-class English elegance—becomes a subtler turn, as her affectionate teasing of Charles on shipboard modulates into an unforgiving mockery. Jean’s mastery of role-playing—“I’ve been English before”—coexists with her innate sincerity. By small exchanges, Sturges exposes further layers of complexity.
They are all actors, the con artists obviously so but the rest of them finally no less so, and when they run out of lines, their limitations are laid bare. The actual harshness of the world is always hovering at one remove. Sturges is endlessly amused by rogues, but he is not inclined to romanticize them. The games of deception that Colonel Harrington and his cohorts play provide grand entertainment, but when their turf is threatened by Jean’s emotional awakening, their joviality wears thin. Venturing further into the relationship between Jean and her father, Sturges suggests in small touches that she has, after all, been somewhat damaged by being the daughter of a professional fraud whom she addresses, revealingly, as Harry. A note of bitterness flares up—just for a moment, not long enough to sour the comedy—as she resists his plan to take Charles at the card table: “You’ll find out I can play a little cards myself . . . I’m not your daughter for free, you know.” Her father’s own protectiveness toward her comes out in a neatly contrarian parental warning: “Don’t you think it dangerous? . . . They’re apt to be slightly narrow-minded, these righteous people.”
Many viewings do not exhaust the potency of such nuances, or the savor of a verbal riposte that one might be catching for the first time, since the words often fly so fast as to require close and repeated attention. The inexhaustible pleasure of The Lady Eve has much to do with a comparable pleasure that seems to radiate from all the actors, in roles large or small—a pleasure that might reflect the enjoyment of speaking the dialogue Preston Sturges wrote for them. Who, indeed, would not be grateful for that?