I wonder if Preston Sturges thought of Congreve’s line “Heav'n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn'd, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn'd” [or in a more familiar version “Hell hath no fury like a scorned woman”] when he came up with the idea for “The Lady Eve” (and yes, I cheated and looked for the correct quote and author online). Alternatively, the film can be most synthetically described as woman’s quest to prove to the man she loves that some bad women aren’t as bad as they look, and that good women often aren’t as good as he’d think. Of course the film is so much more that that. It’s a hilarious mix between screwball and romantic comedy, aided by Sturges’ immense gift for words, well illustrated by Barbara Stanwyck vindictively uttering “I need him like the axe needs the turkey”.
The plot is simple – while returning to the US on a ship (from an expedition in South America), the awkward heir to an ale fortune (Henry Fonda) falls victim of a group of professional card players (including Charles Coburn and Stanwyck as his daughter Jean). However, things don’t go according to plan to the troupe of crooks as Jean falls in love with their prey. When he founds out romance is off, and she starts a long process of proving what I mentioned above, i.e. she isn’t really as bad as she looks. On a personal note, I am not sure if the way she proceeds to do it is really the best way to prove that… anyway…
As I mentioned in a previous post, “The Lady Eve” was the beginning of my love affair with Stanwyck’s acting. With the possible exception of her deadly performance in “Double Indemnity”, I think she’s at her best here – and frankly should have won an Oscar for it! Her two great sequences with Fonda are priceless. In the first, at the very beginning of the film, she tricks him and seduces him, leaving him in a completely state of disarray. Later, she does it again, while on the train – but to say more is would be to spoil it. The chemistry between the performers is amazing, and this is possibly Fonda at his romantic leading man best (something he stopped doing after the war). But it also highlights his talent as a comic actor, in particular as someone comfortable with slapstick, when he performs a series of falls (and destroys a few suits) in one of the funniest sequences in the film. There is also incredible support from Eugene Pallette, William Demarest and, especially, Charles Coburn.
“The Lady Eve” is the third of a string of comedies that Sturges directed for Paramount in the first years of the 1940s (although some were distributed with 1-2 years delay). It showcases his confidence as a director and his craft as a screenwriter. It also surprises me in how much it stretches the Hays code, bending it without breaking it, especially in the seduction scenes I mentioned above, where Fonda ends sitting on the floor, rather than on the chaise longue (which wouldn’t be allowed) – not that makes much difference, really. But this bending of rules is also present in the ending – although I assume that’s because the viewer knows more than one of the characters by then.