The Lady Eve

It's strange that women in romantic comedies made 60 years ago were so much smarter, funnier, sexier, and fully human than women in similar roles today, when actresses are usually given little more to do than force a smile during their suitors' feature-length stand-up routines. Perhaps the writing in Hollywood was sharper at the time, or stars such as Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Stanwyck were one-of-a-kind, impossible acts to follow. But a masterpiece like Preston Sturges' 1941 comedy The Lady Eve suggests a third and more compelling reason, as basic as the Garden Of Eden myth it toys with so brilliantly. Rather than assume a level playing field, The Lady Eve and that other biblical classic, Adam's Rib, view the battle of the sexes as an age-old quest for equality where both parties have to not only prove their mettle, but learn something from each other in order to return to Paradise. In typical Sturges fashion, Stanwyck's Eve begins her seduction by dropping the apple of knowledge on Adam's head, the first of many hilarious pratfalls designed to cut poor Henry Fonda down to size. Staked out on a luxury cruise liner, Stanwyck and her father (Charles Coburn) are world-class swindlers and Fonda, the sweet-natured but spectacularly naïve heir to a brewery fortune, is a world-class dupe, easily swayed by Stanwyck's dizzying spell of fast talk and perfume. Fresh from a year "up the Amazon" studying snakes—a sexual reference that gives Sturges a lot of comic mileage—Fonda is helpless against Stanwyck's charms, but the purity of his affection disarms her against her will. When her con game is eventually exposed, she has to gather her wits and come up with another plot to recapture his heart. A star in every genre, Stanwyck epitomized both the steely femme fatale (Double Indemnity) and the heartbreaking melodramatic heroine (Stella Dallas), but her performance in The Lady Eve was the only one to showcase her full range of ability. Her line readings sparkle with ruthless intelligence and wit ("I need him like an ax needs a turkey"), but she's also capable of surprising openness and vulnerability. Fonda's naked honesty had been showcased two years earlier in John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, but when Stanwyck's character realizes that she's unwittingly fallen in love, her face melts into a picture of innocence that makes her just as gullible. In the insightful DVD commentary track, film scholar Marian Keane talks about love as "the ultimate dupe," a mutual acknowledgement by both partners that they are, as Sturges puts it, "a fine specimen of suckersapien." Like all the great romantic comedies of the '30s and '40s (His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, It Happened One Night, and Adam's Rib, to name a select few), The Lady Eve can only end when man and woman are truly worthy of each other, and of the audience.

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