I confess that I don’t really think of Barbara Stanwyck as a “great beauty” (and the wig in Double Indemnity does her no favors), but she was without a doubt one of those actresses who was charming and could act beautiful. In Preston Sturges’ screwball classic, The Lady Eve, she turns on the charm in the first half of the story while in the second half, she’s all glamour and beauty—except for the cunning streak of lovable roguishness that runs throughout.
The film in some ways exemplifies screwball comedies: The premise is that rich nerd Charles (Henry Fonda) is picked up by a cruise ship after a year in the jungle, where he’s already known by every lady on board as the heir to a brewer’s fortune. A grifter, Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn) and his accomplice/daughter Jean (Stanwyck) spot him immediately for the whale he is, and Jean easily out-plays the other girls and seduces him.
But this is a screwball comedy, so the first twist we get is that Jean actually falls in love with the hasn’t-so-much-as-smelled-a-woman-in-a-year Charles, and decides to go straight, protecting Charles from the machinations of her merciless father. Within days the two decide to be married. Charles’ chaperone/bodyguard (William Demarest), meanwhile, is a hard-nosed, no-nonsense suspicious type who figures out Jean is not who she says she is, and manages to sabotage the burgeoning romance with an ill-timed revelation.
Now things get really screwy, as the broken-hearted Jean determines to have her revenge against her erstwhile lover by re-entering his life as a completely different character, the titular Lady Eve. She doesn’t disguise herself, except with a dubious English accent and the suspicious, stunned and immediately re-smitten Charles uses the very fact that Eve looks exactly like Jean to deduce that she couldn’t actually be Jean, because of course Jean would disguise herself in some fashion. (You know, she’d dye her hair or something.) Stanwyck parades around in Edith Head’s glorious creations like she was born to them, bringing a few gasps from The Flower.
But with the help of their grifter friend Sir Alfred (Eric Blore), who has already won over Charles’ father (the incomparable Eugene Pallette), Charles is easily won over by a preposterous Victorian tale of Eve having an evil twin sister, perhaps because their true father was the stablehand and not the…well, you get the idea. It’s all very scandalous and silly.
The story plays itself out a second time, down to the two re-falling in love again, while William Demarest denounces her the whole time. In the screwiest of all circumstances, Jean/Eve’s revenge extends to marrying Charles and living happily ever after with him, while he still doesn’t know. Or, more likely, doesn’t care.
The whole thing is so tremendously good-natured—something Sturges and contemporary Ernst Lubitsch were unparalleled at—and so brisk, clever and charming that it would be hard not to love. The escalation comes in the form of absurdity rather than in increasingly large, slapstick type shenanigans, but is no less fun for that.
We would miss the next week’s offering, Seven Year Itch, due to the annual jaunt out to Knott’s, and we would just skip Funny Girl because I have a hard time getting worked up to see Barbra Streisand movies. But I assured the kids—correctly, I believe—that the two movies we had seen (this as Philadelphia Story) were easily the best of the four.
“Screwball September” would give way to “Scary Subtitles” in October, and we all had high hopes for the selections there.