Barbara Stanwyck outwits all of her male costars in this razor-sharp romantic comedy.
When talking about what she wants in a man, Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) tells Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) that “I want him to sort of take me by surprise”. Charles, with an anxious, uncomfortable look on his face, replies with “Like a burglar”. This is one of the many instances in The Lady Eve where the razor-sharp dialogue is complimented tremendously by Stanwyck and Fonda’s expressive performances. With lesser actors, there is no way that this incredibly silly plotline would’ve ever worked. But Stanwyck and Fonda are magic together.
Directed by Preston Sturges, it is a cinematic piece ahead of its time. Stanwyck’s Jean is a con artist, a manipulator and a gold digger (one of her first lines of dialogue when seeing Fonda’s Charles is “I hope he’s rich”). Not only does Jean have the upper hand where Charles is concerned, she almost outsmarts all of the men around her, including her father. It is no surprise that Stanwyck got the role of the conniving femme fatale in Double Indemnity a few years later; her quick wit and charming smile makes her wildly captivating to watch. Even more refreshing is the fact that Charles – who may be one of cinema’s most loveable bumbling idiots – doesn’t fall for Jean for her undeniable beauty. He, like the audience, is enthralled by her mysterious identity and abundance of intellect.
It is hugely entertaining to see Fonda play against what he later became known for: powerful, hard-hitting dramas, most notably Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece 12 Angry Men. Charles is in no way smarter than Jean. He is remarkably clumsy (most of the fantastic physical comedy stems from Charles’ lack of awareness of his surroundings) and is always steps behind his female love interest. Fonda is brilliant: he always has a lost look on his face, with his eyes being particularly emotive. It reveals that the man was not a one trick pony and excelled at comedy as much as he did drama. Stanwyck’s cool and stylish edge matched with Fonda’s naivety and buffoonery makes them a match made in heaven. They’re even visually presented as polar opposites. Normally, one of them is dressed in white, while the other is dressed in black. They are the prime source of proof that “opposites attract”.
Of course, Jean eventually falls for the simple, handsome (and let’s not forget rich) Charles. She never becomes any less entertaining, however; much of the flirtatious dialogue tends to stem from her character, while Charles reacts in an uneasy (and hilarious) way. The film also has numerous visual metaphors. A train sequence in particular highlights the growing tension between the couple, almost playing out like an action sequence. Even the title – The Lady Eve – connotes ideas about falling. There’s the literal idea of Charles constantly falling over due to his incompetence and the psychological notion of him “falling” for Jean. On top of that, there’s the reference to the Garden of Eden narrative, in which Adam (Charles in this scenario) falls for the manipulative Eve (Jean), getting him into trouble.
The film is completely ridiculous, but it totally celebrates and embraces its silliness. If you’re really willing to suspend your disbelief, you’re in for the perfect Valentine’s day treat.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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