Thursday 30 July 2020

Movie Review: The Lady Eve (1941)

A screwball comedy and romance, The Lady Eve rides the energy of a dynamic Barbara Stanwyck performance but is an otherwise sputtering effort.

On a cross-ocean voyage returning to the United States, snake scientist Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), who just completed a year of research deep in the Amazon jungle, is a magnet for the ladies. He stands to inherit his family's brewing fortune, but Charles is a clumsy and socially timid introvert. Professional card sharps Colonel Harrington and his daughter Jean (Charles Coburn and Stanwyck) target Charles for a big score, and they lure him towards a substantial loss at their gambling table.

But Jean and Charles start to genuinely fall in love, and she tries to convince her more ruthless father to back off. Before she can be honest with Charles he uncovers the Harringtons as scammers and the burgeoning romance ends badly. Back on land, Jean does not forgive nor forget and plots an elaborate ruse involving impersonating a British aristocrat to achieve revenge, love or both.

Carrying strong echoes of 1938's Bringing Up Baby complete with the socially inept scientist and his wild animal fixation, The Lady Eve checks off screwball fundamentals. Writer and director Preston Sturges builds his narrative around the talented, seductive, determined, smart and edgy character of Jean Harrington, and Barbara Stanwyck responds with a glowing performance, radiating heat and connivance and easily dominating the film's core. Henry Fonda's bumbling victim is likeable enough, but borders on a spineless non-entity, an almost too-easy target for swindlers and cheap laughs.  

The first half on the luxurious ship is an enjoyable and breezy mix of comedy, romance and collusion. Sturges nurtures a light seafaring mood and allows Charles' well-dressed ineptitude to bounce off the Harrington's buzzsaw machinations. Jean's shoe-change seduction, followed by her breathy and handsy recovery from a snake encounter, are both timeless highlights.

But the second half stumbles both in intention and execution. Jean's follow-up pursuit of Charles' heart and money is a muddled combination of humiliation and outlandish hide-in-plain-sight subterfuge. Her haughty yet jovial British "Lady Eve" persona tries too hard and talks too much, and the bumpy tone is made worse by an overabundance of physical slapstick moments featuring Charles making a fool of himself every five minutes.

The climactic confrontation on a train is initially funny but Sturges stretches the one joke too far and the scene buckles under both unwieldy length and heavy-handed symbolism.

The supporting cast is strong, with Charles Coburn delightful as a veteran con artist. The film is notably poorer when he disappears and Eugene Pallette steps forth in the less interesting role of the Pike patriarch. William Demarest has a more constant presence as Charles' frequently flustered guardian.

Mixing winning and losing hands, The Lady Eve rides choppy seas.  

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