The Lady Eve (1941)
September 27, 2022 3:25 PM - Subscribe

A trio of classy card sharks targets a socially awkward brewery heir, until one of them falls in love with him.

It's no accident when wealthy Charles (Henry Fonda) falls for Jean (Barbara Stanwyck). Jean is a con artist with her sights set on Charles' fortune. Matters complicate when Jean starts falling for her mark. When Charles suspects Jean is a gold digger, he dumps her. Jean, fixated on revenge and still pining for the millionaire, devises a plan to get back in Charles' life. With love and payback on her mind, she re-introduces herself to Charles, this time as an aristocrat named Lady Eve Sidwich.

Roger Ebert: If I were asked to name the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest at the same time, I would advise beginning at six seconds past the 20-minute mark in Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve,” and watching as Barbara Stanwyck toys with Henry Fonda's hair in an unbroken shot that lasts three minutes and 51 seconds.

Stanwyck plays an adventuress who has lured a rich but unworldly young bachelor to her cabin on an ocean liner, and is skillfully tantalizing him. She reclines on a chaise. He has landed on the floor next to her. "Hold me tight!” she says, holding him tight -- allegedly because she has been frightened by a snake. Now begins the unbroken shot. Her right arm cradles his head, and as she talks she toys with his earlobe and runs her fingers through his hair. She teases, kids and flirts with him, and he remains almost paralyzed with shyness and self-consciousness. And at some point during this process, she falls for him.

Josephine O'Neill: This glittering, frisky comedy was written and directed by Preston Sturges - that gentleman who delights in doing familiar things in a new way. Here is the old theme of woman chases man, But the woman is a cardsharp, who later impersonates an English noblewoman just for the fun of it: you will be surprised how excellently Barbara Stanwyck does this comedy role. The man is Jenry Fonda, still sober-minded, but clad in the white tie and tails of a millionaire. The onlookers include Charles Coburn's masterly sketch of the card-sharp mastermind. And the situations are Preson Sturges at his bright-eyed best. "The Lady Eve" has some cracks for the sophisticated situations that are both salty and saucy, and a winning disregard for the Hollywood approach.

Josh Larsen: But consider the physical comedy she brings to the part as well, as when she nudges Hopsie off a chair onto the floor, holds him there with her arms, begins mussing his hair, and purrs, “You’re very sweet. Don’t let me go.” He’s not going anywhere (and she’s not going to let him). Delightfully dazed, Fonda is sweet—and silly and sincere. I can’t think of a better guy I’d rather laugh at. The Lady Eve is stuffed with throwaway gags (the nosy horse that repeatedly interrupts Hopsie’s marriage proposal), but it also has an ingenious, circular narrative structure, moving from Jean and Hopsie’s meet-con turned meet-cute on a cruise ship (where Hopsie gets his hair mussed); to her disguised appearance as Lady Eve Sidwich at Hopsie’s Connecticut mansion (where a discombobulated Hopsie has a few run-ins with the furniture); to their honeymoon on a train (where “Lady Eve” confesses all of her previous paramours). Eventually we come full circle, back on a boat, where things are sewn up in a cinch. Lest I undersell Sturges’ talent as a director, it’s worth noting the dexterous blocking of the pratfalls, as well as the parallel cutting during the montage in which Lady Eve runs through the list of her other men. Each name is interrupted by a shot of the train plunging into a tunnel as the whistle screams; it’s comic editing at its best.

posted by Carillon (4 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Man this was so good! I love movies that lean into their weirdness by calling it out. "Oh that's totally a different woman because there's no way she'd not change her appearance at all to fool me". Even at the end it's not entirely clear that he knows she's the same person! Stanwyck is awesome, Fonda is wonderful, just so much fun. I love the ending exchange on the boat.
posted by Carillon at 3:28 PM on September 27, 2022 [1 favorite]

I desperately want prequels about Jean's life prior to this. She's so cool.

I too love the whole "no way that's the same woman because that's too obvious, plus, she has an English accent."

It's all so perfect and delightful.

Barbara Stanwyck forever.
posted by edencosmic at 6:15 PM on September 27, 2022 [3 favorites]

This, and Ball of Fire both came out in 1941, and they are two of the best romantic screwball comedies of all time. Barbra Stanwyck is, I guess, unconventional in her beauty, but the sexiness is off the charts. There’s something grounded and earthy about her. Like, a sense that she’s genuinely a horny and sensual being and not remotely ashamed of it. She’s so self-assured. Maybe part of that is because Henry Fonda in this movie, and Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire are both these naïf man-children, in sharp contrast to her worldliness.

There are not enough superlatives to adequately describe The Lady Eve. It’s a perfect movie and definitely the best of Preston Sturges’ career.
posted by wabbittwax at 5:51 AM on September 28, 2022 [3 favorites]

In 1939, Sturges cut a deal with Paramount to trade his fees for the screenplay for The Great McGinty for the chance to direct it. Then began one of the most amazing streaks in motion picture history, each one of which he wrote and directed:
1940 The Great McGinty
1940 Christmas in July
1941 The Lady Eve
1941 Sullivan's Travels
1942 The Palm Beach Story
1944 The Miracle of Morgan's Creek
1944 Hail the Conquering Hero

Almost any one of these movies would get you a place in the Hollywood pantheon. That Sturges made seven of them in less than four years is unbelievable.
posted by How the runs scored at 8:18 PM on September 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

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