Nathan: In The Lady Eve, the scorching sensuality of Barbara Stanwyck’s Jean Harrington reduces Henry Fonda’s Charles Pike to a state of babbling delirium. Her effrontery clouds his thinking until he’s nearly incapable of stringing words into coherent sentences. Director Preston Sturges uses long takes to put audiences in the same position as Charles, as Jean works her magic on him: Without the release valve of cutaways, we’re liable to be just as seduced as Charles. There’s no escaping Jean, and why on earth would anyone want to? Sturges also employs some flashy stylistic devices, my favorite being the scene where the action is framed in Jean’s mirror as she delivers an irreverent play-by-play on her rivals’ doomed attempts to win Charles’ affection, or even his attention. It tells us exactly who Jean is and how she sees the world, but it’s also enormously entertaining in its own right. What are some of your favorite stylistic choices? And isn’t the production and costume design gorgeous? I want to live in the world of The Lady Eve, to wear its clothes and embody its elegant emotions.
Noel: What’s great about the gorgeousness of The Lady Eve, Nathan, is how Sturges subverts it with slapstick—most memorably in the big party sequence at the Pike mansion, where Charles keeps having to change his clothes because he gets trays of cocktails and an entire roast dumped on him. Jean/Eve is especially good at making the dapper Charles look like a fool, using her slick patter to work him into situations where he’s on his knees or on his rump. The most distinctive thing about Sturges’ films isn’t their visual component (although he knew where the put the camera), but his snappy dialogue, which is so often delivered deadpan. Think of the monotone way the waiter mutters “rah rah rah” after asking the bartender for another bottle of Pike’s Pale, “The ale that won for Yale.” That’s one of the keys to Sturges’ comedy: the contrast between the witty lines and the flat delivery. But then, Sturges generally saw the comic potential in contrasts. One of my favorite scenes in the film is the one where Charles and Eve go horseback riding, then stand in a picturesque spot so Charles can pitch woo… all while his horse keeps nuzzling in and interrupting them. The way Charles earnestly tries to continue with his romantic spiel while the horse nibbles at his head never fails to slay me.
Scott: Sturges’ visual inventiveness can get undersold when people talk too much about the sparkling material that comes off the page. Noel and Nathan have already mentioned two prominent examples: The long take of Jean cradling Charles and so overwhelming him with her sexuality that he’s practically paralyzed by it, and the scene where Jean watches Charles interact with various gold-diggers through her compact mirror. (A mirror to society.) Here’s a third: When Charles shows up to board the ship—an event in itself, since all the other passengers presumably entered at port—Sturges pans across the gawking onlookers, who are abuzz with gossip, and then cuts to Jean, who drops an apple on Charles’ head.
And how about that structure? The Lady Eve goes off in a daring direction when Jean, having been rejected by Charles for her (initial) criminal intent, resolves to return to his life as “Lady Eve Sidwich,” but doesn’t change anything about herself except the accent. The fact that Charles does accept Sidwich as another person makes for some great screwball comedy, but it also says something about the fantasy and self-deception that love can inspire. It’s a deeply romantic film at heart.
Keith: That’s why I love the ending so: All the deception and affected cynicism melt away, thanks to love. It’s been there all along, trying on different guises—sex, revenge—but ultimately, these two characters are crazy about each other. Sturges teases out their getting together until the last possible moment, then ends the film. Of course. There’s nowhere else to go from here.
Sex and sensuality
Noel: As is often the case with older Hollywood movies—in those years between the 1930s and the 1960s, when sex apparently ceased to exist—a lot of trouble in The Lady Eve could’ve been avoided if Charles and Jean had just hopped into bed together the first night they met. And Sturges seems to suggest the same. Heck, there aren’t that many current movies that depict flirting and teasing as persuasively as The Lady Eve does, especially in those two long early scenes in Jean’s cabin, where she makes Charles put on her shoe, then has him comfort her on the fainting couch after she’s frightened by his snake. In both, Stanwyck is so forward—leaning into Charles, thrusting out her leg and chest—that I could practically smell that reportedly intoxicating perfume she’s wearing. And Fonda really sells how twitterpated Jean makes Charles, as he gulps his words, gallantly tugs down the hem of her skirt, and steals a glance back at her torso when she tells him it’s time for him to go to bed. I’m just going to say it outright: For a screwball comedy made under the strictures of the Hollywood production code, The Lady Eve is sexy as hell.
Scott: I don’t want to get too hubba-hubba about it, but Stanwyck’s sexuality here stretches our understanding of the word “suggestive.” Jean has a quick wit, but much of her seduction of Charles is physical, whether she’s tripping him with her heel to get him to notice her, or putting herself on display next to the shoe rack. Stanwyck’s full-court press here, and in Double Indemnity, goes against the assumption that films and actresses of that period had to be more sexually timid. Her initiative is awfully persuasive.
Nathan: “Sexy as hell” doesn’t do it justice, Noel. It seemed like Sturges was trying to make foot-fetishists of us all, or at least trying to posit “women’s-shoe salesman” as the single most erotic profession in the world. Stanwyck’s confidence is a huge part of what makes her so attractive; she has a strong enough personality that she can more or less will Fonda into falling in love with her. But Fonda’s complete lack of confidence, that dizzy sense that he can barely string words together when he’s in her presence, is oddly sexy as well, as is the film’s decadent style. Costume designer Edith Head won eight Oscars, more than any woman in history, but it’s mind-boggling why she wasn’t even nominated for her work here, particularly Stanwyck’s dresses, which manage to make a relatively modest display of skin (particularly by today’s standards) seem almost obscenely sensual.
Keith: Nathan, before we re-watched this, you mentioned that Fred MacMurray was almost cast as Charles. I love MacMurray, and he and Stanwyck have obvious chemistry together (as most famously evidenced in Double Indemnity), but I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role. Fonda’s natural, square-jawed virtuousness can edge into naïveté, and he uses that quality brilliantly here. He isn’t dumb, but he does seem like a guy who’s never sat on the same bench with a woman for more than a few minutes at a time, much less met anyone like Jean. He thinks he’s wading in the shallows, but he’s in over his head from the start.
The battle of the sexes
Scott: My Keynote from yesterday expands on this idea a bit, but one of the reasons the classic romantic comedies of the period worked so brilliantly is that something important was at stake socially. Along with The Awful Truth and all those Tracy-Hepburn movies, particularly Adam’s Rib, The Lady Eve gets its tension from women who are stepping out of their prescribed subordinate roles and demanding equality by taking more control over their destinies. In this sense, the movies were reflecting changes in society and getting a spark from the shifting gender roles. Though Charles has all the money, Jean is dictating the action in The Lady Eve. The entire movie is about them needing to get to a place where neither one of them is holding anything over the other, and they can commit on equal terms. I wish the rom-coms of today were as progressive.
Noel: I suppose some could see the movie differently, Scott, given that so much of Jean’s power is tied to her ability to seduce and deceive. (“They say a moonlit deck is a woman’s business office,” she says with a chuckle.) But I’m with you. The scene on the train toward the end, when “Eve” tells Charles about her long line of boyfriends, is both funny and a case of Jean using the Pikes’ stuffy upper-class morality against them. It’s her knowing every possible specimen of “sucker-sapien,” and exploiting them to get what she wants.
Nathan: You’re right, Noel, that sexuality is the source of so much of Jean’s power, both to seduce and to alienate. But it’s a power she wields in order to level the playing field between her, a woman of modest but enterprising means, and a man who views his enormous power, an accident of birth as much as anything else, as an annoyance that keeps him from his beloved reptiles. And let us not forget that Jean is a professional criminal, albeit one with so much style that it’s hard to hold anything against her. This speaks to the duality of larceny-minded screwball heroines like Jean and the femmes fatale of film noir, who were beginning to hit screens around the time The Lady Eve was released. They were powerfully ambivalent figures in that they presented an image of strong, assertive, and sex-positive womanhood, while at the same time representing a threat, both in terms of their criminal schemes and their enormous strength of will.
Keith: Here’s a neat Wikipedia page: “List of actors who frequently worked with Preston Sturges.” Click on any of those names and look at those photos. I’m not sure any director this side of Fellini had a better sense for how to fill a movie with impossible-to-forget faces. Even if Eugene Pallette, who plays Charles’ father, never opened his mouth to let out a froggy croak, he’d still make a memorable impression. Sturges had a terrific stock company, and the pleasures of watching the same actors take on different roles for the same filmmakers has largely been lost over the years, outside of Wes Anderson movies. There’s a special joy to realizing, “Oh, it’s that guy again. He was funny in the last one. Let’s see what he does here.” My favorite in this bunch is William Demarest, who plays Muggsy, and who later became famous as Uncle Charley on My Three Sons. Here, he plays a harder version of that overprotective father surrogate, and he’s great in every scene. Who’s your favorite stock player here?
Noel: I’ve got to go with the aforementioned Pallette, who has one of the best scenes in The Lady Eve, when he comes down to breakfast and finds that everyone on staff’s so preoccupied by the party (which he knew nothing about), no one bothered to feed him. He goes from being mildly miffed to throwing a full-on tantrum, looking like a big baby in a business suit. It all goes back to Sturges’ recurring habit of making ritzy folks look pretentious and silly.
Nathan: And I will have to go for Charles Coburn, the corpulent character actor who plays Colonel Harrington. On paper, the character should be deplorable, a veteran con artist who ropes his all-too-willing daughter into his schemes. But Coburn fills the role with rakish charm and droll wit. He and his daughter/partner-in-crime are invariably the smartest people in the room, and it’s fascinating to watch Jean manipulate her father’s manipulation of their mark in ways that play out in pointed expressions as much as words. But there’s a real sense of warmth and tenderness to their relationship as well. In his own strange way, he’s a loving father. Jean may get her good looks from her mother (there’s a reason one of Coburn’s best-known roles was as a character nicknamed “Piggy” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), but it’s equally obvious where she got her smarts, humor, and finely tuned cynicism.
Scott: To me, the single most delightful moment in The Lady Eve is Stanwyck’s reaction when Charles tries to wow Jean and her father with his amateur palming. “Oh, he does card tricks!” she says, with a delight that simultaneously gratifies Charles and signals to her father (and the audience) that he’s going to be very easy to con. We also never talked about how Jean takes to calling him “Hopsie” immediately after he expresses his annoyance with the nickname. She knows how to get to him, and it isn’t through flattery.
Noel: I could just run down a list of all the sound advice and philosophy in The Lady Eve: “Don’t take no wooden money,” “A mug is a mug in everything,” “Let us be crooked but never common,” and my favorite, “Always pick a woman with good teeth, it’ll save expense later.”
Nathan: One of the things I love about Sturges is how dark and risqué his work frequently was. Seen today, it seems like a miracle that he got salacious, double-entendre-filled movies like Unfaithfully Yours (about a man contemplating killing his wife for being unfaithful) and The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek (about a woman who doesn’t know who the father of her child is, so she settles on a poor sap played by Eddie Bracken) past the Hays Code. And it’s impressive that he smuggled past the God brigade a sequence as bursting with sexual inference as the scene where Jean cavalierly recites her endlessly complicated romantic relationships with seemingly everyone in North America other than Charles. Fonda’s performance is rich in wonderful reaction shots: It seems like his head is going to explode, Scanners-style, from barely suppressed rage and jealousy with each new revelation. The Lady Eve is not an understated film, and it goes about the business of separating its central lovebirds with characteristic flair.
Keith: I’ll just offer this: How can a film be this cutting and skeptical about human nature, and yet so warm and full of love at the same time? It’s a balance Sturges never fails to get right here, or in his best work. I'd call it a science, but it feels more like a miracle.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of The Lady Eve ends here. Don’t miss yesterday’s Keynote on how the film succeeds by letting its leads struggle to find equal footing. And join us next week as we don our best costumes for discussing the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens.