What is the fascination with this film? Not only is this film on Ebert’s Greatest Movies list, it holds a place among AFI’s top 100 “Laughs” and “Passions” lists, and is also on film critic Steven Jay Schneider’s list of 1001 Movies to See Before You Die. For many, it holds a place among Hollywood’s classic films of the 1940′s and yet, it is difficult to find ample reasons for why that should be.
- Director: Preston Sturges
- Writer: Monckton Hoffe, Preston Sturges
- Cast: Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest, Melville Cooper
A snake expert and the heir to a fortune, Charles (Henry Fonda) becomes the target of a trio of con-artists; Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), her father Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn), and their friend Gerald (Melville Cooper). Charles is conned by Jean once, discovers that he’s been fooled, and leaves her. He is soon fooled again by Jean, though he is unaware that he’s being fooled by the same person, as she is posing as another person the second time around.
Charlie is a presented to us as a professional but shy man around women, but his shyness and naivete push the limits of believability and is actually more frustrating than charming. In playing Charlie, Henry Fonda is not so much a bad actor, but rather, his acting performance is limited by an average and overwritten script. Early in the film, Charlie falls for Jean, but we really don’t know enough about him to really care about his instant attraction to her. I get it, she’s a con-woman and her forwardness is what lures a shy man who is otherwise unable to take initiative with women. But while this is plausible, their early interactions run too long and their flirting is less romantic and more so like watching cheezy public displays of affection.
There are very few things that are distinctly laudable about the directing of Preston Sturges, no identifiable merits in pacing and the tone of the romance and comedy fails to hold up today. Even during the scenes where dangerous card trickery is supposed to be taking place, the card playing is underwhelming and lacking in excitement. The Lady Eve comes close to making us feel conned into a film that fails to do anything extraordinarily, other than provide a rare lead female role that drives the plot. The only noticeably interesting camerawork takes place during an early scene where women are all but literally throwing themselves at Charlie, all while Jean watches through a pocket mirror.
Yes this film has gender inversion, yes this film titillated the Hays Code censors, yes it stars Henry Fonda, and yes this is a screwball comedy that is meant to be preposterous. But despite such considerations, the comedy is still flat and much of the dialogue feels contrived. The plot is meant to be playful but is mostly dull. I am curious, however, to read the 19 page story that this film is loosely based on, which was written by Monckton Hoffe . Much like films such as From Here to Eternity, I would place this film among those that are most interesting when placed in a historical context, mainly for what they dared to explore in their time than for their intrinsic artistic or entertainment value.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Ebert begins his review by referring to an early scene in The Lady Eve as the sexiest and funniest of all romantic comedy ever. Within a genre like romantic comedy genre, where the combination of romance and comedy is more rare than not, such a claim is understandable. But the scene, which features an unbroken shot of three minutes and 51 seconds, doesn’t really hold up today. I agree, to an extent, that Stanwyck’s performance is somewhat of a marvel in that she is a able to play a crook and still be trusted. However, I would content that much of her trustworthiness is possible only when a naive love interest in involved. I have always respected Ebert’s view, though in rare cases such as these, I may personally not agree with his taste. I would love to hear more from anyone who loves this film.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: Bad
Do you like The Lady Eve? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Woman in the Dunes
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve this week, he now has 320 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.