From cultural, theological, and moral perspectives, the Studio Era of Hollywood is a fascinating study. On one hand, conservative viewers might praise the absence of overtly offensive images on screen. On the other hand, more liberal viewers might bemoan the limited worldview (white, heterosexual, and decidedly middle to upper class…mostly) that these films often set forth. Yet, without question, the regulations against representation and dialogue forced writers and directors to be extremely creative when approaching potentially offensive material. As such, some of the films of that era represent the best in writing and editing. The genre that perhaps benefited the most from this reality was the romantic comedy, which was, then, so much sexier, funnier, and mature than the majority of contemporary contributions to the genre because of what the lovers didn’t (couldn’t) say or do but what their words and actions implied. One case among many…The Lady Eve (1941).
The Lady Eve stars Henry Fonda as Charlie Pike, a brewery heir who cares little for the family business and more about science: he’s an ophiologist (he studies snakes). On a return trip from the Amazon, he encounters Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father Col. Harry (Charles Coburn), a couple of card shark swindlers looking to take advantage of Charlie. As Hollywood would have it, Charlie and Jean fall in love, but when he learns of her true identity, he pushes away and leaves her behind. Love struck and not a little spurned, Jean coordinates with another conman, Sir Alfred McGlennan Kieth (Eric Blore), becomes the Lady Eve Sidwick, and arranges a social gathering in her honor at Charlie’s parents’ mansion.
When he meets the Lady Eve, Charlie swears he’s met her before, but she keeps him off her trail by donning a British accent and vehemently denying it. They fall for one another and get married, but on their honeymoon, Eve concocts stories of numerous previous lovers which, to her design, drives Charlie away and allows her to drop her fake identity. Back on another cruise liner, presumably headed for another expedition, Charlie just so happens to run into, of all people, Jean.
I wanted to see this film, in part, because Fonda is one of my favorite actors from this era (and all of film history), but also because of Roger Ebert’s comments on one particular scene. Ebert writes, “If I were asked to name the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest at the same time, I would advise beginning at six seconds past the 20-minute mark in Preston Sturges‘ The Lady Eve, and watching as Barbara Stanwyck toys with Henry Fonda’s hair in an unbroken shot that lasts three minutes and 51 seconds.” In this sexy, funny scene, romantic dialogue gets no richer than these exchanges between Jean and Charlie. Having spent a year in the Amazon, we recognize that the least little advance will send Charlie into an aroused spiral, and he literally melts in her arms. In fact, their conversation is just as erotic and exhausting as any torrid sex scene in more contemporary films. When they “finish,” she tells him, “I’ll sleep good tonight.” He grumbles in response, “Speak for yourself.”
The film is an absolute delight. Of course one could look at its title and title character as a problematic re-presentation of womanhood and women in films at that time. Its title obviously draws on the notion of Eve’s responsibility for the origin of sin in human history. In fact, the opening title credits feature a cartoon snake that weaves in and out of the titles and around incriminating apples. Jean also drops an apple on Charlie’s head as he boards the cruise liner where they meet. However, Jean is no “dumb broad.” She is creative in her pursuit of Charlie and in her attempts to get him back. Jean exhibits a boldness in donning her new identity that challenges Charlie’s intelligence, even though he “gets it” in the end. Throughout the film she goes toe-to-toe with all of her mail counterparts, besting them in both cards and banter. If you haven’t seen this classic, make it the next on your list.
The Lady Eve (94 mins.) is streaming on Netflix and available on DVD.