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THE LADY EVE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest
Director:  Preston Sturges
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  93 Minutes
Release Date:  October 16, 2001

“With a little training, you’d be great!  You’ve got a good nose.”
“Thank you…is there anything else about me you like?”
“Oh…what I meant was…”
“I know what you meant.  I was just flirting with you.”
“Oh.”
“You’re not going to faint, are you?”

Film ***1/2

Romantic comedies come and go…some, like The Lady Eve, are simply more romantic and comical than others.

Authored by writer/director Preston Sturges, this charming lightweight picture boasts great lead performances by the radiant Barbara Stanwyck and the disarmingly awkward Henry Fonda, plus a great supporting cast, a fast paced script with lots of zingers, and a surprisingly moving love story to boot.

Stanwyck plays Jean Harringon, who, along with her father Henry (Coburn), work as card sharks preying on the rich and naďve.  In Charles Pike (Fonda), the unaware heir to a brewery fortune, they’ve found the perfect conquest.  Pike is not interested in his father’s business (he knows there’s a difference between beer and ale, but can’t quite explain it)…his passion is snakes.  He’s just returned from a year in the Amazon where he studied them.  He hasn’t been around a girl in all that time, and the ship returning him home is swarming with would-be-suitorettes and their mothers.

Jean has a field day waiting to make the kill…in one of the picture’s many memorable sequences, she studies Charles with her hand mirror, and the clumsy attempts by girls to attract his attention.  She narrates, analyzes, and of course, ridicules what she sees.  Her approach?  Trip the guy so he falls flat on his face.

Living her father’s line of “let’s be crooked, but never common”, she turns on the charm at first just to get him to agree to a card game or two.  But there’s real chemistry in the air…you can sense it radiating from every frame.  By the time the con is set, she no longer wants to go through with it, and he wants to marry her.  But before happily ever after can roll, he discovers the truth about her profession. 

End of story?  Not if Jean can help it.  Heartbroken at first, but later, determined to avenge herself, she goes off on her own for the biggest con of her life, and the start of the extraordinary second half of the picture.  Most of the plot hinges on the audience’s willingness to believe that Charles could be stupid enough not to trust his own eyes, but so what?  There’s real magic at work here.

The film made me laugh practically from start to finish, and when I wasn’t laughing, I was always smiling.  Sturges’ script is wonderfully funny, and he handles his characters with a comical dignity, even when the normally sure Henry Fonda is required to spend much of the film on his face (“That couch has been there 15 years,” his father grumbles at one point, “and no one’s ever tripped over it before!”).

Some of the funniest moments are the most inconsequential.  I howled at nearly every moment Eugene Pallette was on screen as Mr. Pike.  Watching him clamor for his breakfast was completely over the top, in character, and hysterical.  Another good supporting performance comes from William Demarest as Mugsy, the oafish heavy who has guarded Charles all his life, and seems determined to protect him now, whether Charles wants him to or not!

But, as mentioned, the film really belongs to the two leads.  Fonda didn’t do many comedies in his career, but he displays a knack for timing and rhythm in the kind of role most people wouldn’t normally think of him playing.  And Ms. Stanwyck is superb…she lights up the picture from beginning to end.  She’s never looked more beautiful or radiated such appeal…not to mention the comic range she shows!

The Lady Eve became known as a “screwball” comedy (as Peter Bogdanovich points out in the intro, that word was used because audiences tended to recoil at the word “farce”), and became the kind of film Sturges earned a reputation for creating.  He was considered the first writer to cross over into directing, and 1941 was a terrific year for him, having made both this movie and Sullivan’s Travels.  Some publications at the time picked Eve as best film of the year, even over Citizen Kane!

Sixty years later, it’s just as charming and effervescent as ever.  It makes no heavy handed plays at relationships, the differences between men and women, or the forces that bring them together or break them up.  It’s merely a whimsical look at two people who come together under dubious circumstances that can’t erase the fact that they simply belong with one another.  Adam gets his rib back, one way or another.

Video ***

Despite the film’s age, this is a very satisfying transfer from Criterion.  The only real flaws are the occasional print problem, not with the digital presentation.  Such flaws aren’t prominent, merely noticeable in the form of the occasional flicker, spot or scratch (and for one period of only a few seconds, a bit of jumping in the frame).  But overall, the black and white photography is remarkably clean and maintains good detail, with no murkiness or undue grain to spoil the effects of the image.

Audio **

The single channel mono track is clean and clear…as the film focuses mainly on dialogue, that’s what counts the most.  There is not much in the way of dynamic range or effects, but they aren’t missed.

Features ****

This is another stellar package from Criterion, one that starts with an enthusiastic, interesting and informative commentary track by film scholar Marian Keane.  She is a self-admitted lover of the movie, and offers plenty of thoughts on the actors, Sturges, and why the picture has remained a favorite for so long.  There is also the aforementioned introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, which is fairly short but insightful into the movie and its genre.  A personal favorite of mine is the Lux Radio Theatre broadcast of The Lady Eve, hosted by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Barbara Stanwyck opposite Ray Milland.  It runs 45 minutes, and you can turn your TV off and just enjoy listening the way audiences did back in 1942.  It’s a real treat.

Rounding out the extras are a look at some of Oscar winner Edith Head’s terrific costume designs, a scrapbook of publicity materials and stills, and the re-release trailer.  A terrific set of extras!

Summary:

The Lady Eve proves that a romantic comedy done right is terrific entertainment.  With a superb cast, witty script and terrific sense of comic timing and pacing, this classic on a great DVD should continue to win new devotees, as well as charm the old ones.