The Lady Eve (1941)

Dir. Preston Sturges. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn

One assumes that the phrase “head over heels” used to be the much more evocative “heels over head,” seeing as the one we’re using now describes most of us who are not circus performers. Not every strange pratfall which strikes Charlie Pike (Fonda) has him in that interesting heels over head iteration. Jean, or at that moment “Eve” (Stanwyck). shows up at a dinner party that his family hosts. That puts him through a couple tuxedos because people are spilling stuff on him like he’s on a ’90s Nickelodeon program. His first interaction with Jean, in fact, is in that genre, albeit with a mythological twist. She’s aboard the ocean liner when Charlie’s little boat intercepts it, and as he boards, she expertly drops her partially eaten apple right on top of his pith helmet from a few decks up. 

More often than not, though, you’ll find that shot where heels have superseded head. Jean tends to tripping to get Charlie’s attention, which works on multiple occasions. When Charlie storms off the train in the middle of a typhoon or something in order to get away from his promiscuous new bride, he slips so hard in puddle of mud that I think he might actually be butt over head in that shot, to say nothing of where his heels are. Whether it’s head over heels or heels over head, the most important interaction of those two body parts in this film tend to put them on the same plane. The con is on at this point, and early as it is, Jean has surely and adroitly made Charlie her own. She’s got him helping her to put her shoes on—she was down to a single heel because Charlie broke the shoe she tripped him with—and while he’s already begun succumbing to Jean’s significant charms, this is the key sequence. 

What starts with some general “say, you’re the most attractive woman I’ve seen in many months” interest develops. She reintroduces him to perfume. While he’s slowly helping her get her shoes on, Sturges gives us enough shots which show that while feet and ankles are at the vanguard, legs and torso and cleavage are all plenty close. Meanwhile, Stanwyck is purring constantly, almost incessantly, even though the language she’s using doesn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense on its own merits. The phrase “Hopsie Popsie” leaves her lips, and that Stanwyck can even make that sound halfway seductive is all the proof you need to believe that ol’ Hopsie might be about to spill something entirely different than drippings or coffee on himself. The builds on itself until he is “cockeyed on it,” and this man who has ignored every woman in the dining room just a few minutes before is at this point aroused to some uncontrollable level. Jean steps on that rake. “Why, Hopsie,” she says, “you ought to be kept in a cage.” 

The screwball comedy is pretty often set up as a battle between sexes. Your favorite examples frequently feature women managing to put men through awkward situations, although this probably has more to do with Cary Grant being better at acting annoyed than anyone else in the history of the planet. You can still find it elsewhere, though: poor Ralph Bellamy again and again, Joel McCrea struggling with his living situation thanks to Jean Arthur, Robert Montgomery makes an ass of himself at work because of Carole Lombard, etc. Personally, I tend to find screwballs where men torment women to be less enjoyable, although any number of them still fill the Screwb-Hall of Fame: Twentieth CenturyHis Girl FridayBell, Book, and Candle, and so on. If there is a single element that makes The Lady Eve stand out among other screwball comedies, it’s that the battle between sexes is not merely a battle about who will rule the parlor or the workplace. The battle between the sexes means that Katharine Hepburn might run Cary Grant ragged all over Connecticut, and while we might take that to mean she may run him ragged dans sa chambre as well, there’s enough distance there that the Husbands of 1938 don’t have to worry about who’s on top all that often. In other words, The Lady Eve stands out because it’s not about hegemony which might influence the bedroom, but the bedroom itself which is as much a battleground as country estates in Connecticut. And in that case, Jean wins this fight over and over again even when it’s removed to such a Connecticut estate. She wins the first encounter as detailed above. When Charlie’s room is left in a great screaming hurry because there’s a snake in it (“Emma”), Jean turns this sudden alteration in homefield advantage into personal advantage. She slides Charlie of the chaise, gets him on the floor, and proceeds to leave his fingers in his hair for just about the rest of the scene. And in the end, when Charlie rediscovers Jean (with a lot of help from Jean herself, of course) on another ocean liner, it sure seems like he’s rushing her down to his bedroom; whose plan was that, though? 

Another standout element in this film which, again, is far from unique among screwballs but stands out from the field nevertheless, is a scene or two of real sadness. My Man Godfrey, among the destitute forgotten men; Ball of Fire, a group sing of “Genevieve” which moves an encyclopedist whose wife died years ago; The Lady Eve, where Jean comes second to Charlie’s man Muggsy (William Demarest) in revealing her background. It’s unusual not because Jean has been found out and regrets having been discovered, or because she has fallen for the mark and now has embarrassment on top of her despair. All of that smarts, to say the least. But there’s a moment where Charlie lies to her. He tries to tell her, through gritted teeth, that he knew she was a con artist from the morning she showed up for breakfast chewing gaily on one of the roses he’d sent her. He was playing her, in this version of events. “You mean you were playing me for a sucker?” Jean says, and then her face changes a little. “I don’t believe it. But if you were – if you were just trying to make me feel cheap and hurt me, you succeeded handsomely.” People have fights in movies all the time where people get hurt because of the ferocity of the other person’s feelings. It is very rare to see a moment like this, a moment where the presumed hero of the tale (and Henry Fonda at that) is simply petty and low.   

Jean’s entry point into the relatively high society which the Pike family of ale brewers belongs in is “Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith” (Eric Blore), and while he’s a little worried about adding “Lady Eve Sidwich” to his long con, it turns out that you don’t even need an accent to make rich Americans believe you’re British. The closest Stanwyck gets to one is when she says “necessary” like “nessusree” to prove to Pearlie that she can hack it. Sturges is certainly no stranger to poking fun at wealth, and in this film, when the people employed by the wealthy are refraining from dumping liquids on their employers, the wealthy seem more than capable of dousing themselves with their own stupidity. Eugene Pallette is a delight in any movie, and Horace’s inability to get himself breakfast goes from sort of goofy to outright farce over the course of that scene; at the end, the man is banging cloches on the table in order to get someone to bring him the breakfast that you’d expect a millionaire might be able to get for himself. Horace is just as taken with young, beautiful Lady Eve as his son was taken with young, beautiful Jean. Even though there’s nothing about Eve which makes her seem English beyond the introduction alongside “Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith,” who all but tells Janet (Janet Beecher) that his young charge came to America on a battleship, it turns out that a pretty face and a lively manner are all that are needed to fall in with the wealthy. Being a professional gambler as the light-fingered card sharp Harrington (Coburn) is a professional gambler requires some dexterity. One of the movie’s funniest scenes watches him go from a hand full of nothing to a hand with four kings to a hand with four aces after his daughter has ably dealt her beau four queens. Of course, she is not his daughter for nothing; she pulls out an ace from the deck after Harrington has manufactured four aces for himself, and he about does a spit take. You can see how one might have to learn something, be quick and stealthy, as a gambler. And to be a con artist, it requires nerve and wit, and if one is beautiful that doesn’t hurt. Yet Sturges has constructed a story where being a con artist is not necessarily a sign of skill for its own sake. This is not Ocean’s Eleven, where conmen breeze for our amazement; this is a movie where you wonder how rich people can get took so easily and still have so much money. 

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