”THE LADY EVE” (1941) Review
I must admit that I have never been a diehard fan of Preston Sturges. I realize that he is the one Hollywood director and screenwriter credited for taking the screwball comedy format to a more mature level. And this is certainly apparent in his films. But of all of his movies, I can only think of two that I consider personal favorites of mine. And one of those two happen to be his 1941 comedy classic, ”THE LADY EVE”.
Starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, ”THE LADY EVE” told the story about a mismatched romance between a beautiful con artist (Stanwyck) named Jean Harrington and Charles Pike (Fonda), the naïve heir to the Pike Ale fortune and a reptile expert. The pair met aboard an ocean liner bound from South America to the United States. Jean and her father, Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn) decided to fleece Charles at cards, but she fell in love with him and ruined her father’s plans for a quick score. But Charles broke up the romance after learning that Jean and Colonel Harrington were gamblers and con artists, thanks to his ever vigilant valet/minder, Mugsy (William Demerest). Furious at being scorned, Jean re-entered Charles’ life, while masquerading as the posh “Lady Eve Sidwich” – niece of Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith (Eric Blore), another con man who’s been swindling the rich folk of Connecticut.
What can I say about ”THE LADY EVE”? It is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. Period. And that is quite an achievement for a film that is almost seventy (70) years old. Do not get me wrong. I can think of other comedies made during this period that were just as funny. Unfortunately, a good number of them tend to lose steam by the film’s last fifteen minutes or so. A good example of this would be the two comedies that Cary Grant and Irene Dunne made together – ”THE AWFUL TRUTH” and ”MY FAVORITE WIFE”. But thanks to Sturges and Monckton Hoffe, who wrote the movie’s original story, allowed Jean’s deception and torment of Charles in order to keep the laughs going . It began with that first moment when Jean and Colonel Harrington spotted Charles boarding the ocean liner and ended right up to the film’s last flickering moment when a reconciled Charles and Jean kicked Mugsy out of her stateroom.
Some of my favorite scenes from the movie included the following:
*Jean’s criticisms of many other female passengers, determined to seduce poor Charles in some of the most hilarious and awkward ways ever conceived;.
*Jean’s seduction of Charles inside her stateroom;
*Mr. Pike’s (Eugene Pallette) frustration at the lack of a breakfast prepared for him;
*Mugsy’s attempts to determine whether Lady Eve Sidwich and Jean Harrington are ”the same dame”, during the Pikes’ dinner party for their aristocratic guests;
*Charles’ many pratfalls that threatened to ruin the dinner party;
*Lady Eve’s revelation of her less than virginal past with a score of men to a very stunned Charles during their honeymoon aboard a train
Naturally, I have to speak about the cast. Sturges filled it with some first-rate performers – whether they were character actors with minor roles that did not require any lines (think of the numerous shipboard females that attempted and failed to woo Charles Pike), or the two leads – Stanwyck and Fonda. There were certain performances that caught my eye. William Demarest was a hoot as Mugsy, Charles’ paranoid and very faithful retainer, whose suspicions of Jean as the Lady Eve provided some of the funniest moments in the film’s second half. Eugene Pallette was equally funny as the gruff Horace Pike, who seemed incapable of understanding his shy and scholarly son. And Charles Coburn made a cool Colonel Harrington, a card sharp who is also shrewd enough to gauge his daughter Jean’s feelings for Charles. And Eric Blore portrayed a deliciously over-the-top Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith, a fellow con artist of the Harringtons, who is recruited by Jean to portray her relative during her Lady Eve impersonation.
But this movie obviously belonged Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda as the two lovers – Jean Harrington and Charles Pike. Her Jean is so deliciously manipulative, yet passionate when she first falls for Charles. And Charles Pike has to be one of Fonda’s funniest role in his long career. Watching him struggle and fail to resist Jean’s charms filled me with a lot of laughs, along with his series of pratfalls during the sequence that featured the Pikes’ dinner party. Stanwyck and Fonda first worked together in the 1938 comedy mystery, ”THE MAD MISS MENTON”. In both ”MISS MENTON” and ”THE LADY EVE”, it seemed quite apparent that they truly enjoyed working together.
Monckton Hoffe had received a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story. This is the only Academy Award nomination that the film had received, I find that a criminal oversight on the part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The New York Times had voted ”THE LADY EVE” as one of the ”10 Best Films of 1941”. The movie industry and the media in 1941 had vastly underrated the quality of this film, as far as I am concerned. Personally, I believe that it is one of the best movie comedies ever made. Period.
Filed under: Movie Review | Tagged: barbara stanwyck, charles coburn, eric blore, eugene pallette, henry fonda, janet beecher, martha o'driscoll, movies, old hollywood, preston surges, william demerest, world war 2 |