In honor of National Humor Month this April I’d like to focus on several comedic hidden gems from several decades ago. The first of these gem comedies is writer/director Preston Sturges’ 1941 The Lady Eve. This silly, romantic screwball comedy features a terrific lead performance by Barbara Stanwyck and an equally hilarious mousey performance by Henry Fonda.
Sturges was one of the first screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden era to make the successful transition to being a writer/director. He was one of the most innovative and prolific creators of kooky comedies. In an unprecedented short period of time (1940-1944), starting with his Oscar winning screenplay for The Great McGinty, he wrote and directed Christmas in July, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero—all extremely popular comedies with a decided edge. But The Lady Eve contains possibly Sturges’ best lead performers, along with a perfect blend of sassy dialogue and goofy slapstick humor.
In The Lady Eve Stanwyck plays Jean, one of a trio of confidence artist/card sharks who swindle gullible men on cruise ships. Along with her father, Colonel “Handsome Harry” Harrington (Charles Coburn), she comes upon Charles Pike (Fonda) a shy snake expert, who has been up the Amazon for years, and see he’s ripe for taking. Pike is also the heir to the famed Pike’s Pale Ale fortune. Jean quickly applies her amorous charms, an enticing perfume, a warm smile and a pair of evening slippers and sweeps Pike off his feet.
In two of the film’s most romantic winning moments Sturges films Stanwyck and Fonda in a nearly two minute long take close up as the two share views of their ideal mates and for fans of James Cameron’s “king of the world” scene from Titanic, Sturges provides that scene’s antecedent in a romantic bow/deck scene, where Jean and Pike dream of their life together.
Later, after Pike’s sidekick bodyguard, Muggsy, provides proof that Jean and her father are criminals, Pike falls into depression. Months later though he meets an elegant woman at a society party who looks remarkably like Jean, but Pike is so not sure, as a new level of chaos ensues.
Sturges fills his cast with a supporting cast of his trademark funnymen. William Demarest plays the fast talking Muggsy, the eccentric Eric Blore is the swindler Sir Alfred and Eugene Paulette is the flabbergasted senior Mr. Pike. But Stanwyck is in absolute top form as Jean/Lady Eve; she was charming, sexy, fast talking, witty and classically feminine. 1941 was also her banner year, as she also starred in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe and Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire, for which she received an Oscar nomination as best actress.