Op-Ed: 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘The Lady Eve’ (#26)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judging whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
I have already extolled Barbara Stanwyck’s virtues as an actress in my review of Double Indemnity (1944), but she really outdid herself with her performance in The Lady Eve (1941).
A lot of different elements probably had to click into place for this to be as perfect as it is, but without Stanwyck, none of it would have come together. Preston Sturges could write snappy dialogue like nobody else and subtly fold pathos and character development into his jokes, but he wrote a character who needed a special actress to play her. I adore comediennes like Carole Lombard and Madeleine Carroll; yet they didn’t possess Stanwyck’s ability to shift gears on a dime and turn highly unsympathetic characters into complex, thoughtful heroines who existed in a moral grey area. Even when she’s doing something manipulative, she does it in style and there is always the feeling that real emotions are bubbling beneath the surface. She can keep up with Sturges’s nimble pacing, project a mix of sex appeal and vulnerability, and hit the perfect note in the final scene. With her in place, everything else effortlessly falls into line.
The film concerns con-woman Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) who sets her sights on ale heir and ophidilogist Charles Poncefort Pike (Henry Fonda) as he returns from a long trip to the Amazon. She enchants him almost immediately and with the help of her manipulative father ‘Colonel’ Harrington (Charles Coburn), she draws him into a game of poker. Pike eventually proposes to Harrington but discovers her deceptions through his dutiful servant Muggsy (William Demarest). Harrington has fallen in love with Pike by this time and is devastated by the fact that he has left her. In order to get revenge on him, she pretends to be the posh Lady Eve and seduces him yet again in her new persona despite Muggsy correctly suspecting her of being Harrington. Once Lady Eve and Pike are married, she reveals that she has had previous affairs and endeavors to make him dislike her so that he will reconcile with Harrington when he ‘coincidentally’ meets her again. Her plan works to great effect, and the two resume their relationship without Pike knowing about her lies.
It is extraordinary that Sturges is able to set this film up so quickly and get away with giving his leading actress such a long screed of dialogue to deliver. We briefly meet Pike as he enters onto the boat after getting to the end of his long expedition in the Amazon. Afterwards, Harrington tells us about her plan to seduce Pike as she glances around the room and performatively mocks her rivals in front of her father. In just a few minutes, we learn so much about Harrington, Pike, and the Colonel. She’s obviously confident enough in her own seduction techniques that she feels secure attacking the amateurish attempts of other passengers to catch his eye. Stanwyck stops us from disliking her character because there is the sense that Harrington is just having fun as she goes off on this rant. We start to realize that she thinks of this period before she has to go through the seduction as the enjoyable part of her mission. She has to anticipate seducing a hapless fool who might be a real bore to spend time with and then endure tricking him into giving up a significant portion of his earnings while gambling with her father. The bemused tone she adopts, sets us up to believe that she views Pike as a dummy and we don’t necessarily expect her to fall for him in the process of seducing him.
We also feel as though she and her father are not as close as they should be and they seem more like business partners rather than being family members who would do anything for each other. Coburn is giving his usual blustery curmudgeon performance but he doesn’t soften up as he would in The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) and The More the Merrier (1943). When his daughter turns against him, we are not that surprised, but we do feel for Harrington when she tries to break away from him, as we know that he is fairly cold and heartless and would ruin her life if she didn’t go along with his plans. Pike is mostly seen through the eyes of other characters, but Fonda is still excellent at giving the impression of being overwhelmed by this new environment. He is either oblivious to the overtures of women or almost afraid of them. Yet his strain of neuroticism sets him apart from the other bewildered men who made frequent appearances in the genre at this point in time.
The sequence in which Harrington seduces her prey is the pièce de resistance of this masterpiece. We see the expectations of both of the leads upended as they are confronted with feelings they have never had before. The situation is comical but the emotions are real and the actors are able to get across the surprise and wonderment that you feel when you meet somebody who leaves an indelible impression on you. Harrington expects to waltz into Pike’s life and dazzle him with her revealing outfit and rather unsubtle flirtatious come-ons. She goes from saying “See anything you like?” and aggressively pushing him to the floor to taking a genuine interest in him. He is clearly impacted by her take charge attitude and hands on approach to fixing her shoe but we also get to hear a lot of sexual innuendo. Jokes about rumpy pumpy can be awful when they seem crass or aim for a level of pretension that will elevate them above the average laugh line about bodily fluids. Stanwyck and Fonda seem aware of the fact that their references to snakes and apples are goofy and sweet in their own way. They also deliver them with an archly knowing streak that prevents us from accusing them of being too clever for their own good. The sexual attraction is what initially draws him to her, but it is her personality and her vitality that keeps him interested.
They move from simple flirtation to really falling in love when she does push him to the ground and begins massaging the side of his head and discussing her admiration of short men. Fonda is magnificent in this scene, as he has to blend so many different emotions together while watching Stanwyck hold court. He stares at her with reverence in his eyes but we have to believe that he adores her as a woman with idiosyncrasies, and not just a sexy goddess within the matter of minutes. He begins to lighten up as she playfully questions his interest in snakes and affectionately caresses him. Stanwyck also has to go through an even more extreme transformation as she has to retain Harrington’s hard bitten edge even as her eyes go soft and she comes tantalizingly close to kissing the object of her affection. When she describes her ideal man and eventually reveals that “I want him to sort of take me by surprise”, we key in on the fact that she’s talking about Pike at the same time that she does. A big grin spread across my face as I saw Harrington wrestling with her complicated emotions yet again. Her routine has been broken up and she has to fight to tamp down the rush of exhilaration that comes with meeting her match, for once. He’s the man that she never knew she wanted and now she faces the conundrum of conning the man she loves out of his money.
We actually squirm in the next few scenes and feel a great deal of sympathy for Harrington as she tries to hold onto her man, while also defeating her former ally. Her allegiances officially switch when her father begins trying to swindle him and she tries to fight back against him and protect Pike. I love the fact that this doesn’t turn into a story about a father and a boyfriend fighting over a woman, but subverts our expectations. In so many forbidden romances we witness an angry, overprotective father beating up some poor young boy because he happens to be dating his daughter. The girl will stand on the sidelines and weakly protest that her father shouldn’t be doing this, but we are meant to accept that this is the way the world works and tolerate people violently beating each other up for nonsensical reasons. Physical attacks don’t take place in this film and Harrington has to match wits with her father and various others who are connected to Pike, in order to be his wife. Stanwyck slips between fondly running her fingers through her boyfriend’s hair and shooting daggers at her father and we understand the fact that the stakes are high for her.
This is why we are distraught when everything comes crashing down and Pike tersely informs Harrington that he knows that she has been conning him. Stanwyck draws so much out of this scene as she turns her character into a deeply wounded woman who is masking her pain with good natured humor and light hearted jests. She desperately reminds him of the good times they had in the past, affirms the fact that her feelings for him are real, and finally tries to put herself back in a position of power by adopting a conciliatory tone. It feels like a natural progression and Stanwyck gets away with some showboating theatrics because Fonda remains so stone-faced. This is Harrington’s cry for help and Stanwyck plays around with the power dynamics involved in this scene. Harrington has moved on from being controlled by her father and assumed that she would be dominant in her relationship with Pike, but now realizes that she is left with nobody. She has to cede a little bit of that control and you see how much that kills her.
Their breakup leads into the second act of this story and Harrington only gains depth as time goes on. You’ve probably all been annoyed about the fact that I have frequently complained about the portrayal of women in films made several decades ago, in previous columns. The Lady Eve is the exception to the rule, as it was made in 1941 and yet, it feels startlingly modern in its view of the role of women in society. Harrington is allowed to be confident, sexy, and cunning but she is never punished for it. She and Pike briefly break up but she doesn’t win him back by acting like a submissive, virginal innocent. We see how pained she is when he leaves her and angrily chides her for past activities, but this only strengthens her resolve to be with him and win him back on her own terms. The immortal line, “I need him like the axe needs the turkey,” is so brilliant because it encapsulates so many of the contradictions in Harrington’s personality. She has been humiliated by Pike and she knows that she has the power to destroy him, but she still loves him. Love and hate are interconnected for her and she compares Pike to a turkey as though she is using a term of endearment. Her second scheme will give her a chance to humiliate Pike but, more importantly, she will win back his love and give him the opportunity to recognize the fact that, as Harrington, she thought the world of him.
As much as Stanwyck is the star of this movie, Fonda also gets to shine and he has some of his best moments in the second act. Pike is a bumbling fool at times, but he is aware of this fact and this means that we can’t help but find him endearing. His deadpan performance combines with Sturges’s direction to create a character who is wholly refreshing within this genre. It’s the best male performance that I have reviewed so far, and he has exceeded every mark that has been set for him. At the same time, Sturges’s touch is present everywhere and he seems to know exactly how long a gag can run on for. His sense of timing comes into play in the scene in which Pike awkwardly proposes to Harrington/Lady Eve. It’s one of those classic scenes of physical comedy that never becomes absurd enough for us to scoff at it. There is an undercurrent of distress that only serves to make the scene more funny and more painful to watch. Sturges presents us with a medium shot of Stanwyck and Fonda and refuses to expand the frame or adjust the position of the camera in order to free us from the discomfort of the scene before us. Fonda’s head keeps bobbing around as the horse creates problems for him but he never completely slips out of sight and Sturges keeps our focus on the right aspects of the scene.
The cherry on top of the sundae is the deeply moving final scene in which Pike returns to Harrington. He wants her to re-embrace him and tell him that everything will go swimmingly after he ends his disastrous marriage to Lady Eve. She does everything that he could have asked of her and, with a slight catch in her voice, says “So am I, darling” after he informs her that he is married. It’s the culmination of so much, as Harrington has pulled off her harebrained scheme, come to terms with how much she loves this man, and dealt with the pain of rejection, not once but twice. She is delighted that he has come to value her but also knows how precious he is. We feel that this couple has really earned the right to be together. The most common complaint that I have heard about screwball comedies is that people don’t like the fact that so many ridiculous contrivances keep the central couple apart. Sometimes, I agree with that view as they can get too caught up on getting from one plot point to the next rather than developing the characters or making us laugh. The Lady Eve gets away with its rather convoluted plot and presents us with one of the more heartwarming endings that has ever been presented on film.
If you couldn’t tell already, this was one entry on the list that I wholeheartedly embraced. This is one of the best films I have ever seen, let alone one of the best romances. Its influence on future romantic comedies is undeniable and it remains as fresh and exciting today as it was when it was first released. I only question why it didn’t make it into the top 10. Surely they could have dropped Love Story (1970) in favor of this. This is yet another decision they made that caused me to question their taste level.