THE LADY EVE

Director Preston Sturges
Year 1941
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda
Run Time 94min
Age Policy

18 and up; Children 6 and up will be allowed only with a parent guardian. No children under the age of 6 will be allowed.

More Info IMDb

This screening is part of our November celebration of Tough Ladies in Cinema!

The crown jewel in the career of mad comedic genius Preston Sturges, THE LADY EVE is truly one of the greatest romantic comedies ever to come out of the Golden Age of Hollywood. And seeing as the romantic comedy was essentially the raison d'etre of classic Hollywood, THE LADY EVE can be seen as the fullest, most perfect expression of everything which movies of that time aspired to. Genuinely romantic and impossibly funny, Sturges pulls off a breathless balancing act in which his leading lady lies, cheats and steals her way to real love. It's an anarchic, coldly brilliant comedy about the humiliation of a man (Henry Fonda) by a woman (Barbara Stanwyck) that slowly involves your feelings until by the end you become genuinely moved by the sincerity lurking beneath their fundamentally dishonest relationship. 

Stanwyck plays Jean Harrington, a con woman who travels the world first class, along with her father and their valet, fleecing rich travelers in card games and grifts of all sort. While on board a luxury cruise ship, she sets her sights on Charles Pike (Fonda), amateur ophiologist and heir to a brewery fortune, who is travelling home after spending a year "up the Amazon". She drops an apple on his head as he climbs the rope ladder to the ship, and is reprimanded by her father: "Don't be vulgar, Jean. Let us be crooked, but never common.” Keeping this in mind, she immediately sets out to take Pike for all he's worth.

Jean's character is rooted in a cliched archetype -- the wandering conwoman who lives by her wits and sexual wiles, cynical about love and sex until she is seduced into a new life by male innocence and inexperience. And while the film doesn't exactly subvert the trope, it complicates and heightens it, making it full and rich and outrageous. Jean is an intensified exageration and embodiment of power and allure. She delights in her strength, her control over Pike, and that delight, brought to life so perfectly by Stanwyck, gives THE LADY EVE much of its energy and fun.

Though Henry Fonda delivers a flawless comedic performance, especially in an extended slapstick sequence filled with pratfall after pratfall, the film completely belongs to Stanwyck. Known primarily for her dramatic roles as tough working girls, self-sacrificing mothers or hard-bitten prostitutes, in THE LADY EVE she shines with all the style, sophistaction and glamour in the world. More than any other star of classic Hollywood, Barbara Stanwyck's magic was entirely in her films, not in her star persona or fan magazine spreads or the way people talked about her. Watching her perform makes you realize that there was a time when being smart and sexy onscreen weren't mutually exclusive.

The motivation for nearly every scene in the movie arises out of Jean's emotions and desires. You can see it all in her eyes: the amusement she gets from relentlessly humiliating the shy and awkward Pike,  the interest and arousal she feels towards him in spite of herself. It's incredible how much genuine feeling Stanwyck finds in the comedy. When Jean is first seducing Pike, she does it with happy, open contempt. Even as she becomes caught up in her own seduction, it does little to lessen her malicious exuberance. Few characters in romantic comedies have more convincingly, impetuously desired someone like Jean does Pike, but the movie never lets us forget the gleefully destructive element of her character. “I need him,” she says, “like the axe needs the turkey.”

And you need this movie.

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