“The Lady Eve”: Film Review

Self-possessed, proud, glacially witty and maddeningly funny: Barbara Stanwyck is a dame like no other in this scintillating, effervescent screwball comedy.

When Charles Poncefort Pike, heir to the Pike Ale fortune – a gloriously handsome yet unassuming Henry Fonda – returns home on a luxury cruise liner after months spent chasing rare snakes in some distant rainforest, he is literally and metaphorically tripped up by Jean Harrington, a beautiful cardsharp and adventuress.  He has no idea what has bitten him, but then, to her surprise, neither has she.

As in the best romantic comedies, the course of true love does not run smooth, or straight. Jean doesn’t let on that for once in her life, she is lovestruck. She prefers to wind up Hopsie, as she calls him, and stays as brightly sassy as ever. Meanwhile, Hopsie plays along, perhaps by design, perhaps because he is genuinely smitten and clueless.  Time runs out. Jean doesn’t get a chance to explain herself to Hopsie, that for once, she is not taking a man for his wallet and a ride – that this time, it’s the real thing.  But her true identity is revealed and Hopsie, doubting her, self-righteously bails out.

Round two is on.  Out of the blue, a most ravishing English countess appears at a grand evening reception at the Pike mansion in Connecticut – the distinguished, gorgeous, charming Lady Eve Sidwich.  “The Lady Eve” resembles Jean Harrington so much that Pike, as the literal man he is, cannot for one moment imagine that both women are the same person.  And so round three of Plan Harrington kicks off, to universal delight, on a train ride to nowhere.  Will there be a round four?

“The Lady Eve” is funny and delightfully risqué, and one of the best in its genre – which conventions it follows to the letter. Battle of the sexes, check. Befuddled male, check. Smart cookie heroine, check. Masquerade, class contempt, quick repartee, barely contained sexual tension?  All that.

Filmed in 1940, “The Lady Eve” was initially rejected by Hays Code censors and then altered – and yet, there is one scene in particular, in a ship cabin, that is so suggestive and sexy, that it’s amazing and wonderful that it remains in the film – the air vibrant with unspoken desire, Jean/Eve playfully teasing a very confused but just about gentlemanly Hopsie, to the limit.  That Fonda as Hopsie too is devastatingly desirable, adds to the squirming deliciousness of the moment.

Like the best screwball comedies, the script is stuffed full of great lines and crazy situations, and also rich with context – there are allusions to Hitler and to the Battle of the Atlantic that lend an ominous undertone to a romance that is far from frothy or inconsequential.

One line in particular must have inspired “Some Like it Hot”, filmed some eighteen years later, when Hopsie’s minder protests ‘That’s the same dame…’ and the final one-liner is a hoot – if “Some Like it Hot” has ‘Nobody’s perfect’, “The Lady Eve” has ‘Some Am I, Darling’.  Check out the film to learn a few world-class courtship tips – they might come in handy.  This is after all the sexiest funny film ever made. Probably.

Dir Preston Sturges
Cinematographer Victor Milner
Based on the short story “Two Bad Hats”, by Monckton Hoffe
With Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn

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