A gorgeous and talented con artist sets her sights on a naive and vulnerable brewery heir. With the help of her father (and partner in crime), she woos him until he is putty in her hands. The only thing that doesn’t go according to her plan is what happens to her own heart: it softens to the gullible, good-hearted chump, and she falls in love. Her identity is revealed to him, and he spurns her. She sets out for revenge, but now she’s the naive one: she doesn’t expect her heart to warm to him again, but it does.
The plot for The Lady Eve is fairly ridiculous, as were the plots for the majority of screwball comedy films during the genre’s glory days in the mid-1930s through the 1940s. During our summer series of screwball classics, we’ll watch several such ludicrous scenarios play out on scene. The plausibility of the plot is never the point in these comedies; in fact, the zanier the story elements, the better. The improbability of the events on screen in these films serves as something of a symbol for that most illogical of creatures–the human heart–and the bizarre, frightening, infuriating, thrilling, and at times hilarious situations it can get us into. If you’re worrying about logic while you watch The Lady Eve or any other screwball, you’re watching these movies the wrong way.
The biggest liability for Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), the gentle sap who falls prey to predatory Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) in this 1941 classic from Preston Sturges, is that he expects the world to behave in logical ways, and he trusts the people around him to conduct themselves with decency and sincerity. He isn’t stupid. He just hasn’t allowed for the phenomenon of ulterior motives in his fellow humans. Even when it’s clear to the viewer he’s being played and conned by the most obvious tricks in the book, he never considers the possibility until it’s plainly explained to him.
It’s a bit uncommon in a screwball to have the straight man, the character who is sincere and guileless, and therefore doomed to a series of hilarious and unfortunate incidents, be one of the leads. Usually, this role is reserved for a side player, as in the case of Ralph Bellamy’s clueless insurance salesman in His Girl Friday. Sturges instead puts this character front and center in The Lady Eve. He’s a straight arrow, and his constant presence on screen as one of the leads means the crooked characters around him are constantly colliding with and bouncing off him.
One of the hallmarks of the screwball genre was a strong, confident female character who subverted the gender norms of the day and took charge in her relationships with the men around her. Jean Harrington is a classic representation of this trope, and no one could have played her better than the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck’s Harrington is sexy and charming, and knows when to be assertive and when to feign vulnerability and bashfulness. Fonda’s Charles Pike has never come across a creature like her, and he doesn’t stand a chance. But she’s also never come across someone so innately good as Pike, and he proves to be her “downfall” into honest living.
Jean Harrington’s behavior with the male lead here is the most obvious way in which her character goes against the gender roles of the day, but we shouldn’t miss her relationship with her father, her literal partner in crime. The two work together, and it is obvious they are equal in work and friendship. They respect each other, speak their minds, and trust the other’s instincts and competencies.
Hollywood films of this era could only go so far in flaunting strictures of the Hays Code, so these films almost always ended with the rascally hijinks culminating in marriage and harmony for our formerly combative leads. No matter how unlikely (and, often, unhealthy) this outcome seems given the events of the first ninety or so minutes of any screwball comedy, count on a happy ending, and a traditional one. The subversive themes of these movies must be read between the lines, and often contrary to the plot’s conclusion.
I hope you’ll join us on Thursday, June 23, when we kick off A Screwball Summer with this fun comedy classic. As always, GPL will provide free theater popcorn, candy, Jones Soda, and coffee (decaf, for those of us who don’t relish trying to sleep after a cup of joe late in the evening), and I will lead a brief discussion of the film after the screening. We hope to see you there.