Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve Beguiled Censors and Audiences
By Alex Cranz
Ask someone what they think of when you mention the actress Barbara Stanwyck. My mom, a baby boomer, thinks of the westerns Stanwyck did later in her career. For some reason folks my age tend to think of those over the top melodramas she made for a while. Many cinephiles immediately think of her fantastic career as a femme fatale in film noir.
Collectively, in our heads, she’s a dramatic actress. She’s got a gravity to her work. A seriousness. She’s not the only one. Katherine Hepburn, one of the most nominated actresses in history, is often associated with her dramas. We don’t think of the comedies these women did. Films, often screwball comedies, where they weren’t afraid to be a little silly. A little manic. Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby. Stanwyck in Preston Sturge’s The Lady Eve.
The Lady Eve came right at the height of Joseph Breen’s draconian reign as head of the Production Code Administration. It was a dire time if you wanted to be a plucky and complicated film heroine. You could either die a horrible death or you could be boring and angelic.
But Sturges had a gift for pulling one over on the PCA. To this day no one knows what he did to get his films made. Who he sweet talked. How he seduced them into giving approval. It’s all a mystery. His films were sly. Subversive. Maybe Breen and the PCA just didn’t get his references to sex out of wedlock and cons gone well.
At least they didn’t get it in the final drafts. The first draft submitted was immediately rejected by the censors, and when producer Albert Lewin read the script he insisted that the first two-thirds would have to be rewritten.
Sturges said no. He did some minor tweaks and resubmitted and then set out to make his film about a con artist that finds love with a dorky biologist.
At a cursory glance Stanwyck’s character, Jean Harrington, could be called a manic pixie dreamgirl. If the film were from Henry Fonda’s character’s point of view she would be. She’s quick witted, quirky, hard to peg down, tiny, and her presence in his life leads to major changes and realizations.
Only the film is from her point of view. She and “the Colonel” make their living suckering heirs and heiress out of money on cruise ships. When they see Fonda bumble onboard they know they have a new and easy mark. So easy that as he climbs on board Stanwyck drops stuff on his head. Because it amuses her.
Later she and her father sit at a table and watch the rest of the ship fawn over him. It’s one of the best parts of the film. Think that moment in Date Night where Tina Fey and Steve Carrell ridicule other diners. Now make the comments funnier and more scathing and less scatological. That’s Stanwyck in this scene. She’s ruthless. She’s smart. She doesn’t care. It culminates in her showing her own way of meeting the man everyone wants to know. As he tries to leave she trips him and then immediately blames him.
He, like us, is blown away by her gall. He’s also enchanted. And it’s easy to see why. Jean Harrington is like Barbara Stanwyck herself. In a sea full of debutantes and kind and quiet girls she’s a breath of quick talking fresh air.
She doesn’t lure him as much as give him no other option. Take her back to her cabin so she can replace her broken shoe. He obliges. They flirt. He never gives as good as he gets because he’s too in awe. Where others try to seduce him she ignores him. It’s catnip to the introverted scientist. The flirtation is all low-key on the page, but Stanwyck and Fonda are thoroughly erotic on screen. His hand grazes her ankle and she runs a hand through his perfectly coiffed hair and your heart beats like a drum. They say more with looks then one could ever say with words.
The rest of the ships voyage is spent playing cards and trading tender looks. He doesn’t realize how out of his depth he is as she and her fellow grifter easily take him for thousands. It happens so gently that even the audience is a little amazed. Only Jean is having second thoughts because she actually kind of likes the goofball. The Colonel wants to make sure he gets his paycheck. She thinks there’s a better grift in keeping up her potentially lucrative affair.
They fight. Never really with words. The disagreement is played out in a series of hands during their card game.
The film drifts into more traditional territory as Jean realizes she might actually love this guy and has to wrestle with her nature as a con artist and card shark versus her affection for this genuinely nice guy. Then it drifts back into sharp almost dark comedy as she’s forced to win back the guy.
Refreshingly she never compromises herself in her pursuit of wealth, happiness and love. She doesn’t change in some great and significant way. She’s never punished for her distinctly amoral desire. And the conmen she brings into her plots never try to control her. They’re friends. Confidantes.
That supporting cast of con men, rich men and surly bodyguards is a who’s who of late 30s-early 40s character actors. Charles Coburn, known for playing dads and jerks, is the Colonel. Eric Blore, who spent the 30s playing butlers and pompous know it alls, shows up as a boozy con man pretending to be a British lord. The gruff voiced Eugene Pallette (Friar Tuck from The Adventures of Robin Hood) is Fonda’s perpetually irritated father. And a huge portion Preston Sturge’s “unofficial” stock company appears. Particularly William Demarest, who made a career out of playing tough guys who hide intelligence and heart behind their growls.
This is Preston Sturges at his most accessible, Barbara Stanwyck at her funniest, and Henry Fonda (at least for me) at his least irritating. The Lady Eve is transgressive and completely remarkable. It’s an early example of a perfect romantic comedy and innovative in its reversal of traditional gender roles. Romantic comedies that are screwballish tend to be told from the point of view of the man. We never get an insight into the woman–which is what leads to the manic pixie dream girl stereotype. We certainly never see her screw up.
In romantic comedies told from the woman’s point of view the men tend to be borderline perfect and possess a wit that perfectly mirrors and compliments the heroine. When she inevitable screws up and runs across town in a wedding dress (and makes time for at least two pratfalls) its over something kind of innocuous and frustrating.
In The Lady Eve her flaws are genuine and, more importantly, reasonable and relatable to both genders. It makes sense that she does what she does and it makes sense that he rejects her. The surprise lies in her genuineness, and in her refusal to bow down to romantic comedy stereotypes. I cannot undersell the wonder you feel when she sets out to woo back the guy while refusing to compromise herself.
She doesn’t have to resort to pratfalls or confessions in the rain.
That must have throughly confused producers and censors in 1941. Just look at the poster above. “Bewitched and bewildered” it remarks–putting the reader in the seat of Henry Fonda’s character. That’s such a plain approach to what actually occurs. She’s a sultry seductress in that poster (and apparently not above giving and eye full of hoohah to a cartoon snake). He’s frightened and hiding behind an apple. The hapless Adam to her sinister Eve.
What a delight it must have been to audiences and critics when they went into the theater and saw something the exact opposite of what’s suggested in that poster. She isn’t a traditional temptress tricking Adam into eating the apple. She’s a post-modern Eve bearing the fruit of enlightenment.