The Lady Eve

Lady EveThey want the Pale that won for Yale, ra, ra, ra.

Perhaps it was unfair, but I expected too much from The Lady Eve (1941).  The third entry in my Preston Sturges literacy project was simply not in the same league.  For films of the era, it is incredibly funny and adult, but compared with Sullivan’s Travels (1941) (review) and The Great McGinty (1941), it lacks punch.  Henry Fonda plays Charles Pike, the heir to a brewing magnate and a complete idiot besides.  A card sharp (Charles Coburn) and his daughter (Barbara Stanwyck) spot Pike as an easy mark and start to reel him in.  But then the lady falls in love with Pike and intends to tell all.  But Pike’s bodyguard Muggsy (William Demarest) tells him first and the thing goes kaput. But the girl ain’t done with him yet.  She gets a fellow conman to introduce her as his niece, the Lady Eve Sidwich, at the next Pike party.

The problem with The Lady Eve was that I completely misunderstood the path Sturges was leading me down.  The story is so straight forward and Fonda’s character so unbelievably dense, that I expected a surprise at every turn.  The conman genre is not unknown to me and because Sturges impressed so much for his forward-thinking style and content, I assumed that modern filmmakers borrowed from him.  They didn’t.  In no world does an audience believe that a man can fall in love with a woman and then not recognize her because of a change of accent.  Fonda, that pure Nebraska boy, who only the year before played Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and the title role in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) the year before that, got put into a nice wholesome role.

What saves this movie from disdain and earns its place in a conversation about great comedies is the way in which it completely sullies that wholesomeness.  The Lady Eve as effectively associates Henry Fonda with boundless lust and stupidity as Spring Breakers (2013) (review) did with those young ladies.  Stanwyck is pretty delightful, though her abilities are undermined somewhat by Pike’s density–if he believes that!–but is also incredibly foxy.  The cheek of Sturges’s dialogue is sufficient to make the film work, but not enough to make me recommend it independently.  It is, though, a fitting filler for any Sturges marathon.

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About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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