She takes a bite from an apple, then wonders aloud what would happen if she “clunked him on the head with it” … just before dropping it on him from a three-story height. She sticks out her foot to trip him, and when he gets back up, berates him for damaging her shoe. She cozies up to him so her crooked associates can cheat him at cards. She calls him by a babyish nickname he loathes. She blatantly cock teases him, and when he’s bashfully choking on his own desire, tells him “you should be kept on a leash!” Later, she has him tripping over himself without any help, as he takes a series of embarrassing stumbles in front of his entire family. Finally, she marries him, and then on the honeymoon coldly and ritually humiliates him sexually. Mustering up the tatters of his shredded self respect, he leaves…and takes his final inexorable fall into a huge oozing pit of mud.
It’s a love story.
It’s also a romantic comedy, maybe the greatest. The Lady Eve, written and directed by Preston Sturges at the peak of his powers in 1941, is not a boy-meets-girl story. It’s a Paradise Lost story, only in this case “paradise” is living in a comfortable, smug world of ignorance and illusion. A woman introduces sin into a backward young man’s life, he responds by being hurtful and unforgiving, and she makes him pay the price for his narrow-minded weakness by reappearing in a new incarnation and making him fall in love with her all over again. Despite the dazzling wit and slapstick comedy, it’s a fundamentally serious movie, starring two fundamentally serious actors — Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.
Stars of the classic era were expected to be able to do everything, but Stanwyck and Fonda made few comedies in their long careers, and most of the others are dismal. She usually played tough lower-class women fighting for respect, and he’s remembered as a prototypical mid-century liberal hero: quiet, slow to anger, judicious, and upright. Their skill at drama gives The Lady Eve an unusual undertone of seriousness — when they wound each other, you really feel it. In most classic movies about the battle of the sexes, especially movies of the 1940s, the woman has to be tamed, subjugated, put in her place. In this movie, the man has to be stripped of his immaturity, insensitivity, and self righteousness — his unconscious belief that the woman is an extension of his own vanity. What’s remarkable is how exhilarating it is to watch that happen.
Some of it is Fonda. With his open face, drawling Midwestern speech, and lanky physical coltishness, he’s basically asking for it. There’s something vaguely infuriating about Henry Fonda; maybe it’s all that goodness. In the late ’60s, he finally played a villain, in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and it’s revelatory to see cold menace finally glaring from those blue eyes — the meanness that seemed to be there all along, buried beneath his sanctimonious blandness. In The Lady Eve, the repeated humiliations he undergoes aren’t just funny, they feel almost liberating. The air of the film is charged by the excitement of watching her slap him around. “I need him,” she murmurs at one point, staring off in the distance, “like the axe needs the turkey.”
Sturges created the script for Stanwyck, after her remarkable performance in Remember the Night, a movie he wrote (but didn’t direct) the previous year. In Remember the Night, she plays a hardened shoplifter who gradually rediscovers her own humanity and goodness during a Christmas holiday in the heartland. It sounds terrible, but it’s beautifully written and Stanwyck makes the character’s evolution utterly convincing and deeply touching. She makes you feel how precarious vulnerability is, and how much strength it takes to maintain it. In The Lady Eve, the same dynamic is at work, but the balance is shifted. We feel the tenderness, shame, and hurt feelings underneath her tough exterior. She’s a grown up: she shows how idealism and cynicism can reside in the same heart in an uneasy truce. She has a wonderful little riff about her ideal man — a little short guy, a practical ideal you can find in any barber shop — that would be typical screwball-comedy dizzy-dame chatter if it weren’t for the genuine world-weariness Stanwyck and Sturges convey beneath their bright remarks.
Maybe the greatest joy of Preston Sturges is his unique, but very accurate, vision of America as a nation full of wiseasses. In his movies, the leads don’t get all the jokes; every character has something snarky to say. In The Palm Beach Story, he gives the best line in the script to a Pullman porter (“Gentleman tipped me a dime all the way from Jacksonville to Palm Beach — she’s alone but she don’t know it.”). He loved his actors, but his sin as a director was his weakness for letting them amp up the comedy with too much shouting, running around and arm-flapping. That wild energy becomes a muted, urgent subtext in The Lady Eve. Because Stanwyck, her father and his gang are criminals moving among the rich in their world of steamships and country houses, their acerbic comments are subtle signals to each other (and us) that they’re the most trustworthy people on the screen, because they’re the most experienced, and the smartest. Watching Stanwyck take Fonda for a ride and give him the shellacking he deserves, we get to share in and enjoy that smartness.
Even their tenderest love scenes contrast her hard-earned wisdom with his obtuseness: “I don’t deserve you,” he says at one point (most of his remarks are just about that fatuous), and she reveals a world of complicated self-awareness as she answers ardently “oh, but you do… if anybody ever deserved me, you do… so richly.” Most romantic comedies come down to this: will they/won’t they, and when? The Lady Eve asks more timeless questions. Will he finally see her as more than a mere appendage? Will she wise him up and make a man of him? Can love survive the loss of innocence?