Lady Eve, The (1941)
Release Date: March 21st, 1941 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Preston Sturges Actors: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest, Eric Blore, Melville Cooper, Martha O’Driscoll, Janet Beecher
eturning from a year-long Amazon expedition (or a pursuit of knowledge, as they call it), aspiring ophidiologist (or herpetologist) Charles “Hopsy” Pike (Henry Fonda) and bodyguard “Muggsy” Murgatroyd (William Demarest) manage to stop a cruise liner, the SS Southern Queen, heading back to civilization. It’s no secret that Charles owns the “Pike’s Pale” ale brewing company and that his considerable fortunes allow him such unusual persuasions. Once aboard the ship, the wealthy bookworm immediately becomes the target of three swindler partners, all of whom envision an easy opportunity for a scam.
Oilman Colonel “Harry” Harrington (Charles Coburn) is the card sharp ringleader (there’s a touch of irony in the card playing scenes, as they’re supposed to be professionals but they all exhibit exaggerated tells), but it’s his daughter Eugenia “Jean” (Barbara Stanwyck) who is most fit for this particular task. Refusing to throw sexy glances at her mark like countless other women aboard the vessel, Jean instead trips Charles, berates him, and insists that he escort her back to her cabin for a replacement pair of heels. With her striking features and smooth talk, she soon has him hook, line, and sinker.
As Charles becomes more and more infatuated with his seducer, Jean starts to fall in love in return – against her better judgment. Just when she decides to come clean about her initial intentions, Muggsy beats her to it, spoiling the engagement and fairy tale romance. Bitter at the idea that Charles may have been playing her from the start, Jean concocts a scheme to assume the irresistible persona of Lady Eve Sidwich, the niece of fellow trickster Sir Alfred Keith (Eric Blore), working in Connecticut – neighboring the Pike estate.
Although this incredibly farfetched farce of mistaken and misrepresented identities won’t fool modern audiences, there’s still something charming about the notion that grand deception and enormous greed can’t best true love. Eve’s ultimate revenge plan isn’t even about money, but rather to embarrass Charles with a fabricated tale of her prior promiscuities (which, again, probably wouldn’t disconcert nowadays viewers). Inventing an alternate personality more contemptible than her real fraudster self, so as to force Charles back into her arms, has to be one of the most daringly original concepts ever witnessed in film. The opening title sequence featuring an animated snake, the poster art of an apple and the apple she drops on Charles as he climbs aboard the Southern Queen, and the moniker she adopts for her revenge plot are all unsubtle references to the Garden of Eden – yet the significance of Jean’s immoral decisions, highlighted by the fact that she’s never forced into redemption, tend to get lost amidst the abundant comedy. But it helps to note that her comment suggesting bad girls aren’t always that bad certainly has some truth in it to justify her behavior and her position as the central character.
While Stanwyck starts off as an outright villainess (before transitioning into a slightly different kind of antagonist), Preston Sturges’ clever writing (based on a story by Monckton Hoffe) paints her out to be a rather alluring seductress, capable of reducing her prey to a terrified schoolboy (or putty in her hands). Her unwavering confidence and provocative manipulation set her up for an unexpectedly sympathetic downfall; she’s not a femme fatale as much as a corrupted yet redeemable lost soul. Indeed, as Charles imagines, life with Jean will be full of ups and downs. Innuendo and hilariously wry love banter supplement unnecessary but signature slapstick (including food repetitively dumped on dinner jackets), along with Eugene Pallette’s familiar role as the patriarch of a family driven batty by affluence, before it all culminates in a wild finale that boasts a closing line equally as hysterical as Joe E. Brown’s famous zinger from “Some Like It Hot.”
– Mike Massie