Returning from a year up the Amazon studying snakes, the rich but unsophisticated Charles Pike meets con-artist Jean Harrington on a ship. They fall in love, but a misunderstanding causes them to split on bad terms. To get back at him, Jean disguises herself as an English lady, and comes back to tease and torment him.
Barbara Stanwyck ... Jean Harrington
Henry Fonda ... Charles Pike
Charles Coburn ... 'Colonel' Harrington
Eugene Pallette ... Horace Pike
William Demarest ... Muggsy
Eric Blore ... Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith
Melville Cooper ... Gerald
Martha O'Driscoll ... Martha
Janet Beecher ... Janet Pike
Robert Greig ... Burrows
Dora Clement ... Gertrude
On the surface of it, THE LADY EVE is a delightfully shallow evening's entertainment. It's a clever little film, filled with great dialogue ("Don't be vulgar, Jean. Let us be crooked, but never common.") and eccentric characters, from the leading lady Jean (a marvellous Barbara Stanwyck) and her much-beleaguered main man Charlie Pike (Henry Fonda) down to the other con artists that make up Jean's circle, including her dad Harry (Charles Coburn), sidekick Gerald (Melville Cooper) and Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith (Eric Blore)... or just Pearlie for short. Charlie is heir to the Pike Ale fortune, and while on a cruise home from South America, Harrington father and daughter decide to take the hapless lad to the metaphorical drycleaners. What neither of them gambles on is a romance that was always in the cards for Jean and Charlie. But just as Jean is about to go 'straight' for Charlie, he discovers that his girlfriend is part of a con racket, and unceremoniously dumps her. Hurt and determined to get revenge for his cruel parting words, Jean initiates a farce as the Lady Eve Sidwich of the film's title and infiltrates Charlie's home and heart again. She quickly teaches him a lesson he'll never forget, just as she realises how much she really still loves Charlie.
Story-wise, then, it's no doubt that THE LADY EVE provides fine frothy entertainment. Pair that with the surreal touches added into the film by Preston Sturges (take for example the supposedly climactic scene in which Charlie repeats his words of love to Eve--Fonda never gets to play the scene straight, even though he has to maintain a stony face as his horse keeps butting into his speech... presumably to try to get him to stop talking!), and there's certainly plenty to keep one occupied as is. The film is, of course, a screwball comedy absolutely bent on throwing every possible obstacle it can into the path of its intended couple, coming up with more twists than you expect...
However, thanks largely to the brilliant writing and direction provided by Sturges, it actually also plays very close and very insightfully to the theme of what Stanley Cavell calls 'remarriage comedy'. The idea behind this is that legal or religious marriages, the 'first' marriages of the couple concerned in such comedies, are actually sham marriages. It isn't saying 'I do' or signing a piece of paper that makes a marriage a marriage; it's the behaviour of the couple, their own endorsement, that makes it a true marriage. This theme is reflected in, for example, THE AWFUL TRUTH, which sees Lucy and Jerry Warriner divorcing (their first, sham marriage didn't work out) but getting back together again for a true, albeit not yet legalised, union. The same theme pervades THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Preston Sturges very skilfully and effectively--but subtly!--brings this theme to his film as well. Eve and Charlie are married, but it is only when Charlie asks Jean for forgiveness and vice versa is it possible for the fact that they are married (to each other, as poor Charlie does not know!) to become significant and actually positively affirmed.
This isn't the only interesting point the film makes while appearing to be little more than a fluffy piece of entertainment--when Charlie breaks Jean's heart, she tells him, "The best [girls] aren't as good as you think they are and the bad ones aren't as bad. Not nearly as bad." She sets out to prove this, both in her fabricated 'good-girl' persona as Eve (later revealed to have had many MANY suitors) and her real 'bad-girl' con-artist self Jean (who has a soft heart and a love for Charlie that proves to be one of her virtues). Practically everyone in the film has (at least) two names by which they're known: Jean/Eve, Charlie/Hopsie, Muggsy/Murgatroyd/Ambrose, Harry/Colonel Harrington, Pearlie/Sir Alfred and so on. This suggests, quite rightly, that people are complicated complex beings, and that appearances often have nothing to do with reality. It also brings the film's story to a head--Jean and Charlie can never be happy together until Charlie can accept Jean as she is, and this he presumably will have learnt through his short, disastrous 'marriage' to Eve.
Stanwyck and Fonda are really outstanding in this film. Stanwyck's job is to persuasively depict two characters, and then effect a blend of the two of them in the final minutes of the story, and she pulls off both the sassy, confident Jean and the elegant, British Eve perfectly. It's not hard to imagine Charlie falling hard for Jean, even with her hard-headed casing of the joint and her prospective competition (appropriately deemed second-rate) for his affections... a very memorable scene involving her make-up mirror and a narrative voice-over, the latter of which is used to great effect in the lead-up to the 'romantic scene and horse' bit which follows later in the film. Fonda has the apparently easier job of appearing mostly colourless and stodgy as he spends most of his screen time reacting to situations created by both Jean and Eve, but I contend that it must really take quite a lot of true acting ability to execute the pratfalls that he does without making Charlie such a wimp that you can't imagine Jean still wanting him at the very end. Though not quite as effective as Cary Grant, who has to do the same thing in the face of Katharine Hepburn's breathlessly effusive Susan Vance in BRINGING UP BABY, Fonda still brings a sweet charm to his role as the not-at-all-slick, often befuddled Charlie Pike. Add these two classy performances to that given by the able supporting cast, and THE LADY EVE is not just well-scripted and directed, but also very very well-acted indeed.
So, watch this film the first time just for fun--be charmed by the characters, by the dialogue, by the actors, by everything. Then watch it again to realise just how subtly and effectively THE LADY EVE actually makes several comments on marriage and on love. I highly recommend getting your hands on the Criterion Collection DVD, which has (aside from a tremendous photo gallery and interview with Peter Bogdanavich and other special features) a fantastic, thought-provoking commentary by film critic Marian Keane--it most certainly got *me* thinking!
This is another Preston Sturges masterpiece! With "The Lady Eve", Mr. Sturges proves he was at the pinnacle of his career. Rarely do all elements mesh together into films that are pleasing as well as showing intelligence to the viewer. This comedy has its heart in the right place.
Mr. Sturges assembled an amazing cast to appear in the movie. Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda make the ideal players for Jean Harrington aka Lady Eve Sidwish, and Charles Pike. The saying that opposites attract is well demonstrated in the film when we watch these two different characters fall for one another. Ms. Stanwyck shows in this film her great timing; she is seen at her most attractive as the devious Jane/Eve. Henry Fonda is excellent playing comedy. Under Sturges' tight direction both these actors show why they were about the best in the business.
The strength with Mr. Sturges' films are the fantastic group of actors that follow him from movie to movie. Thus, we see William Demarest, one of the best character actors of the time, playing Mugssie. Eric Blore, another impressive English actor does amazing work as Pearlie. Charles Coburn is perfect as the gambling father. Eugene Palette plays Charlie's father. There are many more that make contributions to the success of this film.
Preston Sturges shows with this film he was one of the best auteurs in Hollywood, even when the term had not been coined.
This is an interesting combination of talents and material that works very well, thanks most of all to Preston Sturges's ability to create a distinctive feel to his pictures. "The Lady Eve" has many of the elements familiar to screwball comedy, and yet it is something a little different, a little more than the oddball characters and comical plot developments.
Barbara Stanwyck has quite an interesting role that allows her at times to assume several different personas. She shows good versatility, and effectively brings out the different sides of her character's nature. Henry Fonda works better than you would expect in such a comic picture. He is wisely used as a straight man most of the time, and even his occasional stiffness actually fits the role.
Much of the supporting cast gets only limited opportunities, but they are generally good also, especially Charles Coburn, who is perfectly cast as Stanwyck's shifty father.
There are many amusing moments, yet often with a current of humanity underneath. Sturges and the cast keep the laughs coming while also making sure that you care about the characters.
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* At the beginning Henry Fonda makes references to the help of a "Professor Marsdit". Raymond L. Ditmars of the AMNH at the time was the best-known reptile expert in the country, the kind of popularizer that Carl Sagan later became.
* This film was selected to the National Film Registry, Library of Congress, in 1994.
* Preston Sturges wrote the script in Reno, Nevada, while awaiting his third divorce.
* It was hibernation season during the shoot so Emma the king snake was always sleeping while also shedding her skin. Needless to say, she was very uncooperative.
* The check that that Henry Fonda's character, Charles Pike, writes to Charles Coburn, playing "Colonel" Harrington, is dated August 29. August 29th is director Preston Sturges' birthday.
* When Muggsy places a brush over his face and imitates Hitler, he is really speaking Swedish. Directly translated he is saying: "Bad boy I'm going to hit you on the jaw".
* One of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by MCA ever since.