Lady Eve, The: Sturges’ Top Screwball Comedy, Starring Stanwyck and Henry Fonda

In “The Lady Eve,” arguably Preston Sturges’ wittiest and most brilliantly polished masterpiece, Henry Fonda, on a loan to Paramount from his home studio Fox, plays Charles Pike, a shy, nave man with the innocent charm of Cooper in “Mrs. Deeds Goes to Town” or Stewart in the early chapters of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” As Jean Harrington, his polar opposite, Barbara Stanwyck embodies the sophisticated temptress, giving one of her sexiest and most knowing performances.

The son of a wealthy brewer (Eugene Palette), whose slogan is “Pike’s Pale, the Ale That Won for Yale,” Charles is timid and awkward, more interested in snakes than in women–or anything else.

The couple meets aboard a ship, whereupon Jean begins playing games as a predatory, then masquerades as a mythical Lady Eve to entrap the very eligible bachelor Charles. To impress Charles, the father and daughter card sharps pretend to have a butler, Gerard (Melville Cooper).

The two leads are not usually associated with sly clowning. At first, critics were surprised with the comedic skills of Stanwyck, an actress known for her abrasive personality and more aggressive roles. Ditto for Fonda, just coming after heavy-duty roles, in Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and other films. Fonda really shines as the rich sucker who is made a fool of, after making a fool of himself. Stanwyck’s combo of feminine charm and manipulative viciousness is enchanting.

A cast of pros, including Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, Eric Blore, William Demarest, shines in roles specifically written for them. The critic Andrew Sarris noted that Sturges wrote “more funny lines for his bit players than contemporary jokesmiths can write for their leads.”

The honeymoon sequence that Sturges devises in a flower-decked compartment is a highlight among many other deliciously funny ones. As director, Sturges articulates deftly witty exchanges with arrant slapstick. If memory serves, no less than six flat falls are taken by Fonda. Fast and hilarious, the film sustains its comic flavor, and is played to breezy perfection.

Six decades after it was made, “Lady Eve” is just as fresh, bright and sparkling. Sturges’ densely rich dialogue is rapidly delivered by the thespians. “Lady Eve” established Sturges as Hollywood’s top writer-director of comedies, having already made “The Great McGinty” and “Christmas in July.” His bubbling and frothy comedy-romance was released in grim and grime times, just before the US entered into WWII.

Remake Alert

Stay away from the monstrous remake with George Gobel and Mitzi Gaynor

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nomination: 1

Original Story: Monckton Hoffe

Oscar Context:

The winner was Harry Segall for “Here Comes Mr. Jordan.”

Cast

Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck)
Charles Pike (Henry Fonda)
Colonel Harry Harrington (Charles Coburn)
Mr. Pike (Eugene Palette)
Mugsy-Ambrose Murgatroyd (William Demarest)
Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith (Eric Blore)
Gerlad (Melville Cooper)
Martha (Martha O’Driscoll)
Mrs. Pike (Janet Beecher)
Burrows (Robert Greig)

Credits:

Produced by Paul Jones.
Directed by Preston Sturges.
Screenplay: Preston Sturges, based on the story “The Faithful Heart,” by Monckton Hoffe.
Camera; Victor Milner.
Editing: Stuart Gilmore.
Art direction: Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegte.
Costumes: Edith Head.