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“The Lady Eve” is the rare con artist film where money games are secondary cons; the main game here is one of love, and the film’s heroine wins her man’s heart by frequently pulling the wool over his eyes. But while “The Lady Eve” can be awfully cutting about how relationships work, it’s also one of the warmest, funniest, most romantic movies ever made, a film that knows when to be cynical and when to drop the cynicism for sweetness.
Barbara Stanwyck stars as Jean Harrington, a con artist who boards a cruise to America and picks her mark: rich ale heir Charles Pike (Henry Fonda). Jean works her magic on Charles, but falls in love with him in the process. When he learns of her deception, he dumps her, and she vows revenge (“I need him like the ax needs the turkey”). She gets it by pretending to be “The Lady Eve Sidwich,” fooling him and the rest of his family even as his eternally apoplectic valet Muggsy (William Demarest, one of the funniest character actors who ever lived) insists that it’s “positively the same dame.”
As with any con movie, much of the joy of “The Lady Eve” is watching someone who knows how to play the game better than everyone else. A key scene that demonstrates both her skill and Sturges’ visual ingenuity shows Eve using a mirror to watch women flirt with Charles ineptly. Stanwyck, as confident and luminous here as she ever was, has a better way than dropping demure hints: full on dominating him, calling him by the nickname “Hoppsy” even when he expresses his dislike for the nickname and acting as the sexual aggressor in a scene that shows her cradling him, turning the good-natured and square Fonda (a perfect straight man) into a puddle. She’s just as good when she adopts the Eve persona, acting less aggressive but still psychologically dominating him to the point where he’s constantly making pratfalls and ruining his expensive clothes (leave it to Sturges to make the most ornate and proper locations and situations look absurd).
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“The Lady Eve” sees much of the dating process as a long con and a battle of the sexes (particularly in a scene where “Eve” humiliates Charles by listing her many previous romantic conquests), but Sturges makes room for real, swooning romanticism as Fonda’s innate sweetness wears down Stanwyck’s cynical exterior. The film’s screwball nature necessitates that love be viewed as a bit of a farce, but it goes completely sincere by the end, where Jean goes straight and Charles learns forgiveness. It’s a film that suggests that love is only possible when both parties find themselves on level ground and stop trying to judge or fool each other.
More thoughts from the web:
Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club
Fonda’s willingness to look subservient here has no modern parallel that I know of—it’s not just that he’s sexually discombobulated (which contemporary males are happy to play, especially in a comedy), but that the traditional gender roles have been completely reversed, with the woman holding the man in her arms, while he remains passive and visually diminished. It’s such an odd arrangement that Sturges, as a gag, includes more dialogue that refers to the traditional setup, having Jean tell Charles “Don’t let me go” even though he’s not embracing her at all…Fonda gets plenty of opportunities to be masculine later, and Stanwyck can be plenty feminine. They’re equals, and that’s largely because Fonda was secure enough to let Stanwyck roll right over him for a while, in the interest of a better story. Read more.
Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com
What is delightful about Stanwyck’s performance is how she has it both ways. She is a crook, and yet can be trusted. A seductress, and yet a pushover for romance. A gold digger, and yet she wants nothing from him. And he is a naive innocent who knows only that her perfume smells mighty good to someone who has been “up the Amazon” for a year. She falls for him so quickly and so thoroughly that she’s even frank about her methods; just before he kisses her in the moonlight in the ship’s bow, she tells him, “They say a moonlit deck’s a woman’s business office.” Read more.
James Harvey, Criterion
It is often said that these movies are “about nothing”—and in a sense that is true, and it is part of their freedom. But it is also true that their combinations of formulas and stars not only have meanings of their own which we all recognize, but at their best these movies become metaphors for some of the most serious meanings of our lives. And the delight that a movie like “The Lady Eve” gives, a delight that goes beyond and deeper than mere pleasure or diversion, is inseparable, I think, from a recognition that its tensions of tone and feeling are very real tensions in us. That its brilliance is more than superficial, but a very real resolution of these tensions. That a movie like this is a witty and even moving counterpoint to our own very real experience not only of having to grow up, but of having to regret it too. Read more.
Scott Tobias, The Dissolve
“The Lady Eve” turns on the idea that relationships are a negotiation. That isn’t to say they’re approached as coldly and pragmatically as a business deal, but that two people have to come to terms with each other and meet somewhere in the middle, on equal footing—fully accepting their pasts, their mistakes, their quirks and peccadilloes. The movie is that negotiation, and there’s all sorts of tension—some of it romantic and sexual, some of it born of suspicion and deceit—between opposing types who have to compromise and forgive to form a true partnership. Like “Adam’s Rib” eight years later, “The Lady Eve” reaches back to the Bible as the origin for its battle of the sexes, and in both cases, the happy ending comes when the war ends in a draw. Read more.