Review: The Lady Eve (1941)

It’s been a while since I watched a Preston Sturges film, oh how I missed his dialogue!

Written By: Preston Sturges
Directed By: Preston Sturges

I needed to sit and ruminate on The Lady Eve for a night, I guess sleep on it would be the more fitting turn of phrase. The Lady Eve contains all of the Preston Sturges touches that I have come to love from his films. The reason I had to spend some time thinking about the movie is because I needed to make sure I was okay with what the film was saying about gender, and decide if I was really a fan of Henry Fonda’s repeated pratfalls. I thought long and hard, barely slept as a result, and I came to a conclusion that I feel is in line with my sensibilities.

The gender issues in The Lady Eve troubled me because I wasn’t quite sure what Mr. Sturges was saying about gender while I was watching the film. The opening credits feature a slithering snake and apple visual, clearly making the connection between the famous Eve of the biblical garden and the tainted apple she took from the snake. This informs the rest of the movie, and in a way it hurts the rest of the movie. As Barbara Stanwyck was busy being cute, charming, pugnacious (and if I’m honest really freaking hot), I couldn’t help shake the snake and the apple analogy. Was Miss Stanwyck’s Jean/Eve really an evil person? Was she corrupting the innocent Charlie with her wickedness?

The answer to those questions came to me after much thought, and I believe that answer is no. By using the well known eve and apple analogy Mr. Sturges plants the red herring that it is Miss Stanwyck who the world needs to watch out for. The reality of the film is that Miss Stanwyck’s Jean/Eve is a good person who followed love to its natural conclusion and was hurt as a result. She’s forced into being honest with Charlie on the boat, but she does not run from the truth when confronted with it. She admits to her past, to her deceptions and she asks forgiveness. In that moment she shows a tremendous amount of strength, while the man shrinks away and shows an inability to forgive. Following that it is Jean/Eve who uses trickery and guile to get what she wants and make Charlie see the error of his ways. In The Lady Eve Mr. Sturges has turned gender on its head, made the female character the strongest, smartest, and most resolute character in the entire movie. Miss Stanwyck was not poisoned by the apple, she took a bite of the apple and was all the better for it.

Henry Fonda as Charlie is another story altogether. Upon reflection his character is the most difficult aspect of the film to swallow. Mr. Fonda shows a great deal of comedic timing, and his usual charm is present. However, he’s also quite dimwitted and subject to too many pratfalls. I found Charlie funny, but initially I thought his character was too dumbed down. After thinking about it for a while I realized that I didn’t have a problem with the dim witted nature of Charlie, but rather his pratfalls. Charlie not being the brightest works with the gender themes of the film, and with the films assertion that salt of the Earth people have more upstairs than the pompous elite. The pratfalls though, they keep coming and each successive fall is more cringe inducing. They don’t really fit with the movie, but they are there and The Lady Eve suffers because of those pratfalls.

I didn’t need to reflect on the dialogue or the witty jokes found in Mr. Sturges’ script. Mr. Sturges has a way with words that very few can equal and almost none can surpass. The laughs come from many different places in The Lady Eve, but none moreso than in the snappy dialogue. There’s a sequence near the beginning where Miss Stanwyck is watching various women try to get Charlie’s attention and her running dialogue of the proceedings is laugh out loud funny without having to be large or precious. That type of dialogue is emblematic of The Lady Eve as a whole, and it’s why I laughed throughout the surprisingly low key slapstick humor.

The Lady Eve is flawed, but it is a movie that succeeds despite its minuscule flaws. A pair of charming leads and the always excellent dialogue from Preston Sturges lead the way in this classic comedy. I didn’t laugh out loud while watching The Lady Eve, but I did have a smile on my face the entire time. And the movie gave me a fair chunk to think about in regards to gender. The Lady Eve is yet another great Preston Sturges film that deserves its reputation as a classic.





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