Thursday, August 23, 2012

Classic Film Review: The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve (1941)
Directed by: Preston Sturges
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda

We all know the story about Eve and the forbidden fruit -- and right from the opening credits, which includes an animated snake, The Lady Eve puts a comedic spin on the biblical tale.

Jean and "Colonel" Harrington, a father-daughter card shark team (Barbara Stanwyck and Charles Coburn), set their sights on Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) the socially awkward millionaire of a brewery fortune who recently returned from a year-long snake hunting trip in the Amazon (there's that snake imagery again). Jean and the Colonel crave wealth and fame. As the Colonel says to his daughter: "Let us be crooked, but never common." Yet when Jean seduces Charles, she's shocked to discover that she's quickly falling head-over-heels in love. The temptress in her wants to continue her little game and come out on top -- with thousands in her bank account -- but her romantic side has other plans in store as she struggles to persuade her father to abandon their con.

Prior to his 1942 hit, The Palm Beach Story, director Preston Sturges co-wrote this battle-of-the-sexes romp featuring two of the biggest stars of the era. Brimming with witty dialogue and more than a few pratfalls for good measure -- as well as sexually frank innuendo that somehow slipped passed Hollywood censors -- The Lady Eve is a clever and engaging addition to the screwball genre.
Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck

As the slippery dame surprised by the genuine love she feels for her target, Barbara Stanwyck gives arguably one of her finest performances. Generally known for her dramatic roles (see: Double Indemnity), she's an absolute pleasure to watch here as she engages in a battle with her own conscience. Stanwyck manages to portray her character's complexities in such believable fashion you may catch yourself wondering which side of herself she'll give in to: The card shark or the hopeless romantic? She's both effortlessly graceful and charmingly flustered.

Henry Fonda, on the other hand, conveys a vulnerability that's almost painful to watch. Barely cracking a smile -- but generating plenty of genuine laughs with his charismatic performance -- his quest for Jean's hand in marriage is his ultimate goal. Anything less and he would collapse in a ball of misery. Only Fonda could make such an awkward chap such a comedic delight.

The Lady Eve holds up remarkably well, thanks in large part to two exceptional lead performances and the assured direction from a comedy master. Its ingenious script, brisk pace, deceptive characters and sexy banter catapult The Lady Eve into the realm of the classics. It's the quintessential screwball comedy.