This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Barbara Stanwyck.
Feminine wiles meet up with genuine romance in The Lady Eve, a sharp, delightful film where the cons end up falling for their own marks.
Naive ale heir and snake expert Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) is returning from his year-long expedition in the Amazon, where he has acquired a rare snake. Unbeknownst to him, also aboard the ship he is taking are a trio of con artists. There's "Colonel" Harrington (Charles Coburn), his accomplice Gerard (Melville Cooper) and Harrington's daughter Jean (Barbara Stanwyck). This trio of card sharks think Pike is the perfect dupe to fleece. Jean manages to hoodwink Charles and basically seduces him, playing him for the fool that he is.
Then something unexpected happens: she genuinely starts falling in love with her "Hopsie". She decides to go straight, with the reluctant blessing of her father. Unfortunately, Charles' unofficial bodyguard Muggsy Murgatroyd (William Demarest) suspects what is going on and provides proof. Charles cuts Jean off but is unaware that Colonel Harrington kept the check Charles had written to pay off his card game losses.
Sometime later, Jean learns that Charles is staying in Connecticut with his family thanks to Pinkie aka Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith (Eric Blore), a fellow fraudster masquerading as an English nobleman. She decides to get even by masquerading herself as the Lady Eve Sidwich, Sir Alfred's niece. Charles is so bamboozled by Lady Eve's resemblance to Jean that he keeps tripping and falling over himself. Sir Alfred feeds him a wild story of how Eve and Jean are secret sisters, which sells Charles on the idea that they are two different women. A quick marriage to Eve turns disastrous when the Lady Eve confesses her wicked, wicked past.
The Lady Eve agrees to a divorce with no settlement on condition that Charles tells her to her face that the marriage is over. He refuses and goes on a cruise to forget the Lady Eve. By wild coincidence, Jean and Colonel Harrington are also on board. Will Cupid find a way to reunite our lovers?
The Lady Eve is an incredibly bright and witty film right from the start. The symbolism of the serpent terrifying our Lady Eve is a clever point. Granted, maybe I am reading too much into things, but I find it hard to believe that writer/director Preston Sturges did not have somewhere in the back of his mind the idea of "Eve" being terrified by the serpent. The callbacks to the Biblical story of the creation of the first man and woman gets another touch when Jean drops an apple on Charles as he comes aboard.
The film is filled with witty dialogue that the actors all deliver excellently. Early on, Colonel Harrington is appalled at something his daughter says. "Let us be crooked but never common," he intones. As Jean gets Charles to pick out a pair of shoes for her in her stateroom, she quips, "See anything you like?". Later on, Colonel Harrington is giving Charles an absurd story about his and Jean's family. "All the men in our family are missionaries except me. I'm the exception". Without missing a beat, Jean replies, "And what an exception".
Perhaps the most daring line in the film is when Jean tells Charles, "Don't you think we ought to go to bed?". She clearly is saying that they should go to sleep in their separate rooms, but I think even contemporary audiences knew that she was saying something else entirely.
Among the quips there is an absolutely sensational scene with Stanwyck and Fonda in closeup. As Jean slowly tells Charles the effect he has on her, she plays with his hair and holds him dangerously close. It really is one of the most erotic moments in The Lady Eve, teasing without being anywhere near vulgar. One can almost sense Charles becoming completely aroused. It is not hard given that Stanwyck looks breathtakingly beautiful.
This scene ends wonderfully. As Jean tells Charles that she will sleep well tonight, he replies, "I wish I could say the same". The undertone of sexual frustration that he won't get anything that night is so well played.
The Lady Eve is a remarkably clever screenplay, but high praise should go to the acting. Barbara Stanwyck shows that she could play any role with equal ability. Her Jean is alluring, slyly humorous but also deeply moving. As she goes to her stateroom after Charles gives her the proof of her con artists family, she falls on her bed and weeps uncontrollably. Stanwyck really breaks your heart here, knowing that as she previously told Charles, "The best ones aren't as good as you probably think they are, and the bad ones aren't as bad". She was clearly talking about herself: the "bad girl gone good". The look of hope that she will come up a winner as we know she won't just win you over.
Stanwyck is deftly able to handle the humor with the heartache, but some of her best work is when she is passing herself off as the Lady Eve. Speaking with an English accent, she gives such a good performance that the dimwitted Charles could possibly believe that contrary to Muggsy's insistence, she was not the same dame. As she "reveals" her past, Stanwyck shows that her character is secretly delighting in tormenting the man she loved but lost.
Fonda was not known for doing many comedies, but The Lady Eve shows that he could do it exceptionally well. As the hopelessly unaware Charles, Fonda is hilarious whenever he keeps taking pratfalls. The look of shocked befuddlement whenever he survives a humiliating moment is brilliant. Fonda, however, also manages to make Charles believable in his naivete and general obliviousness to anything outside of serpents of both animal and human variety. In the bedroom scene, you can see Charles completely falling for Jean.
The Lady Eve also allows for the other actors to have their moments. Charles Coburn is a treat as Colonel Harrington, a shrewd huckster who does love his daughter enough to let her go. His scenes with Fonda as Harrington tries to con Charles work well, with Stanwyck working to keep her father from taking advantage of the man she loves. Melville Cooper has a sly yet courtly manner as the fellow shyster, and Demarest's Muggsy is forever crabby and suspicious in a humorous way.
What is really extraordinary about The Lady Eve is how fast and short the film is. Running a breezy 94 minutes, it packs so much wit and wisdom into its story. Surprisingly, half of the film takes place before we get to the Lady Eve con. The film flows quickly but smoothly, a credit to Sturges' writing and directing.
The Lady Eve is a funny and sharp romantic comedy, with excellent performances from the cast. Flirtatious and hilarious, one will easily fall in more ways than one for the wisdom of this Eve.