The women in the early films by Preston Sturges often seem to be madly in love with the male lead and spend the movie staring at him wistfully, pouring compliments upon the man and almost drowning him in their love. Due to this they often don’t get their fair share of the funny lines, or generate laughs due to physical comedy, and it’s why I’m so very, very fond of The Lady Eve for though Barbara Stanwyck’s Jean / Eve does fall for Henry Fonda’s Charles for most of the movie she’s the one who gets the killer dialogue and is responsible for the film being as funny as it is.
We first meet Charles when he’s returning home after an expedition in the Amazon due to his fascination with the snakes of the region, to the extent that he’s bringing one home with him. An extremely rich man due to the family business soon nearly every woman on the boat is throwing themselves at him much to the amusement of Barbara Stanwyck’s Jean, who gives us a running commentary about what the women are either thinking or saying and her cynical ways are very funny indeed.
She’s clearly far smarter than any of the other females of the species on the boat and though it looks like Charles is asexual given his disinterest in the many women flirting with him Jean manages to seduce him with ease. However this isn’t a simple rom-com as it’s revealed that she and her father Harry (Charles Coburn) are “card sharps”, hustlers who con the rich out of their money and given how wealthy Charles is they should soon be rolling in it. The only problem is that Jean falls in love with Charles and so makes her father return the money he’s won from him, but when Charles discovers that they’re dodgy types he’s enraged and wants nothing more to do with her.
A sullen Jean is initially fairly bitter, but then she plans a revenge by posing as Lady Eve, a posh English type who is supposedly a friend of a friend of the family, another con artist played by Eric Blore. At first Charles can’t work out what’s going on until he’s led to believe that Eve is Jean’s identical twin, though completely unaware that she has a sister, and it’s such a contrived plan that Charles’ associate Muggsy (the ever reliable William Demarest) can’t believe he’s fallen for it. He does though, and it’s not long before Charles is madly in love with Eve, but does she feel the same way? Or is she still in the mood for revenge?
Stanwyck’s dialogue is beautifully funny throughout the film, especially when she’s either mocking other women or sparring verbally with her father, and she clearly relishes the chance to deliver many a withering line. Her acting as a posh British type is also hilarious, as she tells ridiculous anecdotes about her extravagant lifestyle and confusion with American ways, and it’s a performance which drips with charm. Fonda’s also pretty decent as the hapless Charles, the latest in a long line of actors in Sturges’ films who gets to do some very painful looking pratfalls, and the poor fellow must have been fairly bruised and battered even if precautious were taken. Meanwhile William Demarest is at his best here (which is saying something) and the various supporting cast don’t let the side down either.
Many consider this to be Preston Sturges best film and though I wouldn’t go that far as I’m extremely enamoured by 1948’s Unfaithfully Yours, it’s definitely right up there and deservedly acclaimed. If there’s any issues with the movie it’s that the mid-section with Jean in love with Charles could have been tightened up and made a little shorter, but once Stanwyck takes on the guise of Eve the film becomes an absolute delight, and all kinds of shockingly lovable.