To modern audiences, screwball comedies serve as slapstick forms of the moving image. Yet, behind this, they unbalance gender politics in placing the dim-witted male against an intellectually superior female protagonist. No exception to this is Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.
Fighting his way into the director’s chair after years as a script writer, the film truly marked the start of Sturges career as a director. Further, it’s the perfect piece, aside from Double Indemnity, in displaying the magnetism of Stanwyck as an actor. Opening with a title sequence that is entirely animated, alluding heavily towards the biblical connotations in the title, this note underlines the unpredictable ways The Lady Eve weaves its charm on you.
Swiftly cutting to Fonda’s Charles receiving a very physical snake, sadly not animated, from an indigenous Amazonian tribe, after a year spent with them, he is quickly aboard a five-star cruiser. Back in his natural territory, adorning a gleaming white tuxedo, his is the heir to brewery fortune. Amongst the rich and affluent on board the cruiser, he is the centre of attention to all the women in the dining hall. To Stanwyck’s Jean who observes him through her make-up mirror, he is the object desired for his riches. Alongside her father ‘Colonel’ Harrington (Charles Coburn), the both of them are high-flying card sharks who seek to steal from the rich to give to themselves.
Illustrating Jean’s allure for Charles’ wealth in a purely cinematic fashion, Victor Milner’s camera focuses in on her as she gazes at him through her make-up mirror. Playing out as numerous women attempt to gain his attention, the cynical Jean commentates on their pitiful acts, all whilst the camera remains fix on the reflecting mirror. Once Charles has had enough of the attention, he decides to retreat to his room but not before Jean creates the meet-cute of the narrative; simply sticking out her leg to trip him up. Part of a greater comical plot, the physical comedy written into the script is balanced by the fine dialogue – all exemplary in this initial scene.
Performing against type Fonda is less macho more moronic in this role. Pitted against the sharp Stanwyck their characters should build a deep chemistry in theory. Nevertheless, what transpires after Jean instigates the meet cute is a delicate romance. For its time the narrative is predictable in the inevitable break up / reunion of Jean and Charles. At face value this predictability could age poorly but what in fact transpires, all thanks to the script, performances and execution is a screwball comedy masterclass. A further example of the two leads ability to elevate material comes in The Mad Miss Manton. Yet, in The Lady Eve the stars have never shined so bright for either.
Outside the central love duo, the world of the affluent is imbued with further scene stealing characters as Muggsy (William Demarest). Charles’ supervisor of sorts deployed by his father (Eugene Pallette). Given the last line of the film, Demarest forges a character out of so little dialogue, mainly through a physical presence. The combination of these two factors means a lingering impression of the film does not just rest on the director or starts. Coinciding with the BFI’s Barbara Stanwyck season, there has not been a better time to revisit Sturges and co on the big screen.