February 28, 2017

The Lady Eve (1941)
Grade: 63/100

Director: Preston Sturges
Stars: Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Coburn

What it's about. Lovely brunette Barbara Stanwyck and her equally crafty father Charles Coburn are con artists who target the wealthy. At the top of their list is Henry Fonda, an eligible bachelor and the sole heir to a beer fortune built by his father Eugene Pallette. While Pallette is obnoxious to a cartoonish degree, Fonda is meek and polite, and shuns society. He prefers the Amazon, researching rare snakes.

Returning home to his father on a luxury cruise, Stanwyck succeeds in romancing the clueless Fonda, hoping for the ultimate con: marriage. Lucky for him, grouchy William Demarest is on Pallette's payroll and protective of Fonda.

Demarest finally manages to remove the wool over Fonda's eyes concerning Stanwyck, and he escapes her schemes. She vows revenge, by assuming another identity and flirting her way into Pallette's social circle. This plot also involves Eric Blore, who, like Stanwyck, is posing as a British aristocrat.

How others will see it. Surprisingly, the Preston Sturges comedies were underappreciated at the time they were made, during the 1940s. It is only in subsequent decades that they were hailed as highlights of the Hollywood Golden Age.

The reception for The Lady Eve was typical. It received only a single Oscar nod, for Best Original Story. The film was not among the top 20 box office hits of 1941, which was headed by Sergeant York, and included such fare as four Bob Hope comedies and three Abbott and Costello vehicles.

Today, though, it is The Lady Eve that is enshrined in the National Film Registry, while Bob Hope's Louisiana Purchase, the #3 hit that year, has a mere 331 votes at imdb.com. The Lady Eve has 15K votes and a lofty 8.0 user rating, which rises to a remarkable 8.6 among women over 45, the most significant demographic due to its indifference to critical consensus.

Certainly, most viewers find The Lady Eve highly amusing. Many if not most are classic film fans who have seen the majority of Sturges' now-beloved screwball comedies.

How I felt about it. The Lady Eve was made during the Production Code era. This explains why Fonda and Stanwyck can't spend the night together until they are married, albeit under a phony name for Stanwyck, which might make the marriage invalid.

Also under the Production Code, criminals must be punished. Curiously, this edict is unfulfilled in the present film. For example, Charles Coburn apparently gets to cash Henry Fonda's $32K check, which would be about $500K in 2017 money. That is quite a swindle to accomplish through cheating at cards.

Stanwyck's unethical behavior is also rewarded. It's true that she stops her father from cheating Fonda on a few occasions, but she lies to Fonda about her and her father's identity. She also lies about past lovers, merely to enrage Fonda, to "get even" for his dumping her after he learns she is a career criminal.

She also trips him, which could seriously injure him. Her behavior is rewarded by marriage to a very wealthy man. Coburn is unpunished, and the same goes for Eric Blore, and also Melville Cooper, the valet of Coburn and complicit in his schemes. Apparently, the message is that you can fleece wealthy people with impunity as long as you are funny, or beautiful, or both.

I compare The Lady Eve with The Grifters (1990), a much darker post-Code film that properly shows the consequences of longterm predatory behavior. The Grifters is more realistic, and better, but has a lower user rating by a full point. The fact that audiences choose entertainment over credible drama does not surprise me, but it also does not change my opinion.

The "happy ending" has Stanwyck reunited with Fonda. Presumably, the dense Fonda will soon realize that Stanwyck is both Jean and Eve, and will forgive her for the many awful things she has done to him, because she really does love him, or at least says she does. With con artists, you never know.

Henry Fonda's dry character has lost all interest in his snakes (previously his sole passion) by the second reel. It is difficult to believe that Coburn is the father of Stanwyck, and Pallette is the father of Fonda. Apparently, if you want to turn old and ugly quickly, become a father. As for the mothers, they simply disappear.

At least we have William Demarest, who doesn't like con artists, and seeks to protect the vulnerable Henry Fonda from the manipulative and deceptive Stanwyck. A moral sourpuss and a consistent character, Demarest is my favorite from the film, and it is no wonder that he is a standout in ten of Sturges' comedies.