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The Lady Eve

1941 motion picture starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda

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With little comedy and no romance, this Lady Eve fails to tempt

  • May 31, 2012
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The Lady Eve (1941) disappoints because it lacks a Joel McCrea moment. It needs at least three of them.

Writer/director Preston Sturges also created Sullivan's Travels (1941), in which McCrea stars as a successful movie director disillusioned by what he believes are the triviality and irrelevance of his profession. His quest to find the inspiration to make an important movie goes astray and he ends up in jail. As he and his fellow inmates end a long, hard day by watching a cartoon, the cathartic laughter of the other prisoners makes the director realize that even seemingly meaningless entertainment can be valuable.

At first, McCrea is mystified by the raucous response to the cartoon. Then he is caught up in it himself. Bafflement clouds his face until it is replaced by a smile and then by laughter, tentative at first and then hearty. The scene is touching and revelatory because Sturges gives McCrea the time needed to make us feel what his character is feeling.

Sturges should have done the same in The Lady Eve. Barbara Stanwyck's character is a professional gambler who intends to take advantage of the naive wealthy man played by Henry Fonda. Things get complicated when she falls in love with him. We know she does because she tells us. The transformation from scheming to lovestruck happens in a single line of dialogue that comes too suddenly out of nowhere. To be convinced, the audience needs to see the change rather than take her word for it. This should have been the first McCrea moment.

Sturges should have given his audience the second moment when Fonda has discovered her plan to fleece him, accepts that she has abandoned it and realizes he loves her anyway. Poor Fonda doesn't get even that one line of dialogue to try to make this believable.

Even more fleeting and fake is the part that has Stanwyck, after Fonda has dumped her, plotting her revenge and then again abandoning her scheme because she loves the guy. This part cries out for a third McCrea moment.

The Lady Eve has a few amusing moments when Stanwyck and Fonda first meet on a cruise. Most of these come from Fonda's convincing suggestion that he is frustrated by his powerful attraction to Stanwyck and by her not surrendering immediately to passion. These scenes are sexually suggestive in a way that was daring for such movies in the early 1940s, but they highlight one of this romance's unsurmounted obstacles: What Fonda's character feels is lust, not love.

Later the movie devolves into tedious bits of slapstick in which Fonda trips, stumbles and gets splashed with food far too often to be amusing. And into long stretches in which Stanwyck pretends to be an English aristocrat who is supposedly her identical twin, although the two are not related. The deception is so transparent it is less convincing than when Bugs Bunny or Milton Berle put on wigs and dresses. That Fonda's character is fooled by it is the most implausible element in a movie loaded with too many of them.

The Lady Eve is not remotely believable as a complicated romance coming to a happy ending. Instead it trips over itself in its attempts to be fast-paced and its romance never comes close to seeming plausible. The movie does not make us want the two to end up together. We accept the Stanwyck/Fonda pairing not because the movie has shown that it's a good one but because we have an instinctive desire for people to fall in love and be happy together. There are thousands of movies that better nourish this desire.

One of those, It Happened One Night (1934 **), is superior both as romance and comedy because it takes some time to let its lovers move convincingly from being repelled by each other to being smitten. Such a leisurely pace in at least a few of its scenes would have enhanced The Lady Eve.

Delightful romantic comedies sweep us up in their characters' attractions to each other and they carry us along. The Lady Eve demands that we play along. The rewards it offers are too modest for the effort we must invest.


** It Happened One Night was the first movie to win all five major Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Actress). Only One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Silence of the Lambs (1991) have also done that. 
With little comedy and no romance, this Lady Eve fails to tempt With little comedy and no romance, this Lady Eve fails to tempt With little comedy and no romance, this Lady Eve fails to tempt With little comedy and no romance, this Lady Eve fails to tempt

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review by . January 18, 2009
In "The Lady Eve" Henry Fonda stars as Charles Pike, the heir to the Pike Ale fortune ("The Ale That Won for Yale"). An ophiologist (a snake expert), he just spent a year "up the Amazon" looking for rare snakes with his cynical and protective guardian/valet Muggsy (played by William Demarest).  Returning home on an oceanliner the extremely shy and vulnerable Mr. Pike becomes the primary target of a father-daughter team of con artists intent on seperating the young man from his fortune.  …
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The Lady Eve is a 1941 screwball comedy film about a mismatched couple who meet on a luxury liner, written by Preston Sturges based on a story by Monckton Hoffe, and directed by Sturges, his third directorial effort, after The Great McGinty and Christmas in July. The film stars Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck and features Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest and Eric Blore.

In 1994, The Lady Eve was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) is a beautiful con artist. Along with her equally larcenous father, "Colonel" Harrington (Charles Coburn) and his partner Gerald (Melville Cooper), she is out to fleece rich, naive Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), the heir to the Pike Ale fortune ("The Ale That Won for Yale"). Pike is a woman-shy snake expert just returning from a year-long expedition up the Amazon.

But even the best laid plans can go astray. First, Jean falls hard for Pike and shields him from her card sharp father. Then, when Pike's suspicious minder/valet Muggsy (William Demarest) discovers the truth about her and her father, Pike dumps her. Furious at being scorned, she re-enters his life masquerading as the posh "Lady Eve Sidwich", niece of Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith (Eric Blore), another con man who's been swindling the rich folk of Connecticut. Jean is determined ...

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Director: Preston Sturges
Genre: Comedy
Release Date: February 25, 1941
Runtime: 94 minutes
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