The Lady Eve (1941)

Directed by Preston Sturges


“Now there’s no question about it: Preston Sturges is definitely and distinctly the most refreshing new force to hit the American motion pictures in the past five years” begins the 1941 New York Times review of The Lady Eve written by Bosley Crowther, a man with the most 1940s name I’ve ever heard.

The Lady Eve is a farce about an easily impressionable man, Charles (Henry Fonda) who is continually fooled by a con artist, Jean (Barbara Stanwyck).  Charles is a shy man who studies snakes but is also the heir to a family fortune, Pike Ale.  Having been on a year-long expedition up the Amazon, Charles is now particularly shy when he meets Jean onboard a luxury cruise ship.

We watch as Jean preys on Charles, mocking the attempts of other women to get his attention.  When he walks by her table she simply sticks out her heel, tripping Charles (one of several prat falls throughout the film) and luring him into her trap.  Charles quickly falls for Jean, and Jean and her father, Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn) begin to celebrate the ease with which their plan works.

But then Jean begins to develop genuine romantic feelings for Charles, and when Charles learns that she’s a con artist, he leaves her.  Angry, Jean concocts a plan to get back at Charles, posing as Lady Eve Sidwich at a fancy party.  When Charles meets Lady Eve, he knows immediately that he recognizes her, partially because she doesn’t bother concealing her appearance, instead correctly believing that the idea that she would impersonate someone else to fool Charles is so ridiculous he wouldn’t be able to believe it.

Despite the insistence of Charles’ loyal valet Muggsy that Lady Eve is Jean the con artist, Charles doesn’t believe him.  He’s as smitten with her as he was with Jean, and the main reason her plan works is because of his intense gullibility.

Soon they fall in love and agree to get married, only for ‘Lady Eve’ to compel him to divorce her by making up a list of men she has been with in the past, making Charles feel more and more insecure until he literally jumps off of a moving train.

As they prepare for a divorce, Jean and her team of fellow con artists celebrate their position, noting that they can get a nice settlement from Charles’ family fortune, however Jean claims not to want any money, only to talk to Charles face to face.

When they do meet again, this time with Jean playing herself and not Lady Eve, she pretends to have simply run into him by coincidence, and they quickly fall back in love, with Charles telling her that he’s married and Jean saying, “So am I, darling.”

This is a screwball comedy with as much zaniness as the genre implies, but the main character, Charles, is intensely grounded.  While everyone else is off the rails, he’s the character flustered in the middle, unable to keep up with it all.  In a sense he is meant to be us, to reflect how overwhelming this all is.  At the same time it is comical how gullible he is.  His apparent normalcy is to the extreme just as much as Jean’s conniving is to the extreme.  They’re both heightened characters, just in different directions.  In their dynamic Charles just happens to play the fool, every time.

So The Lady Eve is a semi-self aware screwball comedy.  It’s full of wild ideas that happen to work, and in one instance Jean confides with her father that she can’t believe Charles fell for her half-assed disguised.

There is almost a femme fatale dynamic at play here.  Like in a film noir the femme fatale character plots to take down the main character, and he often falls for her charms, only realizing her true nature in the end.  A comedy like The Lady Eve has a similar relationship between the two leads, but because it is a comedy it must end with a happy, even if tenuous, reunion between them.

Up Next: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), Unfaithfully Yours (1948), Terms of Endearment (1983)

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