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Friday Film Reviews: The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve (1941)
Genre: Screwball comedy/romance
Grade B

For some reason I’d missed watching this movie until recently. Preston Sturges films either work well for me or bomb and after a miss with “Christmas in July,” I hesitated on trying “The Lady Eve.” Now that I’ve seen it, I wish I’d watched it years ago but still have a few tiny niggles about it.

Wealthy heir to an ale fortune Charles “Hopsie” Pike is returning home – amazingly fever and parasite free! – after spending a year in the Amazon studying snakes. He catches up to a cruise ship traveling between South America and New York on which is the card sharp team of “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn) and his daughter Jean (Barbara Stanwyck). The two cheerfully plot how to bilk Pike of as much money as possible while the third member of the team Gerald (Melville Cooper) is assigned to watch out for Hopsie’s “minder” Muggsy (William Demarest).

Unsophisticated Hopsie is putty in Jean’s hands and soon she’s got him on the romantic ropes. Having fallen in love with her mark, she tries to keep her father from taking any more money from him and plans to confess all after they dock and before marrying Pike. But a suspicious Muggsy fingers the con team and tips Hopsie off. Furious at being swindled and thinking Jean is just after his money, Hopsie turns her away as she tries to explain. The boat docks in NYC and the pair separate.

But when they run across an old friend and fellow con artist named Pearlie, who’s currently playing an English aristocrat and ingratiating himself into swanky Connecticut society – where the Pike family live – Jean sees a chance to get a little of her own back.
Posing as “Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith’s” niece “Lady Eve Sidwick,” Jean manages to hoodwink Hopsie again. On the wedding night, she exacts her revenge by “confessing” to a series of affairs and an early marriage. Finally disgusted with the sheer number of men she claims to have “known,” Hopsie jumps the train. But with the whip hand in the relationship and divorce proceedings, Jean realizes she still loves Hopsie. Will she be able to get her man a third time?

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Barbara Stanwyck is gorgeous to watch twisting Henry Fonda around her little finger – three times. He’s a bit wooden but then his character is supposed to be so, okay. Charles Coburn is perfect for the swindler father while, if you’re a fan of 30s films, you’ll probably recognize Melville Cooper, Eric Blore, William Demarest – who was also in other Sturges films and the later long running TV series “My Three Sons,” as well as Eugene Pallette who does his usual High Society father role.

The scene of Pallette out on the patio waiting for his breakfast from the overtaxed staff who are scurrying to prepare for a party and finally having to resort to using the covers of the empty silver serving dishes as make shift cymbals is hysterical. Also watch for the scene of Demarest peering at “Eve,” who he immediately knows is Jean, through the windows of the mansion until he trips and falls in the bushes. His is the Cassandra chacacter who knows the truth but can’t get anyone to believe him.

The first half of this movie is dynamite. The dialogue is witty and funny enough to have me laughing out loud. The double entendres are razer sharp and, as usual, Sturges sees how far he can go to poke at the Code restrictions in effect for Hollywood movies. It’s fun to watch for the cadre of actors with whom Sturges loved to work and for the trademark “overlapping dialogue crowd scenes” that he put in so many of his films. I also adored the twist in the usual dynamics which has Jean being the con woman and more sophisticated character while Hopsie is the naive, gullable one.

It’s the second half of the film that gives me problems. The tone shifts to slightly darker as Jean plots and carries out her revenge. Before it wasn’t personal as the cons set out to fleece Hopsie but in this half, it is and it makes Jean much less likable to me. It’s also the section of the film filled with pratfalls – all of them of Hopsie tripping over things, getting things dropped on him or slipping in the mud. I know it’s part of the “screwball” genre but it seems too much in such a short amount of time and I got tired of it.

This section also requires some suspension of belief so that the viewer can swallow the fact that Hopsie doesn’t immediately know Jean=Eve the way Muggsy does. Sturges does build in some doubt on Hopsie’s part which he then argues away. The script also has a story told to Hopsie by Pearlie to help things along but all this contrivance doesn’t jive with the seamless smartness of the first half. The one part that does work well for me is “Eve’s” confession while on the train on their honeymoon night. Sturges brilliantly intercuts it with shots of the train roaring faster and faster – almost out of control – as “Eve” piles on her revenge. Stanwyck is fantastic to watch here. The ending leaves me slightly dissatisfied in that it makes Hopsie look like even more of an idiot. Perhaps he has already caught on – some facial expressions of his make me think he’s at least wondering – but he just never seems Jean’s match in intellect or quickness.

Still, the amazing beginning of the film is enough to cancel out at least some of my issues with the rest of it. While it won’t be my favorite Sturges film, it does show his blend of cynicism and sentiment as well as giving me a chance to see some more of my favorite character actors in wonderful roles. B

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

24 Comments

  1. Heidi Rice
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 04:33:06

    Ah The Lady Eve, not as good as Sullivan’s Travels or The Philadelphia Story but still a lot of fun.

    Gotta love a movie where the hero’s called Hopsie, the heroine’s a con-woman and which includes the essential line: ‘The fish was a poem’. I use that at every dinner party I go to now, whether fish is served or not, cos I’m pretentious like that.

  2. Rosie
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 05:56:40

    I ADORE this movie. It’s the reason I became a fan of Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck. I watch it whenever it’s on TCM.

    Fonda is adorably befuddled most of the movie and Stanwyck is great as she goes from cynical to in love to hurt to cynical to in love. *sigh*

  3. Julie L
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 07:20:48

    I love this movie! One of my favorites, def. my favorite Stanwyck film and what I consider one of the best of the screwball comedies! It actually reminds me very much of a comedic romance novel, I can just imagine someone writing an historical along the same lines – although of course, they’d have to add the spicy bits for today’s readers! *g*

  4. Jayne
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 07:57:35

    @Julie L: You’re right. I could see it as a romance novel too. Definitely a historical one.

  5. Lynn S.
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 08:46:37

    “Positively the same dame.”

    The Lady Eve and Unfaithfully Yours are two of all-time favorites. Not a fan of most of Sturges’s work but these two hit the spot.

    Love the scene where Hopsie keeps ruining the tuxes. And what a tool he was when he gave Eve the same “heartfelt” speech that he had given to Jean; I think the horse might have been wise to his tricks. I’m just surprised he didn’t ask her what her sign was.

  6. Darlene Marshall
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 08:50:50

    Best. Screwball Comedy. Ever.

    That is all.

    No, really, I’m a big Preston Sturges fan, but for me this one hits all the high marks. It especially appealed to feminist me: Here was a woman who knew what she wanted and went after it with wit, passion, courage and eventually, a conscience and compassion. I adore this film.

  7. Claudia Dain
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 09:28:19

    This is my favorite romantic movie of all time. I LOVE that the heroine is smart and not the starry-eyed doll that the heroine in a romance so often is. I LOVE that it’s the woman and not the man who is one step ahead the whole time. And I LOVE that she is felled by simple, “corny” love for the hero. I love the banter, the sharp dialogue, the physical comedy, the pacing, the twinkle in Eve’s eyes and the cow-eyed adoration in Hopsie’s. I actually think this is how male/female relationships work in real life: when a guy falls in lust/love, he’s falling all over himself, brain on shelf; when a girl falls, she’s more calculating and logical, never quite losing control, even while her brain is whispering, “You’re losing control!”

  8. Film Fan
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 09:48:53

    A B for The Lady Eve? Really?

  9. Susan
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 10:14:45

    I love this movie, and I especially love Barbara Stanwyck in it. Another fun movie with her, also from 1941, is Ball of Fire. She is a stripper on the run from her gangster boyfriend who ends up teaching a bunch of academic encyclopedia writers slang. Gary Cooper is the love interest here. Lots of stereotypes of academics. Lots of fun.

  10. Jayne
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 10:27:16

    @Film Fan: Yep. Like I said, for me the second half doesn’t equal the exquisite first.

  11. Jayne
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 10:27:50

    @Susan: I need to try “Ball of Fire” since so many people list it as a favorite.

  12. Lynn S.
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 10:58:10

    @Claudia Dain:

    I actually think this is how male/female relationships work in real life: when a guy falls in lust/love, he's falling all over himself, brain on shelf; when a girl falls, she's more calculating and logical, never quite losing control, even while her brain is whispering, “You're losing control!”

    Exactly. Amazing how they can play us all the same. Must be a completely different species of brain that men possess. If the U.S. government doesn’t shut down, they should spend some of our hard-earned tax dollars studying that. Bundle it in with medicare and we’re golden.

  13. bettie
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 11:31:52

    The Lady Eve is my favorite romantic comedy for all the reasons Claudia mentioned above. Preston Sturges is one of my favorite writer/directors for the way his movies danced circles around the Hayes code, and made fun of all the little lies and self-deceptions of modern society – the gender politics in The Lady Eve and the wonderfully clever The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (a film featuring a young woman named Trudy Kockenlocker who is impregnated with illegitimate sextuplets at a drunken farewell party by a soldier whose name she can’t remember. Though the plot of the movie revolves around Trudy’s pregnancy, the film never actually uses the word “pregnant” or shows a pregnant belly.), the myths of masculinity and wartime propaganda in Hail the Conquering Hero, the sardonic skewering of Hollywood pretensions in Sullivan’s Travels (quick trivia, the title of Sullivan’s planned epic of social consciousness in the movie was the inspiration for the title of another of my favorite films, O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Sturges made smart comedies that said a lot about sex and society and gender at a time when the production code attempted to stifle any depiction or discussion of such taboo topics.

  14. Susan
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 12:02:44

    @Jayne. I actually first saw The Lady Eve in a movie theater. There is nothing like seeing the old b/w movies on the big screen. You wouldn’t think shades of gray could be so sumptuous. And the set decoration and design from the 1930s and early 1940s was amazing. Check out some of the Fred and Ginger movies from that era . . .

  15. Jennifer
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 18:21:04

    Popcorn Dialogues covered this: http://popcorndialogues.com/?p=656

  16. Millie
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 22:17:18

    The compact scene in the ship lounge where Stanwyck is doing a running commentary on the women trying to snag poor Potsy is delicious, and the clothes alone are worth watching this one. Tell me another actress that could pull off that ostrich feather fan and look nothing but elegant. Love this movie.

  17. Jayne
    Apr 09, 2011 @ 05:21:36

    @Millie: Yes, I love the ostrich feather fan but the stocking cap from one of the shipboard scenes needs to go.

  18. Jayne
    Apr 09, 2011 @ 05:22:47

    @Jennifer: Interesting site. Thanks for the link. I’ll be poking around there since they’ve covered some of the movies I’m thinking about reviewing here.

  19. Jayne
    Apr 09, 2011 @ 05:24:05

    @bettie: Morgan’s Creek and Hero (see my review here) are my absolute favorite Sturges movies.

  20. Millie
    Apr 09, 2011 @ 11:53:53

    @Jayne: Oh, but Jayne, the outfit that goes with the stocking cap has to stay. The only problem I have with this movie is why a savvy gal like her would want such a sweet but clueless guy like him. Maybe it’s like getting a puppy?

  21. Darlene Marshall
    Apr 09, 2011 @ 19:02:06

    @Millie–“getting a puppy”

    *Snicker*

    I do believe she wanted a man she could love, but not necessarily one who would get the better of her. One who could help her be a better person, yes, but in the final analysis, she’d like having the whip hand.

    Which raises all sorts of interesting images with Ms. Stanwyck, but I’m not going there.

  22. infinitieh
    Apr 09, 2011 @ 22:23:42

    I had to watch this film and dissect it for film class when I was in college. Frankly, I loved the Sturges films I had to watch for that semester.

    By the way, the sextuplets Trudy Kockenlocker had in “The Miracle of Morgan's Creek” implied that she had sex with six men, at least according to my professor.

  23. dri
    Jun 04, 2011 @ 05:19:13

    Ah god, I love this move. (But then I love everything Henry Fonda does. *le sigh*) And it’s totally started me on this voracious lust for Preston Sturges movies. I gotta agree with you about Christmas In July, Jayne … I recently watched it on YouTube and it took me two tries to get into. I don’t even know why! Maybe Dick Powell.

    Tell me you’ve seen or are planning to see The Palm Beach Story. Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea (who I am totally developing a crush on after seeing him in two Sturges films now) being absolutely hilarious and rather sexy together.

    Something I’m discovering about Sturges that really rather fascinates me: in amidst all the comedy and social commentary and gender discourse, he always manages to have at least one incredibly hot moment that has me practically blushing and delighted. I don’t know how he does it, it’s just remarkable.

    But yes, The Lady Eve! God, I so want to slap Hopsie after the scene in the train but then, oh my that last scene.

    Mind you, when all’s said and done, my favourite line in the whole film is by his father: “Why don’t you put on a bathing suit?” Bahahahahahahahaha! Oh god, it has me in stitches every time and I always want to quote it but of course nobody will have any clue what it means so I just think it and giggle to myself.

    If I could write like Preston Sturges … *sigh*

  24. Jayne
    Jun 04, 2011 @ 07:16:42

    @dri: “Christmas in July” was a total miss for me. I kept thinking, “This is a Sturges film?!”

    I have seen “The Palm Beach Story” but would also list that as a miss for me. Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor are great in it but I didn’t think McCrea and Colbert had much chemistry nor did I think the film was funny.

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