Directed by Preston Sturges
"Positively the same dame!" — "Muggsy" in The Lady Eve
If you condensed all the wit in Hollywood's great epoch of the screwball comedy, everything between 1934's It Happened One Night and 1941's Philadelphia Story, all the uplifted eyebrows and double-entendres, all the cruise ship salons, rustic Adirondack getaways, chic nightspots and Park Avenue penthouses, all the longing glances and all the lovers' spats, all the mistaken identity subplots, all the glamour and the exquisite costumes, all the wacky rich people trying their hardest to impersonate the joys of poverty, all the pratfalls and slapstick, all the sexy byplay and all the arch, knowing dialogue, and spiced it all with a democratic spirit known only to writer-director-producer Preston Sturges, you'd have The Lady Eve, the greatest of all screwball comedies, bar none.
The Lady Eve is broken into two acts, each with its own climactic episode, and prefaced by a goofy, year-up-the-Amazon prologue that sets the antic tone for the whole film. In the first act, we meet the almost unbearably sexy Jean (played by Barbara Stanwyck, in what might just be her greatest role) and her gambler cronies. There's Colonel Harrington (played by Charles Coburn at his laconic best), his military rank about as believable as that other colonel-huckster hyphenate, Tom Parker, and Gerald (Melville Cooper), always ready to hold the Colonel's coat, particularly if there's an extra ace or two sewn into the lining. The alleged Colonel is Jean's father, and his pardonable pride at being the parent of the most skilled card sharp on the North Atlantic run is matched only by his wide-eyed glee at meeting the heir to the Pike's Pale Ale fortune, Charles "Hopsy" Pike (Henry Fonda), who he correctly guesses is the prize sucker of all time. Hopsy is a sort of Neville Chamberlain of romance; he looks like he knows what he's doing, but he never really seems to get it. Jean plays the hapless Hopsy like a tournament trout; the business in her cabin over a shoe with a broken heel is either the funniest sexy moment in American cinema, or the sexiest funny moment -- I'm not sure which, but it's perfection, regardless. But then something happens: Jean's patented act of a woman smitten loses its duplicity, and becomes the real thing. She falls for handsome, dopey Hopsy, but hard. A double (or is it triple?) reverse then occurs, requiring the invention of someone called "Lady Eve Sidwich" for the purposes of ritually humiliating the pleasant but stuffy Hopsy. What Hopsy will go through as punishment for his pointless prudery -- vaulting over his own furniture, wearing an entire roast beef with vegetables, and hearing a litany of female sexual conquest breathtaking for its sheer variety -- is perhaps matched in screwball comedy only by the torture undergone by poor Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday. When Jean says of her intended victim, "I need him like the axe needs the turkey," we shudder, but deliciously, at the fate which awaits him. We are not disappointed.
The brazenness of the central plot device -- the metamorphosis which follows Hopsy and Jean's shipboard adventure -- is one of the most joyously improbable in all of film comedy. The only one who seems to have figured it all out is Muggsy Murgatroyd, Hopsy's bodyguard and unlikely Man Friday, played by one of the comic geniuses of the Sturges' stock company, William Demarest. Muggsy's as hard-boiled as a ten-minute egg, a sourpuss of millennial grumpiness and bottomless cynicism. All Muggsy's worst suspicions are confirmed -- and see if it matters.
Here, Fonda plays the trademark screwball schlemiel with aplomb. The actor was not known for comedy, yet he always spoke of The Lady Eve as among his favorite films. Fonda's respect for Stanwyck as an actress was equaled by his appreciation for Sturges' wit as a writer, and his deftness as a director. (As well as Sturges' refusal to take himself seriously: a Paramount studios promotional picture from this period depicts Sturges-the-writer hopefully offering a script to Sturges-the-director -- who's grimacing and holding his nose as he accepts it.) In fact, Fonda's comic gift in screwball comedies was to be simultaneously a bland, well-meaning dullard, hopelessly Midwestern, who still managed to win the girl against all odds. (The rare Fonda screwball persona is perfectly summarized in the title of one of his funniest but least remembered comedies, 1942's The Magnificent Dope.) Unlike Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck's range as an actress was always well-known for encompassing comedy as well as drama. It's hard to believe, but at the same time she was making The Lady Eve, Stanwyck was making the hilarious Ball of Fire with Howard Hawks, and the deeply tragic Meet John Doe with Frank Capra; quite a year, but then, Barbara Stanwyck was quite an actress. Stanwyck's costumes, designed by the inimitable Edith Head, became something of a fashion trend, particularly the Latin-influenced dresses, sport ensembles and midriff evening gowns which women could buy in knock-off versions at department stores. Head said that designing for Stanwyck was always a challenge, because she was a bit short for Head's tastes, and had a long waist. The Lady Eve gowns brilliantly compensate for what, in fashion terms, Head thought of as Stanwyck's physical detriments. Widely available though they might have been, it's hard to imagine anyone looking as appealing, as comfortable, as genuinely sexy as Stanwyck does in Head's creations for The Lady Eve.
The war would soon foreclose on the magnanimous comedic impulses of the screwball comedy; in The Lady Eve, we hear that, because of the war, the cruise ships have stopped running, and the Lady in question has required transportation in a battleship (or is it a submarine?). By 1945, the agonies of wartime put paid to the divine carelessness of the screwball comedies; they were replaced by the film noir as the most zeitgeist-appropriate genre. It would fall to a later generation to rediscover the screwball comedy, to again laugh out loud at its gags, both physical and linguistic, to once again sigh over the spirit of generosity and love which lay beneath its translucent skin, and to marvel at the great actors who made it a canvas for a uniquely American brand of humor -- Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Stanwyck, Fonda, and the rest.
At the time, the screwball comedy seemed so inconsequential that it was hard to believe that it mattered in the face of such obviously significant fare as The Story of Louis Pasteur or The Life of Emile Zola. And yet, as James Harvey has put it in discussing The Lady Eve, this kind of unselfconscious art is often the most tonic:"It can surely be argued from the experience of this wonderfully funny movie that its effect on us is somehow serious -- that it has the richness, the completeness and the resonance by which we recognize something fully and seriously done, whether we can explain it or not -- and no one has yet accounted for or settled on a way of explaining the power and force, the peculiar beauty of the Hollywood studio film at its best."
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
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