Preston Sturges wrote The Lady Eve just for Barbara Stanwyck as he was so impressed with her performance here, and as with that much loved classic Stanwyck once again plays a very dodgy type, Lee Leander, though if anything she’s worse here as she has a habit of wandering in to jewellery stores, trying something on, and then running off when the staff are distracted and later pawning the goods.
Unfortunately for her the man she tries to sell her latest stolen goods to calls the police, and as this is her third time in court the judge may well throw the book at her. She’s got a dodgy lawyer who claims that she suffers from schizophrenia, and in a bit which makes no sense at all claims that the illness was “formerly known as hypnotism”, before weaving a quite ludicrous tale of how she took the jewellery without having a clue what she was doing, Lee’s fully aware that it’s nonsense at least, commenting shortly afterwards “That gag’s so old its got whiskers”.
The District Attorney John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) fears the jury might buy the story, and as it’s Christmas they will take pity on her and so asks for an expert in hypnotism to be called, knowing that such a man won’t be found until the New Year when the jury will be less sentimental. So it looks like poor old Lee is going to spend the Christmas period in prison, but John feels sorry for her and arranges with a character called “Fat Mike” for her to be released.
Fat Mike presumes it’s some dark fucked up sex thing (which is alluded too strongly though not spelt out) and delivers her to John’s apartment. John’s about to head off to his family in the countryside for Christmas and wants nothing to do with her, but after they chat and flirt a bit and John discovers that she grew up near him he promises to drive her to the long lost mother she hasn’t seen in years.
A brief road trip comedy ensues before it turns out that Lee’s mother is a horrible monster, John says she can stay at his for the festive period, and romance ensues. Up until this point it had been quite a fun affair, filled with witty banter and some amusing sequences, with one where John attempts to milk a cow being the strongest, while the way both of them escape from a local judge after trespassing in a famer’s field is fun too. But once they’re back at John’s mother’s home it becomes far more rom than com, there’s still some mildly amusing moments, and John’s poor old brother Willie (Sterling Holloway, best known as The Jungle Book’s Kaa The Snake) gets the piss ripped out of him to the extent I fear he may not ever urinate again, but it’s largely a romantic affair.
I’ve no issue with that either, if only because MacMurray and Stanwyck have great chemistry together, and watching them spend a very old fashioned Christmas together is a warm delight, especially as they unwrap presents and have a big of a sing song around the piano. The New Year’s barn dance is amusing too, with the comedy coming once again from Willie’s actions, and it’s very sweet seeing John and Lee grow closer.
Given the period it’s a moralistic affair and of course Lee soon regrets the way she’s lived her life, and there’s a fair amount of sympathy for her as it’s suggested that someone with an upbringing like hers was always doomed to a life of crime. But that didn’t prepare me for the ending, which I won’t reveal here, but it’s an emotive finale and one that I found myself surprised by.
Anyone expecting a great deal of physical comedy might be disappointed, writer Preston Sturges loved a good pratfall after all, but the script is a very amusing one and the performances are all superb. It is slightly patchily directed however, and there’s weirdly a couple of scenes which fade out before the dialogue’s quite finished, something which is a deliberate decision but a poor one as it’s a (very minor) distraction that pulls you out of the reality of the piece.
Otherwise this is a very lovable, nearly flawless Christmas set charmer that certainly tugs at the old heart strings and understandably seen as one of the best films to watch when it’s freezing cold outside and snow is possibly falling. Yes, it’s not Sturges’ funniest script but it’s right up there when it comes to being a sweet natured and very appealing affair, that manages to avoid being sentimental or saccharine when it could all have too easily been such a thing.