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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!
Great film, great entertainment, great message!
As a lifelong Preston Sturges fan, I find the problem with submitting 'user comments' on his films to be twofold. The first is where to begin, the second how to stop. A third problem (growing out of the first two) manifests itself immediately upon watching a flawless jewel like THE LADY EVE: why even bother to praise it? No matter how accurate or elegant a rave you write, they'd still be merely words, and words can't do Sturges justice...not after hearing and seeing his own words spinning like a thousand plates over the 90-odd minutes it takes for this film to utterly captivate you. Unlike many black-and-white products of the studio era, which generate condescension or apathy among the Gen X'ers of today (when do we get to Gen Z - or are we there already?), the Sturges cult grows with every passing year, as younger fans fall under his spell, drawn initially to his work for the still-startling energy of the stream of raspberries he blew at the Production Code. (In this sense, EVE marks a high point; it's all about sexual gamesmanship, and its tone is both matter-of-fact and dizzyingly playful at the same time.) But hopefully, they're coming for the sizzle and staying for the steak. Like all Sturges' Paramount films, EVE is an embarrassment of riches - a boudoir farce, a slapstick clinic, a cynical dialogue comedy AND a love story of great, soulful heart. It's especially recommended to anyone beset by misery and tribulation as a guaranteed restorative and cure-all. When a movie from any era can so completely take you out of yourself and lift the blackest of clouds without resorting to any cheapjack plot-gimmicks or trite manipulation of an audience's emotions, all you can do is be grateful. Though the unfailingly superb Sturges Players are on hand, in fine form (including of course his human rabbit's foot, Wm Demarest) EVE features a number of actors making their first and only appearances in a Sturges-directed film: Stanwyck, Fonda, Eric Blore, Melville Cooper and perennial Fonda cohort Eugene Pallette. All of them take to the material like catnip, making one long for an alternate reality in which Preston Sturges could have remained unmolested at Paramount for 20 years and a dozen more films than he actually made, not only to see this cast reunited, but to see what might have resulted from any number of quality actors being exposed to the hothouse atmosphere of his screenplays. That it never worked out that way is one more reason to treasure THE LADY EVE.
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
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.
One of my favorite films of the forties and, I believe, one of Barbara Stanwyck's best. Fonda also gets a chance to show some comedic chops as well as the foil for her Eve. It's apparent everyone involved knows they're in something good and enjoys it - Eugene Palette as Fonda's wealthy Father, William Demarest(think Uncle Charlie in My Three Sons)in one of his best supporting roles as Fonda's crusty valet, and Charles Coburn and Eric Blore doing brilliant comic character turns as card sharks on Eve's side. Stanwyck hadn't really cared about clothes before(see Mad Miss Manton) but this time Edith Head came up with some innovations that suddenly made her a fashion hit as well. Her bolero jackets, evening dresses, wedding gown and cap hats were big fashion successes, tailored to Stanwyck's tiny form. But the real star is the sparkling dialogue, delivered flawlessly by everyone. Plenty of one liners, double entendres and an incredibly sexy seduction in one long take where Stanwyck simply toys with Fonda's hair as he reclines, uncomfortably, on the floor beside her. There are other scenes - Stanwyck sizing up the room with commentary as seen thru her makeup mirror...the dinner party where Fonda can't get over how much Eve looks like the girl he left on the ship...a sequence where Fonda's horse started to move in on a romantic scene so Sturges rewrote and reshot other parts, making Fonda the foil of the intrusive horse. See if you can spot the take where the horse actually nibbles on Fonda and watch Stanwyck glide thru it all like a pro. BRILLIANT film -- can't recommend it highly enough - five stars of five - MDMPHD:>
A second viewing of this after many years has confirmed it as truly one of
the great comedies. I don't think Sturges was ever better (although I
haven't seen all his films), and certainly he was never blessed with a
better star pairing than Fonda and Stanwyck, plus his usual wonderful array
of character comedians in the supporting roles. A double bill of Eve with
"Hail the Conquering Hero" reveals that, while both still have their charms,
Eve can still have a theatre rocking with laughter, while Hero leaves them a
bit cold with its descent into Capra-cornish patriotism and mother
The Lady Eve has one of my favourite performances ever from Henry Fonda, showing that his grave sincerity could serve screwball comedy equally as well as Fordian moral uplift. He takes some of the funniest deadpan pratfalls this side of Buster Keaton.
And of course Stanwyck is a delight ... and Charles Coburn ... and Eugene Pallette ... and William Demarest ... and ... and ... ssshhh ... Eric Blore.
If you've never seen it, give yourself a treat
In this period of Henry Fonda's career, most of the good films was
stuff he made away from his studio at 20th Century Fox. The Lady Eve is
one of the best examples of that,
With the success that Preston Sturges had with Christmas in July and The Great McGinty the year before, Paramount decided now they could trust Sturges with a big budget and an A list pair of leads. In fact they borrowed Henry Fonda from Darryl Zanuck and signed the then freelancing Barbara Stanwyck.
This was a banner year in the career of Barbara Stanwyck. She did Meet John Doe, The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire in the same year, the last one she got an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The Lady Eve came first and paved the way for a similar role in Ball of Fire.
She's a street smart dame in both films, in the Lady Eve she's a shill for her conman father Charles Coburn and in Ball of Fire she's a nightclub singer and moll for gangster Dana Andrews. In both films she falls for rather withdrawn, naive, and bookish sort of men who bring out the mother instinct in her. In fact she has similar nicknames for them, Gary Cooper is called Pottsie and Henry Fonda is Hopsie.
Stanwyck, Coburn, and Melville Cooper are a trio of con artists who are looking for a fresh pigeon and they find one in Henry Fonda who is a millionaire's kid. Fonda today would be called a trust fund baby, but he has an interest in science and he's coming back from the Amazon on a boat when meets up with the slick trio.
Of course Stanwyck falls for the shy and bumbling Fonda, but there are many hurdles to overcome before these two find happiness.
This may have been Henry Fonda's best comedy part. And like Joel McCrea in other Preston Sturges films, Fonda does so well in the part because he plays it absolutely straight. No tongue in cheek, no winks at the audience, Fonda plays it straight and sincere.
The usual Preston Sturges stock company is here and prominent in the cast is always William Demarest as the mug that is a kind of bodyguard factotum for Fonda. Hired of course by Eugene Palette in another one of his crotchety millionaire father roles.
Best scene in the film is right at the beginning as Stanwyck analyzes all the moves a lot of the other females on board are using to attract Fonda before she decides on a very direct approach.
The Lady Eve holds up very well as do all of Preston Sturges's work after over 60 years. I do kind of wonder though if Stanwyck can control that streak of larceny in her even though she's marrying a millionaire who can give her anything.
A stunningly beautiful film -- and very funny, too, with 2 of the strongest leads in film paired memorably. Some moments, like Fonda slouching on the floor and Stanwyck drooping onto him in a wry parody of Hollywood lovemaking, actually achieve the grace and beauty of the best silent films. The story takes some fairly predictable turns, and the script and direction by Sturges are first rate. Fonda is very broad but miraculously pulls it off, and Stanwyck revels in the excellent role she plays (two roles in one, no less, an actor's dream!). One of the best comedies of the "classic" Hollywood era.
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
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.
OK so the plot of The Lady Eve doesn't make a lot of sense, but why
should it? It's fast, funny, and offers two great stars--Barbara
Stanwyck and Henry Fonda--great roles. Although both stars were better
known for their dramatic roles, Fonda and Stanwyck breeze thru this
romp in classic style.
Fonda plays a rich goofus who falls for Jean (Stanwyck) onboard an ocean liner but she turns out to be a crook so he dumps her. To get even, she pretends to be the British Lady Eve and crashes his Connecticut manor. He falls for her again.
Surprisingly racy lines for a 1941 comedy and a totally wonderful supporting cast make this a must see. Charles Coburn plays Stanwyck's father. Eugene Palette and Janet Beecher are Fonda's parents. William Demarest is the valet. Eric Blore is the faux earl. Melville Cooper is Coburn's valet. Robert Greig is the butler. Torben Meyer is the purser, and Martha O'Driscoll is a maid. The film is full of other faces familiar from Preston Sturges comedies: Jimmy Conlin, Al Bridge, Julius Tannen, Robert Warwick, and Robert Dudley. Also look for Bess Flowers, Barbara Pepper, and Luis Alberni.
First and foremost, however, are Stanwyck and Fonda. They made 3 films together and they are perfect Sturges types. He is still and gawky but basically good. She is slightly bad and sexy but basically good. It would be easy to replace Fonda in this film with another Sturges favorite, Joel McCrea, or replace Stanwyck with Veronica Lake (the star's of his Sullivan's Travels) and this would have been a good film. But Fonda and Stanwyck make this edgier than Lake and McCrea could have made it. Indeed if Fonda had been the star of Sullivan's Travels, that film would be in the top ten on all film fans' lists.
But The Lady Eve is just terrific. It's a comedy that runs hot on pacing, great lines, and the charisma and chemistry of two major stars. How odd that this classic comedy received only one Oscar nomination--for writing. Preston Sturges would be nominated for writing 3 times and win for The Great McGinty. He was never nominated as a director. The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero remain cornerstones of 40s comedy.
The Lady Eve is a must see for fans of great comedy and the likes of Sturges, Stanwyck, and Fonda!
I don't know how I missed seeing this until now, but tonight I watched THE
LADY EVE unfurl on TCM and took notice of how great the chemistry was
between BARBARA STANWYCK and HENRY FONDA. And even more so, how fantastic
their ability with screwball comedy had to be in order to make their
characters as believable as they are.
Fonda, especially, impressed me with his honestly naive interpretation of a man without guile. He seemed totally hoodwinked by Stanwyck's con artist, even in those relentless close-ups that captured every expression on his Honest Abe face. Stanwyck, of course, had a role tailored to her abilities and was at the top of her form as an actress.
I would have liked a better role for Melville Cooper who is somewhat wasted in his rather thankless supporting role but Charles Coburn, William Demarest and Eric Blore have no such trouble with full-bodied character parts.
Sturgess obviously is a master of long takes--and proves it again in his seduction scene where Stanwyck toys with Fonda's hair as she drapes herself across him, a spider spinning her web. Her best moment is the scene in the dining room where she uses her make-up mirror to make a running commentary on all the women who are ogling the rich catch (Fonda) while he becomes aware of the female attention. Although Fonda's pratfalls are painfully real, Sturges lets them occur a little too frequently. Demarest too has his share of falls--as he did in that other Sturges masterpiece, THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK.
Fonda's performance ranks with his mild professor in THE MALE ANIMAL. As for Stanwyck, her professionalism has never been more solid. She was nominated in 1941 for Best Actress in BALL OF FIRE but she is equally impressive in her dual role assignment here.
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