Good to see you, Miss Barbara…
I have kind of a love-argh thing with Preston Sturges. I know he’s revered among film buffs, but sometimes he bugs me. Not always, though. Sullivan’s Travels excellently captures a time when men rode the rails to wherever the jobs were. Hail the Conquering Hero is a rollicking tale of a nerdy guy who just wants to look good when he comes home on leave. Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek belongs in the not-so-good column, though; it was fun, but the story had more twists than a Red Vine. It got exhausting, and quite frankly, annoying.
So where does Sturges’ 1941 film, The Lady Eve land? We’re gonna find out.
Charlie Pike (Henry Fonda) is the rich son of an ale magnate. He’s just been on a year-long Amazon jungle expedition, where he’s caught a super rare snake. Charles’s new pet resides in a matchbox, but she’s to be let out to play every day and fed some milk.
There’s a steamer waiting for Charlie at the end of the river, and every woman on board eyes him dreamily. At dinner the entire room asks for Pike’s Ale and women of all ages vie for Charlie’s attention. They’re literally batting their eyes at him and smiling big cheese-eating grins. Charlie, who’s absorbed in a ponderous volume, Are Snakes Necessary?, doesn’t notice when the ladies shimmy pass him, not even when a curvy, middle-aged blonde drops her handkerchief.
Watching all of this drama through her hand mirror is Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) who spots the pretentiousness of her fellow females in a second. For her part, she gets noticed, albeit possibly inadvertantly: Charles gets up to leave the room and trips over her.
Like the gentleman he is, Charlie offers to walk Jean to her room and help her out. He’s inexplicably drawn to her. It might be her perfume. Or it might be her. Either way, Charlie finds Jean intoxicating, and after helping her on with a new pair of heels they re-enter the dining room to the surprise and scorn of all the ladies present.
The two of them sit down for a card game with Jean’s dad, Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn) and Charles shows he and Jean some nifty sleight-of-hand tricks. Then it’s on to a round of poker, where the Colonel might or might not win $32,000. Jean cautions her dad against taking advantage of Charlie, and the Colonel crumples up the check Charlie wrote him.
Jean and Charlie might seem like they’re on a fast track to engagment and marriage, but there are some obstacles. For one thing, Jean hates Charlie’s pet snake even though he reassures her his cute little reptile is as playful as a kitten. For another, Charlie’s bodyguard, Muggsy (William Demarest) is extremely suspicious of Jean and the Colonel, and he visits the pursers’ office to see if there are any high-stakes cardsharps on board.
Said purser finds Charlie the next morning and shows him a disturbing photo. Jean and the Colonel are not only cardsharps and swindlers, but they might even be operating under assumed names. Understandably, Charlie gives Jean the brush. She’s pretty steamed and brokenhearted about it until the Colonel shows her the check he pretended to crumple.
Charlie tries to go back to regular life in Connecticut, but then his father (Eugene Palette) hosts a huge party, where a certain Englishlady named Eve is the star. She comes in like a princess, wearing a tiara and a dress that sparkles like the Vegas Strip. Charlie can’t make a move without tripping on something or having something spilled on him. Everything from the prime rib to the curtains ends up on his head.
While he’s off changing for the umpteenth time, Charlie and Muggsy talk about how much Eve looks like Jean. Charlie’s waffling. It could be Jean because the face is the same, but Jean wasn’t a blonde. Muggsy assures his charge, that yes, Eve is in fact, Jean.
It’s hard to tell if Charlie cares too much, though, because he’s caught in Jean’s web. She as Eve wants to trap Charlie into marrying her, and naturally it has to be a wedding fit for a duchess.
Having watched this film all the way through, I have to wonder what Sturges was going for here beyond trolling the audience, and I can’t say too much about this without giving away some key plot points. Will Jean get her comeuppance? Will Charlie kick her to the curb? They might and they might not. Who’s the real fool in this movie? Is it Jean or Charlie? Who knows. The key is to count on nothing being as it’s expected to be.
And the weird thing is that the film has a one hundred percent critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a ninety-six on Metacritic. What is it that they saw that I didn’t? They all talk about the extraordinary dialogue and the understated sexual tension. And that was definitely all there, in amazing amounts for a Code-era film. Barbara Stanwyck’s sexuality fairly crackles and Charlie collapses under the weight of it. It’s mostly nods, looks and glances, but the intent is unmistakable.
The problem is that the film leaves an odd taste in my mouth. Maybe I’m missing something, I don’t know, but all I can see is a weak story that doesn’t deliver what I want it to. Maybe it’s because I want to see Charlie call Jean out for her duplicity.
Then again, that was Preston Sturges. He wasn’t about giving audiences what they wanted, and in the case of The Lady Eve he was all about presenting characters. Jean is a swindler who is sexy and she knows it, but she wishes sometimes that she didn’t have to be the bait in the cardsharp schemes. When it comes to Charlie, she can’t believe she didn’t land her quarry, so she tries again as Eve.
Charlie is an easygoing, rather geeky guy who appears naïve to a fault. His liking for snakes seems to extend beyond reptilian ones. He may want to be taken advantage of. Meanwhile, Muggsy is the lone voice of reason, glaring at Jean and fairly yelling at Charlie that Jean’s after him for his money.
Now, The Lady Eve isn’t terrible. I really enjoyed a lot of it. The dialogue is masterful and the performances are amazing, especially Barbara Stanwyck’s. Mad respect to Preston Sturges for thinking outside of the proverbial box. Sly temptress gets away with something? Or not? Okay, cool. As a movie, though, it leaves me asking, “What the heck?” Maybe I should watch it again and see if there’s anything I missed.
For more of the great Barbara Stanwyck, please see Gabriela at Pale Writer. Thanks for hosting this, Gabriela–it was awesome! Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you on Tuesday for another Reading Rarity. Enjoy the rest of your weekend…