In “The Lady Eve” (1941) we have some of Barbara Stanwyck’s best work, some of Henry Fonda’s best work, and some of director and writer Preston Surges’ best work. From the moment the cartoon credits appear delineating the biblical theme of seduction to sin with the snake and the apple, the film is a garden of sexy and intelligent one-liners. Never before has seduction been so silly.
Fonda as the gullible and naïve reptile expert, who as been up the Amazon on expedition for a year, is putty in the hands of con-woman Stanwyck and her card sharp father, played wonderfully by Charles Coburn. He admonishes her, “Let us be crooked but never common,” and she drops a real apple on Fonda’s head like a bombardier as he ascends a ladder to the ocean liner on which the first part of the film’s action takes place.
Some great scenes include Fonda’s entrance to the plush lounge of the ship where table after table of females hoist a Pike’s Pale Ale (from where his family has amassed their fortune) in the hope he will notice. He does not, and Stanwyck narrates the futile attempts of fawning women to attract him in a clever shot through her compact mirror. “See those nice store teeth, all beaming at you?” she mumbles, and at another woman, “Won’t do you any good, dear. He’s a bookworm, but swing ‘em anyway.”
Even the way she introduces herself to Fonda, after tripping him to get him to notice her, “My name’s Jean. It’s really Eugenia. Come on.” She says it all in one line, with no inflection, no flirtation, all business, as if he needs to know this information. This is the last time she is completely honest with him.
The sweet sensuality of close proximity is illustrated when she is on the divan, Fonda on the floor, and she plays with his hair. When he pulls her skirt down over her naked knee, she demurely replies, “Thank you,” as if he has retrieved her handkerchief from the floor.
Fonda looks like he is going to faint through much of the film, and at one point, after flirting with him, she pulls back and scrutinizes him with real concern, “You’re not going to faint, are you?”
When she bids him goodnight, it is with the question, “Don’t you think we ought to go to bed?” Fonda replies, “You’re certainly a funny girl for somebody to meet who’s been up the Amazon for a year.” But he waits a moment, a beat elapses before he says it, giving us time to think about her remark. Their rehearsals must have been hysterical.
Soon the tables are turned on Stanwyck when she actually falls in love with this easy mark, and she turns the tables on her father, who wants to go ahead as planned and fleece him. Fonda learns of their con game and turns the tables on them, throwing Stanwyck over. Now a woman scorned, she is not ready to let go.
Eric Blore is terrific as fellow con-man Sir Alfred, who brings Stanwyck into Fonda’s wealthy society by introducing her as his niece, the Lady Eve Sidwich. Stanwyck becomes an upper class Brit, haw-hawing over the droll Americans and uttering “Thenk yuh,” in a veddy British way to many men fawning over her at the party in the Pike mansion.
The supporting actors all get to strut their stuff as everybody gets to be funny and steal a scene or two. Eugene Pallette as Mr. Pike is lordly and loveable. William Demarest as Muggsy, admonishes the butler, “Why don’t you shave in your room?!” after the cook has covered the butler with cake icing.
Even the horse gets a laugh when, as Stanwyck and Fonda are cuddling in their riding habits after a ride through the estate, Fonda’s horse nuzzles his hair and won’t stop, despite all the serious romancing going on, all the times he is pushed away. He practically eats Fonda. I’d love to know how they got through that scene.
Stanwyck’s comedic timing is stunning, and her appearance in the Edith Head costumes likewise is stunning, especially in the wedding gown. Her sideways sardonic look at Fonda before the altar is priceless. But the charade does not end here. Though she has tricked him, he is not the prize she wants, or so she tells herself. She wants to humiliate him, so the Lady Eve, whom he thinks he has wed, confesses a hysterical list of past sexual exploits on the train honeymoon trip. He tries to forgive her, “The name of Angus will never cross my lips again.” But, a man can stand only so much, and he dumps her again.
It takes a while for them to be reunited on a ship where it all began, but long before the ending we see that Miss Stanwyck has left the shopworn drudges and embittered fallen women of her 1930s films well behind her. Even the bad women she will play in the future will not be victims as much as they will be villains, taking unrelenting control. It suits her.
The Lady Eve [DVD](1941) DVD