A Classic Rom Com: “The Lady Eve” (1941) starring Barbara Stanwyck & Henry Fonda

[1] Practically everyone in the film has (at least) two names: Jean/Eve, Charlie/Hopsie, Muggsy/Murgatroyd/Ambrose, Harry/Colonel Harrington, Pearlie/Sir Alfred and so on. This suggests, quite rightly, that people are complicated complex beings, and that appearances often have nothing to do with reality.

Fonda …it must really take quite a lot of true acting ability to execute the pratfalls that he does without making Charlie such a wimp that you can’t imagine Jean still wanting him at the very end.

[2] …it’s all about sexual gamesmanship, and its tone is both matter-of-fact and dizzyingly playful at the same time.

…a boudoir farce, a slapstick clinic, a cynical dialogue comedy AND a love story of great, soulful heart.

[3] This may have been Henry Fonda’s best comedy part. …Fonda does so well in the part because he plays it absolutely straight. No tongue in cheek, no winks at the audience, Fonda plays it straight and sincere.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Col. Harrington: Don’t be vulgar, Jean. Let us be crooked, but never common.

This screwball comedy was written/directed by Preston Sturges, who wrote for theater/movies, then got into directing after age 40. He wrote the screenplay for Remember the Night (1940) starring Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. Returning from a year in Amazon forest studying snakes (his passion), the heir to an ale fortune, Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), meets Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) aboard a ship. Charles (shy/nerdy) is putty in the hands of Jean (who exudes confidence/charm). His street-tough bodyguard, Muggsy (William Demarest), is suspicious of the young woman. Charles and Jean fall in love, but he breaks up w/ her after learning that Jean and her father, Col. Harrington (veteran character actor Charles Coburn), are con-artists!

Jean: You see, Hopsie, you don’t know very much about girls. The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.

Some time later, the Harringtons run into a friend who goes by the name Sir Alfred McGlennon Keith (Eric Blore). His latest con involves cheating millionaires at cards in a uber-rich town in Connecticut, where the Pikes happen to live. Eve gets an idea: taking on the persona of an Englishwoman (Lady Eve Sidwich) who could be Sir Alfred’s niece, and seeking revenge on Charles.

Jean: He isn’t backwards. He’s a scientist.

Sir Alfred: Oh, is that what it is? I knew he was… peculiar.

There are many laughs (thanks to the snappy dialogue and physical comedy); the romance is done very well, too! The opening credits feature a grinning cartoon snake, reminding us of Satan in the Garden or Eden. Even before Charles climbs aboard the ship, Jean drops an apple (representing knowledge) which hits his head. The single ladies checking him out make Charles very uncomfortable, but Jean trips him to get his attention. Everything about Jean- her perfume, high heels, looks, and sparking wit- have a strong effect on Charles. The chemistry between Fonda (who plays his role totally seriously) and Stanwyck (who is good in every role) is electric!

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