The Lady Eve (1941)

Directed by Preston Sturges

For the life of me, I have a hard time even conceiving of Henry Fonda in a comedy even though I know he has been in many (such Rings On Her Fingers, Mister Roberts and The Cheyenne Social Club).

Even if I can get a hold on the idea of Hank Fonda in a comedy … a Preston Sturges comedy? With all the physicality that entails? The dialogue, sure; but the pratfalls? Henry Fonda?

So whenever I watch The Lady Eve, I always have this little mental hurdle I have to get past.

Yet there he is in one of the gems of Hollywood cinema, an almost perfect screwball comedy. In fact, the year 1941 could be considered the Preston Sturges’ year because he didn’t just make The Lady Eve, he also made Sullivan’s Travels, not simply two good comedies but two of the best comedies ever made and classics of screwball.

Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda following one of many Fonda pratfalls.

A lot of different elements come together in the unique recipe of a Sturges comedy. There is witty dialogue and there is slapstick. There is a certain social awareness (including commentary) and there is romance, to varying degrees.

In the introduction to the movie on the Criterion edition, Peter Bogdanovich gives an off-the-cuff definition of screwball and makes the interesting observation that it is farce but people aren’t interested in farce until it’s called screwball.

In other words, screwball is synonymous with farce. I think that’s true to a large extent.

Fonda plays Charles Pike, son of a beer magnate and heir to a huge fortune. He is the gullible innocent, a head-in-the-clouds scientist almost exclusively interested in snakes. He’s very similar to the Cary Grant character of Dr. David Huxley in Bringing Up Baby.

Charles being seduced and made helpless by Jane and her charms.

Returning from a scientific expedition to the jungles of South America, he boards a cruise ship where he is spotted by Jean (Barbara Stanwyck), part of team of grifters who see Charles as the perfect mark. Her father is ‘Colonel’ Harrington (Charles Coburn) who famously scolds his daughter with, “Don’t be vulgar, Jane. Let us be crooked, but never common.”

This Sturges comedy has two key parts – a first and second half. There is a con in each, both involving Jane and Charles, the second involving the tried and true comedy device of confused identities.

In the first half, Jane works a con on Charles but the two fall in love. Then Charles discovers the con and utterly rejects her. Angered, Jane works another con on him – this time, it’s not about the money. It’s about revenge.

As an audience we are never confused about identities but the other characters, especially Henry Fonda’s Charles, are. There is one exception, however.

William Demarest as a suspicious Muggsy is not at all happy with what he is seeing.

William Demarest is Charles’ long-standing and long-suffering father figure stand-in, valet and bodyguard, with the common sense everyone else in the movie is lacking. In that sense, he is us, the audience, and in true Demarest style blusters and fumes with his frustration over how dim-witted everyone else seems to be. How could it be they don’t see it?

Well, it wouldn’t be much of a comedy if they did. But Demarest’s character is a key, for me, because he expresses the same frustration I feel watching The Lady Eve. For me, Charles is just too obtuse. He’s also too prissy. And the problem with that for me is it makes the romance aspect of the film lose some credibility.

It’s just personal taste, but I really need Fonda’s Charles to have some qualities that make him a bit more likable. He is such an innocent he comes across as a complete bonehead and I can’t help thinking that once the glow of the romance wears off, Stanwyck’s Jane will wake up some morning and say to herself, “Good grief. I’m married to an idiot.”

Charles listens as his new bride rhymes off the rather lengthy list of her previous lovers.

Having said that, however, Fonda does work the comedy extremely well. For the role, he is spot on.

My favourite scene is the relatively lengthy shot where Jane talks, seducing Charles as she twirls his hair in her fingers, and Charles sits beside her on the floor with a look of a smitten simpleton who is utterly powerless.

It’s a funny and pivotal scene because we see Charles being wholly overwhelmed by her spell and, more importantly, Stanwyck’s character Jane change. It is in this scene Stanwyck deftly moves Jane from woman working a con to woman falling in love.

Stanwyck is masteful as seductive con working her magic on simple Charles and nicely manages her transitions from swindler to woman in love to woman scorned to woman in love again. In a career highlighted by many great performances, this has to be one of her best.

Despite what I’ve said, Fonda is also about as perfect as it gets in his role. I don’t know if my problems with him are his character being too clueless, my image of Fonda as dramatic actor hobbling my perceptions or if it’s something else. I can’t help wondering how I would have felt about the character had someone like a Joel McCrae been in the role. Fonda is the straight man in the movie and he plays it with dead on precision.

This is rightly considered a great comedy. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve watched it. As writer-director, this is Preston Sturges at the height of his abilities and one of his best — some feel it is his best.

It’s difficult to disagree.

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