#214 The Lady Eve

(1941, Preston Sturges)

“I need him like the axe needs the turkey”

There is no shortage of romantic comedies from the 1940s, usually with a dashing male lead and a sharp-witted leading lady throwing quips at each other. The Lady Eve is another one of these movies, but is it enough of a standout effort to be considered a movie not to miss?

On a boat trip out of South America, con artist Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) sets out to fleece the naïve and rich Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), the heir to a major ale producer’s fortune and a snake-trainer in his spare time. However, following her efforts to jokingly seduce him into playing cards with her card-shark father (Charles Coburn), she ends up falling hard for Pike, prompting a series of misadventures.

Sometimes a Golden Age romantic comedy hits all the right notes and manages to be an excellent romp that’s stood the test of time. It Happened One Night was one of these, as was the superb His Girl Friday, but sadly, The Lady Eve cannot be added to that list in my opinion.

For a start, for a film billed as a screwball comedy, I didn’t really laugh at any portion of it. Neither of the leads came across as particularly amusing, and more often than not, I found myself wondering if humour has changed too much since the 1940s for me to appreciate this. Then I remember the two very funny films mentioned above and realise that’s nonsense. It’s simply that this particular film isn’t all that funny.

I only had two indications throughout the movie that this was meant to be a comedy. First of all was the ZANY animated opening with the snake and the apple (because, “Eve”, in case the symbolism wasn’t already smacking you in the face), and secondly, Henry Fonda’s derpy acting. His character constantly looked spacey and was prone to pratfalls and wackiness, so I assumed he was meant to be playing his character somewhat comically.

Problem is, none of this was all that funny. Mildly amusing at best, but it did little to hold my interest. It didn’t help that Barbara Stanwyck’s character never came across as particularly funny. She was played well as a straight con-woman and her character was pretty likeable, just not someone to elicit much of a giggle.

So it doesn’t work well as a comedy, but does it work as a romance? The answer is no on that front too.

What is it with movies from this period of time featuring male and female characters falling madly in love with each other despite only knowing each other for about five minutes and having barely had a conversation? It’s not all movies from this era, of course. I believed the romances of It Happened One Night and It’s A Wonderful Life because they were given space to grow naturally, and His Girl Friday worked because there was a clear history between the leads.

But those were the ones that worked well. This sadly joins the ranks of all the others that featured a couple who’ve just met and start swooning over each other for no apparent reason. Stanwyck plays her character so well as a stoic and snarky con-woman that Jean’s romantic side never really came across very well. And, of course, Fonda was just permanently spacey. It just didn’t feel believable that this morally dubious con artist would suddenly drop everything after a late night conversation with her target. We get no insight into this switch, and it’s baffling.

Overall, The Lady Eve simply didn’t grab me in any way. It wasn’t that notable and blurred into some of the other average romantic comedies of the forties. There really isn’t a lot of temptation to watch this again.

Starring Barbara Stanwyck & Henry Fonda
Written by Monckton Hoffe (story – “Two Bad Hats”) and Preston Sturges
Produced by Paul Jones
Cinematography by Victor Milner
Edited by Stuart Gilmore

Favourite Scene: There’s a scene later on when the two leads are trying to share a romantic moment and a horse steals the scene. That horse was the best character.
Scene That Bugged Me: Jean, as Charles’ fake wife later on (it’s complicated), reels off an absurdly large list of former boyfriends and the shock value of this kind of feels silly today. “You had several boyfriends before me?! WHAT A SHOCKER!!!”

Watch it if: You like all romantic comedies of the 40s, regardless of their quality
Avoid it if: You were hoping it was more Biblical

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Posted on August 30, 2013, in 1940s, Comedy, Romance and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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