Writer-director Preston Sturges is the model subversive of classic Hollywood comedy, and The Lady Eve (1941), one of his biggest hits, serves that legacy better than perhaps any of his other films.
The Lady Eve succeeds from both approaches: it's simultaneously a foundational slapstick text that would establish romantic comedy formula for generations to come, and a tantalizingly suggestive provocation against Hollywood propriety. It's also meticulously structured—shaped from Sturges' years as one of the most in-demand screenwriters in the business—but spiked with his singular flair for breezy dialogue that's ignited with eloquence and discharged with a hard, ribald wit.
The Lady Eve features major stars Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in leading roles, but playing against what might be considered their archetypal presentations: Fonda as Charles Pike, a blundering heir to an ale fortune who's as well-meaning as he is naïve with women, and Stanwyck as Jean Harrington, a notorious, slick-talking cardsharp who sets her sights on Charles' immense fortune, before—in a gimmick pilfered by countless romantic comedies since—unexpectedly falling helplessly in love with him.
That trick is only the first of the cards up Sturges' sleeves. The Lady Eve is, like any good screwball, a twisted and nimble affair, full of the kind of shocks and absurdities that can keep audiences laughing. Sturges' world is one of inhuman comedic agility, where every innocuous comment is answered with a witty barb and every witty barb is answered in kind (and then some). When Charles, an amateur researcher of snakes, first meets Jean on a cruise ship and explains his unusual hobby to her, he says, "Snakes are my life, in a way." "What a life!" she returns, without missing a beat.
The film's plot never stagnates. Later, as Jean confesses her feelings for Charles, he confronts her with evidence of her secret criminality. She's sincerely wounded, assuming he's been leading her on to expose her as a professional gambler rather than taking a genuine romantic interest in her. They leave each other on bitter terms once their cruise ship docks, setting in motion the second half of the film's story in which Jean, seeking revenge, infiltrates the Pike family mansion during a party in disguise as the glamorous, captivating Lady Eve Sidwich. Charles, trusting and childlike by nature, is mostly oblivious to her transformation as she charms and hustles his father Horace (Eugene Pallette), insisting that she looks and acts too much like Jean to truly be her.
It's a twist only possible in Sturges' farcical imagination, one that would be completely unbelievable if not for the sheer density of nonsensical comedic anarchy that surrounds it. One minute Charles is melting in Jean's arms at a bawdy sexual entendre, the next he's being lectured by his brusque valet Muggsy (William Demarest), and soon after he's crashing into dinner trays in his last clean suit. Such is the speed and range of Sturges' explosive talent for humor both literate and broad.
It's exactly those qualities which make Sturges such a watchable director today, even if they occasionally got him into trouble in his time. The Lady Eve's script was originally rejected by the Hays Office, deemed too risqué and morally dubious. Roger Ebert called one interaction in the film in which Charles, alone with Jean in her bedroom as she not-so-subtly comes on to him, "the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest at the same time."
There's no question Fonda and Stanwyck share a chemistry in the film to rival that of the best on-screen couples of Hollywood's Golden Age, but there's something extra there, too—a coy promiscuousness and tongue-in-cheek sensuality to the script that feels particularly bold. Sturges was willing to embrace the sensibilities of real-world sexuality in The Lady Eve as well as other films, and he always ran toward fantastically heightened portrayals of true, unrefined human impulse.
Of course, another aspect of the film that likely rankled Hollywood censors is its ironic biblical references and subtle satirical elements. The Lady Eve's off-the-wall allusions to the story of Adam and Eve are a sly nod to the literally ancient legacy of sexual politics that Sturges draws his characters and scenarios from. He plays with the motifs of corruption and conscience in a contemporary context, removing from them all traditional religious connotations in a way that might have been insulting to the early-20th century puritans. In The Lady Eve, Adam and Eve are not the wardens of all humanity but instead, deep down, just a typical couple in which each partner must commit to a certain level of compromise and the understanding that they can't change the people they love—but why would they want to?
The Lady Eve showcases Sturges' talent not only for deconstructing the values of mid-century America as they were just coming into existence, but also for making those social critiques palatable enough for mainstream audiences to enjoy at the time. It's a film layered with texture and substance draped in the gleeful prurience of a master of slapstick and romance who could write foolish millionaires with the same deft ear as cultured hooligans. The Lady Eve maintains that spectrum of nuanced comedy better than most, and it never fails to stun or surprise you, or—perhaps like Charles—knock you off your feet.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray upgrade of The Lady Eve brings three new featurettes to the special edition release: an interview discussion between Sturges' son Tom Sturges and directors James L. Brooks, Peter Bogdanavich, and Ron Shelton, alongside critics Susan King, Leonard Maltin, and Kenneth Turan recorded in 2020; a video essay by David Cairns in which the critic dives into a wide range of the film's peculiarities; and a performance of "Up the Amazon", the opening number for a theatrical musical based on the film by composers Rick Chertoff and David J. Forman.
The first two are well worth watching in order to understand Sturges' craft and vast impact on the industry, while the third is more of an amusing, esoteric oddity that some fans may nonetheless find intriguing. All three are welcome additions to the package, making for a much more well-rounded release than the old DVD edition.
Returning special features include an audio commentary with film scholar Marian Keane, a video on Edith Head's spectacular costume design with excerpts from Head's writings, the 1942 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the movie with actor Ray Milland as Charles and Barbara Stanwyck reprising her role as Jean, and a film introduction from Bogdanovich.
The booklet essay by Geoffrey O'Brien analyzes a variety of subjects, from Sturges' life to the character-driven dialogue to the subtle ways the film hinted at the looming war. The booklet also includes a 1946 profile of Sturges from Life magazine, which focuses in part on his controversies and his unusual-for-the-time career trajectory from screenwriter to film auteur.
For a classic comedy that feels relatively under-appreciated today, Criterion has produced an undeniably stacked release. Hopefully, it will encourage more film fans to explore Sturges' unparalleled comedies (and perhaps inspire Criterion to update his delightfully dark 1948 film Unfaithfully Yours next).