Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Lady Eve (Sturges. 1941)

"Positively the same dame!"

Roger Ebert wrote in his "Great Movies" review of The Lady Eve that the movie features the greatest scene in romantic comedy that simultaneously combines sex and humor. He is referring to the scene depicted in the picture above when the sexy and smart con-woman finds herself falling for the innocent and naive wealthy scientist. This scene happens very early in the movie and sets the tone for one of the quirkiest and rhetorically entertaining romantic comedies ever made.

The Lady Eve is about a man named Charles and a woman named Jean. Charles is an inexperienced and romantically naive scientist/wealthy brewer who is returning from a one year expedition on the Amazon. Jean is a con-woman who cheats innocent people out of their money by beating them in rigged games of cards. They meet on a boat and Jean automatically sees Charles as a potential target. The problem is that she very quickly falls in love with him. The scam is off, but what if he finds out that it was on in the first place? How will he react to the news?

Well, he reacts poorly. After finding out that Jean was initially trying to con him, he ends the young relationship without allowing time for explanation. Jean does not take this lightly, and dedicates a large amount of her time to getting revenge on him. That is where the title comes in, The Lady Eve. We will get to that in a little bit.

What really makes this film entertaining is the fast, witty and sexually driven chemistry between the two leading characters. Charles, played by Henry Fonda, is the backbone of the movie. Without his straight-laced and button-downed demeanor, The Lady Eve would have become a ridiculous episode of insanity and anti-realism. We must remember that a film is at its best when it can make the unbelievable seem believable. That is what Fonda does splendidly.

If Fonda is the sincerity in The Lady Eve, then Barbara Stanwyck's performance as Jean is the entertainment value. In the first act of the film she is portrayed as a sleazy con-woman who is trying to trick the inexperienced Charles. Stanwyck's comedic talents are displayed very early on in a scene where she is spying on Charles at a restaurant using her cosmetic mirror to see behind her. She provides hilarious voiceover and commentary for the many women who are unsuccessfully trying to get Charles' attention. Rather than pandering to him for his attention, she simply waits for him to walk by and sticks her foot out - tripping him. She now has his attention. The game is on.

But the con is quickly ended when Jean falls madly in love with Charles. Stanwyck is probably most well known for her role as the sinister Phyllis Dietrichson in the classic Double Indemnity (1944), but here she is the exact opposite. Though she possesses the ability to be sleazy, there is something in her eyes that shows the audience her true love for Charles. I do not think that I have seen a more convincing showing of unadulterated pure love in a performance by a woman. But she is not merely a two dimensional character under the guise of lovey and sleazy. Stanwyck plays a very intelligent and sensitive woman in Jean. She also displays some formidable comedic timing.

This is where the title character "Eve" comes into play. After Charles breaks off the relationship with Jean, she is devastated. She successfully gets her revenge by slapping on some fancy clothes and speaking in an awful British accent. She is now the Lady Eve - a rich socialite who is visiting her uncle in Charles' hometown. Her disguise is so simple that it is silly, but that is exactly why Charles in unable to recognize her. The transformation into Eve is laugh-out-loud hilarious in its silliness. It is obvious that she is the same person, but Charles never sees it. Through a series of events, the two fall in love and set up one of the funnier break-up scenes I have seen.

The most noticeable working aspect in The Lady Eve is Fonda and Stanwyck's budding sexual and rhetorical chemistry. The dialogue was quick and the character development was incredibly crisp. There were very few throwaway lines between the two main characters. Watching them fall in love was like watching a kitten hug a puppy. It was adorable. They make a fun, sweet and fascinating onscreen couple who very rarely mince words. They are entertaining in their conversations, and the audience is cheering for their happiness from their first onscreen moment.

I cannot think of a better word than delightful to describe my viewing experience with The Lady Eve. I am willing to go out on a limb and say that this is the greatest romantic comedy that I have seen, but that is obviously subject to change. I strongly recommend this movie to anybody looking for easy, silly or fun entertainment. It is a fantastic way to spend an hour and a half...

The Lady Eve: A

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