The Lady Eve (1941)


If somehow you’ve missed it, be sure to see The Lady Eve: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, 1941, written/directed by Preston Sturges.

As people have said, it would be hard to find a better screenplay in the history of film.

The Lady Eve hasn’t to my ear become dated in one syllable in the seventy years since it first showed. Fonda plays the fabulously wealthy son of an ale king and, not interested in learning that business, has become a jungle-exploring bachelor (highly eligible, obviously) and snake collector (or better, Serpent collector) who spends months “up the Amazon” as ostensibly in “river”–Sturges has an inspired sense of double entendre humor–and Fonda is an easily manipulated, naive straight man, the First Man, Adam, to the First Woman, Eve, in this masterpiece about us all in matters of love with its first-scene and ending-scene Edenic echoes.

It’s a seriocomic romance played out in a series of cons by the Goddess on mere man with a light touch that in its timeless storyline nudges you at moments all the way back to the Book of Genesis and brings Eve out from between those Old Testament lines in all her irresistible wonder and glory and allure. Charles Coburn, Stanwyck’s father with a Deity’s cleverness and powers, is the Senior Con Artist and Stanwyck is his protege Daughter Con Artist, a svelte goddess positively Amazonian in her controlling powers. She’s Woman, a full study, not correct, not incorrect, and far from such fantasies as the noir femme fatale or today’s Police Lt. Karate Kate; you will see a truthful and admiring portrait of “the gentler sex” as Stanwyck struts Her (and all the Hers ever) stuff throughout this tight, flawless movie. To best say it: Stanwyck’s performance is sublime, unforgettable, spellbindingly entertaining.

Sturges is a genius of a screenwriter and perfectly sets the stage for Stanwyck to become Woman. The Lady Eve is almost a female chauvinist masterpiece, but it’s too telling for that. The car dealer might say, “Bring your wife, your checkbook, and your pink slip down to my dealership and buy a new car at a huge discount, but the offer expires this Saturday.” Instead, bring your wife or girlfriend, your most gracious manner, and your humility to your TV room and show the two of you The Lady Eve. Its offer of marvelous enjoyment doesn’t expire. She’ll love it and you’ll admit it’s all true. You never really had a chance. You still don’t. And you’ll helplessly admire the great way Sturges dramatizes your predicament, which you are still surprised about.

Besides, you don’t want to miss that famous scene with the nuzzling horse.