Director: Preston Sturges
Screenplay: Preston Sturges
Based on a Story by: Monckton Hoffe
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest, Eric Blore, Melville Cooper
Country: USA
Running Time: 94 min
Year: 1941
BBFC Certificate: PG

On breaking new ground as the first writer-director to come out of Hollywood, after working originally purely as a writer, Preston Sturges launched into an impressive and rapid run of films. Between 1940 and 1944, he directed eight of them, most of which are highly regarded among lovers of classic cinema. One of the most beloved is The Lady Eve, released in 1941.

It’s a title I, shamefully, hadn’t seen before, so I was keen to snap up a copy of Criterion’s new Blu-ray release of the film, so I could share my thoughts on it.

The Lady Eve opens with Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), the son of a wealthy ale magnate, returning home to the U.S. via ship after spending a year up the Amazon researching his beloved snakes. Practically all of the young women on the ship have their eye on this well-known and obscenely rich single man, but he finds all the attention rather uncomfortable.

However, a trio of card sharks, Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), her father “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn) and their friend Gerald (Melville Cooper), are also aboard and set their own sights on the hapless Charles. Jean uses her beauty and wits to quickly charm him to butter him up for a fall at the card table. However, she falls as in love with Charles as he does with her.

Jean’s father does his best to still swindle Charles, but eventually caves into his daughter’s clear love for the man. However, just before he plans to propose to Jean, Charles is shown proof eked out by his overly protective bodyguard Muggsy (William Demarest) that Jean is in fact a known con artist and has lied to him. Devastated, he calls her out and leaves her, foolishly claiming he was on to her all along.

Jean is equally devastated, but that final twist of the knife turns her devastation to anger. She wants revenge for him refusing to listen to her side of the story and tainting her as a ‘bad girl’ without giving her a chance. So, aided by the assistance of a fellow con-artist that likes to call himself Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith (Eric Blore), Jean infiltrates the Pike family social circle and pretends to be the titular Eve, an aristocratic English lady and proceeds, once again, to seduce Charles. Though he first recognises her, Jean/Eve’s performance and a tall tale Sir Alfred tells him convinces Charles she is indeed a different woman. The pair fall in love again (or at least Charles does) before Jean/Eve exacts her revenge.

Though The Lady Eve is highly regarded by most, I remember having a respected friend and fellow film lover profess they thought it was overrated. I’m not sure if it was my memory of this causing me to pick fault or otherwise, but I must admit I didn’t think it quite lived up to expectations.

It’s difficult to put my finger on what’s missing, but although all the ingredients for another classic screwball comedy are here, it didn’t quite have the same spark I’ve found in some of my favourites, such as Trouble in Paradise, The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday. It didn’t help that I watched It Happened One Night only the evening before, and I preferred the energy and chemistry of that film.

It’s that energy that I felt was lacking over anything else. The pace is a little slow in comparison to other screwball comedies of the era, including Sturges’ own The Palm Beach Story.

I also wasn’t a massive fan of the physical comedy here. Perhaps I’ve been watching too many Buster Keaton films recently, but the numerous pratfalls in The Lady Eve were a little poorly set-up and over-done for me.

I should stop bashing the film there though, as my disappointment was more minor than it sounds. I still very much enjoyed The Lady Eve and there is certainly much to admire.

As is to be expected from a Preston Sturges movie, the dialogue is superb and full of witty zingers. The story, though culminating in a predictable outcome, takes a couple of unexpected turns too and the finale is perfect.

The writing would be nothing without fine actors delivering it though, and this has them in spades. Fonda plays the lovable, clueless straight man being strung along very well, but this is Stanwyck’s film all the way. She’s magnificent, nailing the sharp wit of her character as well as moments of sincere sensitivity, all whilst getting to play two distinctively different personalities (three, if you include her initial bid to swindle Charles).

Sturges brings in his large stock company of character actors too, who deliver plenty of scene-stealing moments. Eugene Pallette and William Demarest are particularly good as Charles’ uncouth father, who doesn’t seem to fit his high-class lifestyle, and Muggsy, Charles’ dedicated, rough-talking chaperone.

The film is pretty racy too, pushing the boundaries of the strict Hayes Code prevalent in the industry at the time. There’s barely hidden sexual suggestion in numerous scenes and the dynamic between Charles and Jean in some of the earlier scenes gets pretty hot and heavy for the 40s.

So, there are still many moments of greatness in The Lady Eve to recommend it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling similar films from the era had done a slightly better job. With a pace that’s a touch slower than most and laughs, largely the physical ones, that don’t hit the mark as often, it’s a very good screwball comedy but not one of the best, in my opinion.

The Lady Eve is out on 10th August on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture quality is decent, but not one of the label’s finest hours. I noticed some unnatural-looking grain in darker areas in a couple of places and it’s not as sharp or detailed as some restorations. It’s not bad though, just below Criterion’s usual level. Audio is solid though.

There are plenty of special features included too:

– New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– Audio commentary from 2001 featuring film professor Marian Keane
– Introduction from 2001 by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich
– New conversation among writer-director Preston Sturges’s biographer and son Tom Sturges; Bogdanovich; filmmakers James L. Brooks and Ron Shelton; film historian Susan King; and critics Leonard Maltin and Kenneth Turan
– New video essay by film critic David Cairns
– Costume designs by Edith Head
– Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1942 featuring Barbara Stanwyck and Ray Milland
– Audio recording of “Up the Amazon,” a song from an unproduced stage musical based on the film
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: An essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1946 profile of Preston Sturges from LIFE magazine

The commentary is a little dry but incredibly rich in analysis. In it, film professor Marian Keane makes a good case for the film being a comment on filmmaking itself. Peter Bogdanovich’s introduction is more passionate, singing the film’s praises but not digging particularly deep into any analysis. David Cairns’ essay lies somewhere in between, with some illuminating thoughts on the film but not without a sense of humour, particularly in its choice of visuals and the opening yarn linking Sturges to Aleister Crowley.

The ‘new conversation’ is actually a very recent Zoom call between the illustrious group (see above for names), complete with latecomers and connection issues. It’s actually quite refreshing to see these famous faces hit the same problems as the rest of us. It is just a long love-in though, so is a little fluffy compared to the other features, though some decent points are made about why the film works so well.

The Edith Head piece only has her comments presented as captions on screen, but they’re refreshingly honest and witty. The thought she put into the costumes is evident too. She didn’t merely pick out a few pretty dresses. Plus, getting to see the original costume designs is a treat.

I didn’t get a copy of the essay to comment on that.

The Lady Eve - Criterion
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