The Lady Eve Review
This title is also available as part of the 'Written and Directed by Preston Sturges' boxed set.
The Lady Eve could very well be the quintessential screwball comedy. As with all great examples of this subgenre, it’s essentially a 90 minute battle of the sexes. Yet in the hands of writer-director Preston Sturges, not to mention leads Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, becomes something a little bit extra. Indeed, The Lady Eve could be said to deal in archetypes, though here we get the definitive article. Fonda is the holy innocent incarnate, a professor specialising in reptiles (shades of Cary Grant’s screwball scientists) who’s been up the Amazon for a year as well as the non-beer drinking heir to a brewery fortune. Stanwyck on the other hand is the ultimate gold digger. Resplendent in Edith Head’s costumes, her first words are “Gee, I hope he’s rich” and she never lets up for the rest of the movie. Indeed, she’s like a less lethal – though no less cynical – version of Phyllis Dietrichson, her character from Double Indemnity, and a card sharp to boot.
Given the reliance on these two figures, it is perhaps unsurprising that Fonda and Stanwyck prove essential to The Lady Eve’s success. Stanwyck’s made a career out of tough broads and screwball dames (just prior to this picture she completed the delightful Ball of Fire for Howard Hawks), so it’s no surprise to find her effortlessly combining the two. Fonda, however, is a revelation, as though Tom Joad (from The Grapes of Wrath) had never happened, let alone his future performances in Once Upon a Time in the West or On Golden Pond. Yet so natural is the way in the way in which, for example, he can barely conceal his joy at holding four queens in a hand of poker, the spectres of these characters never once cross the mind.
Making this innocence all the more appealing is the manner in which it exists within Sturges bleak universe yet remains completely untouched by his cynicism. One of the more surprising aspects of the director’s outlook is how sexually upfront his characters are. When Stanwyck tells Fonda that they must retire to his cabin immediately, we’re left in no doubt as to what her – or indeed their – intentions are. Indeed, it’s fascinating to consider Peter Bogdanovich’s neo-screwball What’s Up, Doc?, in which he yearned for a more innocent time via allusions to Bringing Up Baby and the like. This no doubt seemed quaint in the seventies, yet put alongside The Lady Eve it can’t help but seem even more so. Certainly, we’re provided with ample slapstick here (at which Fonda proves surprisingly adept), but it goes hand in hand with a far more adult sensibility.
Of course, such an outlook also means, in Sturges terms at least, a work less inclined towards moralising. As with his directorial debut The Great McGinty, Sturges’ leads are treated in a wholly non-judgemental light, rather we are simply allowed to revel in their activities, however dubious they may be. It should come as no surprise, for example, to learn that Stanwyck doesn’t change one bit over the course of the picture, yet still gets her man and his money. Moreover, Sturges adds to this a slightly more relaxed pace than is usual for the screwball comedy (consider Hawks’ various genre undertakings: Bringing Up Baby, Ball of Fire, His Girl Friday and that terrific late blooming, Monkey Business), thereby allowing us to savour every single moment just that little bit more.
Yet whilst this also allows us to soak up every single acerbic line of dialogue (though this isn’t the easiest thing with Sturges – even those with a trained ear would require at least two viewings), the slower pace does reveal a crack or two. It becomes abundantly clear that Sturges – at this point in his career, at least – is far less comfortable with the sweet than he is the sour, and as such the more obviously romantic moments fail to entirely convince. Certainly, Stanwyck and Fonda do their level best, but these scenes are sorely lacking the director’s celebrated bite. Of course, they could be intentionally limp – as said the only self-improvement any of the charactrers get is strictly financial – but either way they just prevent The Lady Eve from becoming Sturges’ first genuine masterpiece. Then again, with comedy this sharp and performances equally honed, any shortcomings are easily forgiven.
The Lady Eve is currently available as either an individual release or as part of the seven-disc Written and Directed by Preston Sturges boxed set. Sadly, the disc lacks the numerous extras which adorned the Criterion edition (save for the theatrical trailer), though the presentation quality is essentially its equal. As such we get the original Academy ratio and mono soundtrack (split over the front two channels). Sadly, the former is a little grainy at times and has variable levels of softness, though the contrast levels are generally agreeable. As for the soundtrack, this too shows signs of age, but never to the point where it proves overly distracting. Indeed, in both cases is mostly agreeable.