Movie: The Lady Eve (1941)

I recently read the most recent Johnathan Carroll novel, Mr. Breakfast, and there was a bit in it where a character is grateful to her boyfriend for introducing her to the films of Preston Sturges.  I think it sad that is a name not more broadly recognized today.  It is almost as depressing to me as the great many people today who refuse to watch black-and-white cinema.  Those who do not know the works of Sturges have yet to discover such wonders as The Good Fairy, Remember the Night, The Great McGinty, Christmas in July and Sullivan’s Travels.

One of the most legendary of his films is 1941’s The Lady Eve.  Barbara Stanwyck stars as a con artist working a cruise ship with her father (Charles Coburn) and their valet (Melville Cooper).  These are expert scammers, with a touch of class.  As Corburn tells his daughter, “Let us be crooked, but never common.”  They see an easy mark in an impossibly young Henry Fonda, a snake expert who is on a return voyage to the States after two years in the Amazon rainforest.

Fonda is the son of a wealthy beer baron (Eugene Pallette), though he can’t stand the product of the family’s company, nor that of any other.  That doesn’t stop everybody on the cruise ship from trying to suck up to him by making sure he sees them downing his family’s brew.  As an exasperated waiter tells the bartender who has ran out of pint glasses, “They want the pale ale that won it for Yale.”  And the reply: “Tell them to go to Harvard.”

A very amusing bit has Stanwyck watching in her makeup mirror as Fonda, behind her, is oblivious to the attentions of various women.  She even provides her own dialog she imagines being exchanged.  Eventually, he gets up to leave and she’s the one to finally get his attention, as she simply sticks a leg out and trips him.

Now the con starts to build, with him first playing cards with Stanwyck and Coburn for fun, and then for money.  I love the moment where Fonda shows these two a trick he can do where he palms a card and it is obvious Stanwyck is trying hard to keep from busting out laughing.  That first night’s game has the larcenous duo intentionally losing to their pigeon, with the plan of moving in for the kill the next day.

What none of them figures on is Stanwyck genuinely falling for Fonda.  This happens too quickly for me to find completely believable.  Still, Stanwyck is amazing, so I was willing to overlook this.  Coburn and Cooper are a little less understanding.  She asks Corbun, “And you’ll go straight, too–right, Gerald?”, to which he replies, “Straight to where?”

Fonda discovers the true nature of the trio and calls things off with Stanwyck.  Hell hath no fury and all that, so she goes out for blood when she finds an in with Fonda’s family through a fellow con (Eric Blore).  Stanwyck has an intriguing, though peculiar, line when telling Blore how much she needs to hurt Fonda: “I need him like the axe needs the turkey.” 

Her plan is to pose as the aristocrat of the title, adopting an English accent and wowing Fonda’s dad and his guests at a fancy ball.  Fonda is also immediately smitten and somehow believes this is a different woman than the one he proposed to on the boat.  William Demarest, as his street-smart right-hand man, sees right through Stanwyck’s ruse and the two men argue a great deal about this.  Fonda’s rather spurious reasoning is that the two women are too similar for them to be the same person.  Yeah, I don’t get it either.

There’s a lot to like in The Lady Eve, once one suspends a bit more disbelief than is usually required for even the screwiest of Sturgess’s screwball comedies.  Still, great performances and top-drawer banter make this a very enjoyable watch.

Dir: Preston Sturges

Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn

Watched on Criterion Collection blu-ray