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The screwball comedy genre is a strange one: it straddles the lowbrow/highbrow divide with one foot planted firmly in each camp. It asks the audience to keep up with a dizzying pace of contrived plot and breathless dialog, while at the same time inviting us to laugh at some of the hoariest sight gags cinema has to offer. It contains scenes of lyrical tenderness right alongside some of the most caustic and cynical investigations of the battle of the sexes. All in all, it is often exasperating, but in the right hands there’s nothing to beat it. Along with Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, and others, Preston Sturges is usually cited as one of the greatest practitioners of the genre, and his film, The Lady Eve, has come to be regarded as among the most quintessential examples of screwball done right.
The Lady Eve is a relatively late addition to the screwball canon, and although it contains many of the same elements as earlier films like Bringing Up Baby, It Happened One Night, My Man Godfrey and others, its mood is a little darker than its predecessors. Part of this may be due to a general darkening of the national mood, with World War II looming on the horizon, but it almost feels like a natural progression for the genre, as if the cynicism that always lay at its heart had curdled and begun to overwhelm the fizzy sweetness.
The Lady Eve is neatly divided into two halves, both dealing with the theme of honesty and deceit in relationships between men (as represented by Henry Fonda) and women (as represented by Barbara Stanwyck). In a rare comedic role, a youthful Fonda plays Charles Pike, the Shy, Bumbling Scientist who crosses paths aboard an ocean liner with Stanwyck’s Jean Harrington, the Fast-Talking Con Woman. To what degree the film views these two as archetypal examples of their gender is up for grabs, but there is certainly a good deal of Garden of Eden symbolism around (apart from the film’s suggestive title, Fonda has been “up the Amazon” studying snakes, and Stanwyck’s first act upon seeing Fonda climbing aboard is to drop an apple onto his pith helmet from a high railing) to suggest that Sturges may have some broader themes in mind.
The power games begin early. In an excellent scene (ripped off, along with a good deal of the rest of the film, by the Coen Brothers for The Hudsucker Proxy), Stanwyck watches in her compact mirror and narrates as Fonda – who is not only a scientist but also a millionaire bachelor – sits alone reading, oblivious to the fact that he is practically besieged by hordes of available and desperate young women. This scene, with Stanwyck literally holding Fonda in the palm of her hand, neatly reverses the usual power dynamic of the predatory man observing his naive female target, although it is made clear early on that Jean’s primary interest is money. (Fonda’s Pike is depicted throughout as being utterly guileless and awkward, not quite slow-witted but certainly not sexy.)
After tripping him on his way out and making him escort her to her room for a change of shoes, Stanwyck embarks on one of the most overt and ludicrous seductions ever to squeak its way past the Hays code. As he kneels in front of her, slipping her shapely feet into a pair of evening shoes, Fonda’s Pike is utterly besotted. He clumsily mumbles about having been “up the Amazon” and appears practically hypnotized by her perfume. It is hardly surprising when Stanwyck and her con man father are able in the next scene to dupe him into a game of cards – losing $600 to him as bait for a later big scam.
As in all good screwball, chaos rears its head in the form of sex. In the film’s memorable central scene, Fonda leans his cheek against Stanwyck’s in a single, static, three-minute close-up, and the two of them just, well, chat. The talk gradually becomes flirtatious, and by the time a steamed-up Fonda rises and returns to his room (for a cold shower, by the looks of things), Stanwyck’s scam has been totally derailed by the fact that she has fallen for her mark.
The shipboard section of the film ends when Stanwyck foils her father’s attempt to fleece her newfound love, and Fonda then discovers her true intentions and is unable to forgive her for her mendacity. He tells her (untruthfully) that he was on to her scam from the start, and she is outraged that he would string her along so callously. The two part on bad terms, with a seething Stanwyck vowing revenge.
The second act, then, is the more intriguing, as Jean swans blithely back into Fonda’s midst, posing as the Lady Eve Sidwich, with absolutely no attempt to disguise herself aside from her clipped English accent. These scenes are, on the surface, very funny, but the elaborate deceit at their core gives them a sour aftertaste. It is almost as though Jean, bent on revenge but paralyzed by love, has created a phantom self through which she can avenge her humiliation and punish her hapless paramour. The fact that she poses as a high-society lady only serves to underline the class resentment that set her against Pike in the first place.
Fonda is utterly bemused, and spends most of the second hour of the film falling over the furniture. These pratfalls, while comic, become a little grating, although they form an interesting point of comparison with today’s romantic comedies, in which the man gets the brains and all the good lines, while the woman (usually Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore or Julia Roberts) gets to walk headfirst into opening doors or fall over the set decoration. So clumsy and helpless is Fonda in these scenes, that Stanwyck’s ruse begins to look almost cruel – the effect is a little like watching a skillful parent reveling in thrashing a slow-witted child in a game of Monopoly.
So her disguise enables Jean to exact her revenge on Charles; she breaks his heart by taking advantage of the stuffy Puritan streak that caused him to break hers in the first place. The two wounded souls are finally reunited in the bittersweet finale, with Fonda’s Charles blissfully unaware of the grand deception that has been wrought upon him, and with Jean apparently feeling much better disposed to him now that she has evened the score. Both are laden with guilt (him for judgmentally dumping her, her for deceiving him not once but twice), and the audience is left hoping the couple’s future will be a little less of an emotional roller-coaster than their past.
As a writer/director, Sturges is certainly a force to be reckoned with. The script crackles with a level of wit and sexual innuendo that makes you wish they still made sex comedies for adults. Fonda does his best with a somewhat limited role, but it is unquestionably Stanwyck’s movie. She plays each layer of her character with a vibrancy and intelligence that makes it easy to understand Fonda’s infatuation. If, in the end, the film is a little unsatisfying, perhaps that is because its message is not a reassuring one: love itself is an imperfect thing, and the most we can hope for is not a perfect partner but one who is just as flawed as we are.
– Ben Stephens