Jean: We'd better get back now.
Charles: Yes, I guess so. You see, where I've been, I mean up the Amazon, you kind of forget how, I mean, when you haven't seen a girl in a long time. (They stand together and remain close together.) I mean, there's something about that perfume that...
Jean: Don't you like my perfume?
Charles: Like it! I'm cock-eyed on it!
Jean: Why Hopsie! You ought to be kept in a cage!
"The Lady Eve" is one of the greatest American comedies. Written and directed by Preston Sturges in 1941, it is also one of the best examples of the screwball comedy ever put onto film.
As is common with most of Sturges' films, "The Lady Eve" is insightful, witty, scandalously suggestive and incredibly funny. The movie has Barbara Stanwyck as a con-woman trying to seduce Henry Fonda out of his fortune, only to discover herself falling in love with him during the scam. Though the premise sounds like a gigantic cliche, the movie infuses the idea with energy and humor, most of which is derived by fantastic performances and the sparkling screenplay by Sturges. One of my all-time favorite comedies, it is a movie that needs to be seen by any serious film geek. People just looking for a good laugh won't be disappointed either.
Snakes, Ale and Ladies: The Story
The story is both simple and complicated. Simple in that it is about two people who fall madly in love and then have to overcome a number of obstacles before they can be together. It is complex in that the plot features a number strange, ludicrous complications that screwball comedies are so well-known for. There are misunderstandings, plot complications and mistaken identities galore.
In a nutshell: Barbara Stanwyck plays Jean Harrington, a con artist on a luxury liner traveling to New York. She is accompanied by her father and partner-in-crime "Colonel" Harrington (played by Charles Coburn) when she comes across Charles Pike (played by Henry Fonda). Charles has just spent "a year up the Amazon" studying snakes, and is heir to a huge ale fortune (not a beer fortune, he adamantly insists). Charles is a smart guy, but we get the sense he's lived the sheltered life of an academic. Jean knows a sucker when she sees one.
In a great scene that takes place in the ship's dining room, Jean watches him reject all the other gold diggers that hit on him while he's trying to read. In one of the many sly sexual jokes, Charles is reading a book called "Are Snakes Necessary?" which is a reference to a popular book of the period called "Is Sex Necessary?" Indeed, throughout the whole movie, Charlie's snakes will be used as a sexual metaphor that Sturges somehow managed to slip in despite the Motion Picture Production Code. Anyway, Jean trips him purposely, which breaks the heel on her shoe, so she "forces" him to come back to her cabin to pick out a new shoe for her.
Inside her cabin, Jean works her magic as she lets Charles put her new shoes on. He spends most of this scene stammering about her perfume and how nice it smells, especially having been "up the Amazon" as long he has. This sets up the movie's best scene which happens later that night.
While walking Jean back to her cabin for the evening, she "accidentally" leads him to the wrong deck, where his cabin just so happens to be. Talking about Emma, the snake he's transporting, they have the following exchange:
Charles: Would you care to come in...(he clears his throat) and see Emma?
Jean (flippantly): That's a new one, isn't it?
Again, we have the snake as obvious sexual metaphor. When Jean finds out he has an actual snake, she becomes terrified and runs back to her cabin screaming. He dutifully follows her back (it's interesting in how many of the early scenes she's able to manipulate him by playing on his sense of chivalry) where she tells him to "hold me tight" while she's the one doing all the holding.
The eventually end up sitting together on a chair, which Charles promptly falls out of. He's on the ground, she's in the chair and she holds his head tightly, caressing his ear and playing with his hair. This shot lasts for more than three minutes and is amazing for the way it combines humor and raw lust, all while skirting the boundaries of the production code. They have a very funny conversation about who their ideal spouse would be in which Jean, in a great example of screwball logic, explains how she'd never marry her ideal husband because she wants the man she marries to surprise her.
The entire scene hinges upon the brilliant screenplay as well as the performances from Stanwyck and Fonda. Stanwyck is a temptress who is playing the role of an innocent; like every great seductress she realizes that men find few things more irresistible than the innocent woman who burns with a hidden passion. Fonda is also faced with a sort of duality: he's trying his best to be a gentleman but keeps getting distracted the sight of her legs, the smell of her perfume or the way her fingers lightly stroke his ear.
The scene ends with the following bit of dialogue:
Jean: And the night will be heavy with perfume. And I'll hear a step behind me and somebody breathing heavily, and then...(She moans and sighs softly as she stretches back langorously on the chaise) You'd better go to bed, Hopsie. I think I can sleep peacefully now.
Charles (tugging his collar out because of the sexual heat that has been generated): I wish I could say the same.
Jean: Why Hopsie! (He rises to his feet and goes to the door. She giggles to herself.)
By the end of the scene, it has become clear that Charles has fallen madly in love with Jean (as if he had any choice). Jean finds, much to her surprise, that she has also fallen in love with him, as well. At about this time, Charles finds out she was originally conning him, and the two part ways bitterly in New York.
This sets up the movie's second half, in which Jean pretends to be an English lady (calling herself Eve, hence the film's title) and returns to Charles' life. When her father asks why she's going back to see him, she replies, "I need him like the axe needs the turkey."
Her reappearance causes poor Charlie's head to spin, as she looks exactly like the woman he fell in love with (her only disguise is an English accent). There is a funny scene at Charles' house as Eve attends a lavish dinner and her presence is such a shock that Charles stumbles over every piece of furniture in sight.
Charles' faithful bodyguard, Muggsy (a great deadpan performance by William Demarest) is convinced that "it's the same dame!" Here Charles resorts to some great screwball logic of his own:
If she came here with her hair dyed yellow and eyebrows different or something...But she didn't dye her hair and she didn't pretend she'd never seen me before which is the first thing that anybody'd do. She says I look familiar...If she didn't look so exactly like the other girl, I might be suspicious, but you don't understand psychology. If you wanted to pretend you were somebody else, you'd glue a muff on your chin and the dog wouldn't even bark at ya.
Charles' refusal to believe Eve is Jean leads to his falling in love with her all over again. This leads to a wedding, and my personal favorite scene which takes place on their wedding night as Eve recounts her vast multitude of former lovers (one of whom was named either Herbert or Hubert -- they were identical twins, you see, and it was oh so hard to tell them apart).
This revelation leads Charles to despair to the point that he sets off for the Amazon once more, presumably to take up a life of snake study in peace and solitude. On the ocean liner once again, there is one final scene that I wouldn't dare spoil for you here. Suffice to say that the movie wraps everything up nicely, and tops it off with two of the best closing lines in movie history.
Reality vs. Illusion: The Movie's Themes
First and foremost, I want to make it clear that the movie is unbelievably funny. In my long-winded story synopsis, I tried to include a sense of the humor, but the perfect delivery of lines and physical humor required of screwball comedy mean that the humor does not translate well to the page (or computer monitor, as is the case here). But it is definitely a comedy, and if you don't get off on film analysis, you'll still enjoy one of the funniest movies ever made. Trust me.
Preston Sturges, however, was a man interested in more than just getting laughs. As he so aptly demonstrates in his other screwball masterpiece, "Sullivan's Travels," he found comedy to be an art capable of conveying complex themes and messages to its audience (on the basis of "Sullivan's Travels," one might be inclined to say he felt comedy the best form to convey information to a mass audience).
"The Lady Eve" contains many themes common among screwball films. The sub-genre was one born of the Great Depression, and generally features characters of the upper class. Much of the humor is focused on a sort of gentle class warfare, in which the foibles of the rich are pointed out. Considering the audience for these pictures was one without a lot of money, it is not hard to see the appeal of such messages.
A fantastic example of this in our movie is that of the elder Pike, Charlie's father. There is a scene near the middle where his army of servants is busy preparing for that night's party, and as such his breakfast is not served with the expediency he demands. He degenerates into throwing a temper tantrum, banging his silverware on the table because he needs his food. The scene is funny today because of the silliness inherent in this large, rich man acting like a child; it is not hard to imagine an audience in 1941 feeling slightly vindicated by such a scene. "Ah," they might think. "Those rich people may have money, but they're not necessarily any better for it."
It is important to note that the movie is not viciously attacking the rich. Mr. Pike is not a bad guy, really, and in later scenes we see him being quite reasonable and genial. We are supposed to indulge at a bit of humor at his expense without hating him. This is comedy to make people feel good, not to motivate social uprisings.
In a similar vein, screwball likes to focus on characters who learn to find fulfillment in areas outside of their careers. Again, in an era where many people were unemployed, it is obvious how this message might be warmly received. During the course of "Eve," Charles replaces his work (studying snakes) with his love of Jean. Charles is quite clear that being with her eclipses any enjoyment his work offered him. Being in love is much more important than being in work.
The major theme of the movie, however, is one that is more than a product of the times. Sturges' script is obsessed with reality and illusions. Deception, both deliberate (Jane's numerous deceptions of Charles) and of the subconscious kind (Charles' refusal to recognize Jane when she's pretending to be Eve), runs rampant throughout the script.
Tellingly, this deception isn't really presented as a bad thing. Rather, those who doubt are the ones who suffer. Consider Muggsy, the bodyguard, is suspicious of everyone and everything the whole movie. He's always right but he's never particularly happy. His eternal skepticism, the movie seems to be saying, keeps him from "letting go" and enjoying life.
Contrast Muggsy with Charles, who spends almost the entire movie being duped and is all the happier for it. His unhappiness comes only when the illusion is shattered (Muggsy shows him that Jane is a con artist). When Jane reappears as Eve, he is completely willing to embrace the delusion despite the fact that it's paper-thin. It seems reasonable to assume that he was so happy before he knew the truth about Jane that he wants to be decieved again, and so lets himself by taken by her "disguise." Because he buys into the fantasy, he is ultimately rewarded with true happiness.
I believe this functions as a sort of allegory for all romantic relationships. Falling head over heels in love requires that we let go of skepticism; all emotions are to some degree irrational and love is no exception. Sturges seems to be arguing that when we really love somebody, we allow ourselves to be taken in by them and we need to accept them in a non-skeptical matter, overlooking flaws. Better to be a happy sap like Charles than an unhappy cynic like Muggsy.
- All direct quotes were verified using filmsite.org's summary located at http://www.filmsite.org/ladye.html.
- Cast list and most of the technical information culled from the invaluable IMDb.
- Some information on film rankings came from http://www.cinepad.com/awards/awards_1-50.htm.
- Much of the section on the themes of the movie was gleaned from an excellent "History of Film" class taught by Bob Sheppard at Palomar College. The author cannot take credit for being that insightful about the movie.
- Any other mistakes are probably the author's.