The Lady Eve (1941)
The poster proclaims: “Barbara Stanwyck has Henry Fonda bewitched and bewildered” in “another Preston Sturges hit!”
And it’s true! The Lady Eve is a fantastic, funny, romantic, delightful screwball comedy starring two wonderful stars, featuring several other amazing actors, written and directed by the master of the genre, Preston Sturges. And Fonda is utterly bewitched and bewildered for most of the movie.
This was the breakthrough film for Sturges, and many consider it to be his masterpiece. He had been a playwright before coming to Hollywood and working as a screenwriter in the studio system. But he hated losing control of his work when he turned his scripts over to producers and directors.
By 1939 he’d had enough so he made an unusual deal with Paramount: Sturges sold his script for The Great McGinty (1940) to the studio for only $10 and the chance to direct it.
He won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and the film’s success enabled him to keep directing. His next film, Christmas in July (1940), was another success. Why does this matter for The Lady Eve?
With these two film, Sturges proved his abilities as a screenwriter/director, and he no longer had to give his scripts away in order to direct. Paramount gave Sturges his biggest budget so far for The Lady Eve, enabling him to get the stars he wanted and to make the film the way he wanted.
Unlike his first two films, The Lady Eve takes place in the world of the upper-crust and super-rich. The first part of the film is set on a luxurious ocean liner, the second in Connecticut in millionaires’ mansions.
This was a world Sturges knew well (his mother married several wealthy men and bounced between the U.S. and Europe, and Sturges later married heiress Eleanor Close Hutton, the granddaughter of Post Cereal founder C. W. Post.) Sturges’ 1942 classic, The Palm Beach Story, also takes inspiration from his experiences amongst the wealthy and upper-class. He would later say that “Millionaires are funny,” and his characters certainly are.
As with most movies, the final cast was not the original; things are rarely as pre-ordained as they might seem. Sturges really wanted Stanwyck and Fonda, who’d starred together in The Mad Miss Manton (1938), but Paramount hoped to employ cheaper stars like Madeleine Carroll, Paulette Godard, or Fred MacMurray and Brian Aherne in order to save money on salaries. But Henry Fonda was loaned to Paramount for the film, and Stanwyck became available when she was had to drop out of a previously scheduled film, Reaching for the Sun (1941), due to illness.
So Sturges got his stars, and his budget which enabled him, among other things, to commission Paramount’s costume designer Edith Head to create twenty-five stunning costumes for Stanwyck. Much more on that later.
Sturges’ script was based on “Two Bad Hats,” a nineteen page story by Monckton Hoffe about two cardsharks. Sturges re-worked it, filling it with his trademark witty, hilarious, naturalistic dialogue, an impressive number of pratfalls, and romance that will make you shiver. The Lady Eve is one of those movies that remains utterly timeless. It’s over seventy-years-old, but you’d never know it. It still feels fresh, and it still makes you laugh.
Let’s get to it, shall we? The film opens with an animated title sequence with a comical, be-hatted snake and apples…that and the “Eve” in the title tells us this is a story of temptation and womanly wiles…Then we move to the Amazonian jungle (actually the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia, CA; the same place where Hitchcock filmed the Rio riding club scenes in Notorious.) Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) is an ophiologist (snake scientist).
He and his bodyguard/valet Muggsy (William Demarest) have been up the Amazon for a year studying snakes with the Pike expedition. Charles is the heir to the Pike’s Pale Ale fortune, though he hates the brewing business and would much prefer to be a full-time ophiologist. Muggsy lacks his enthusiasm, but he seems to have made a friend in the jungle…
Charles and Muggsy board a small boat with their newly-discovered species of snake in that wooden box. Charles calls the snake Emma, though she is officially named in honor of a Professor Marsdit. (Raymond Ditmars was a well-known reptile scientist and writer at the time, and Sturges used an anagram of “Ditmars” for his fictitious scientist.)
Charles and Muggsy’s little skiff meets with a waiting ocean liner. The passengers crowd the decks to see the Pike fellow so rich that he can get a luxury liner to wait for him. Most of the passengers are innocent gawkers, though some of the girls and their mammas have high hopes of landing Mr. Pike on the voyage. But those two characters on the right are definitely not innocent.
That’s Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn) and his daughter Jean (Barbara Stanwyck). They are professional card players and con artists who specialize in fleecing the wealthy and gullible. An ocean liner is a great place to meet marks, and they watch Pike’s arrival with interest.
Jean tells her father that she hopes Pike thinks he’s a great card player, and that he has a wife so she won’t have to dance with him in the moonlight. For some reason, she says, suckers always want to dance in the moonlight, and they’re always very bad dancers. She also wishes that they could find a female mark, so her father could do “the dirty work,” for once:
Please notice what Jean is eating in this scene…she must be the temptress we’ve been warned about in the snake/apple/Eve titles. Guess what she does with the apple?
Everyone on board wants to make a good impression on super-rich Mr. Pike, but Jean drops an apple on his head. (He doesn’t see who did it.)
Later that evening, in the swanky dining room, shy Charles sits alone in a white dinner jacket reading the page-turner Are Snakes Necessary? and trying to avoid the stares of his fellow diners. (We won’t delve into the phallic imagery, but it’s there…)
He just wants to be left alone; he’s awfully tired of being the most eligible bachelor around. It’s unclear if the pushy mothers, would-be-sirens in strapless gowns, or grinning families are more terrifying to poor Charles.
The waitstaff is pretty tired of the Pike-mania, too. Everyone is ordering Pike’s Pale, and the bar soon runs out.
One young woman is not staring at Charles, at least, not directly. She’s too clever for that. Miss Jean Harrington watches it all with her handy compact mirror.
She sees right away that Charles dislikes the attention being lavished upon him, and that he’s a quiet, nerdy sort of man unlikely to respond to the typical flirting techniques. She keeps up a running commentary on the scene playing out behind her: definitely watch it here!
Jean is smart, cunning, and an excellent judge of human nature. I suppose con artists need to be. When she sees Charles getting up to return to his cabin, she concocts a brilliant, counter-intuitive plan and trips him as he walks by:
Then she gets mad at him for breaking her heel! Before he knows what’s happening, she’s sweeping him along to her cabin to pick out a new pair of shoes! Other girls couldn’t catch Charles’ eye, but in about two minutes Jean has him alone in her cabin.
Charles is bewildered by everything. As he tells Jean several times, he’s been up the Amazon for a year, so women’s strappy high-heels, midriff-baring beaded gowns (!), and perfume quite turn his head.
Then she tells him he can put the shoes on her if he wants…He’s overwhelmed and starts babbling about beer and ale, how he used to be called “Hopsi,” how he hates it all, and would so much rather study snakes.
He’s so bewitched and bewildered that everything goes blurry for a moment:
Jean realizes this is going to be easier than she thought. Hopsi is terribly susceptible to her charms:
I love that line!
Colonel Harrington apologizes for his daughter’s little jokes and proceeds to charm Charles. The talk turns to cards, and Charles “amazes” them with his card trick:
Things are looking good for the Harringtons. They’re a wonderfully devious pair who even warn Charles about cardsharks!
The poor darling boy suggests that they all play cards together. Cleverly, the Harringtons let Charles win, leaving him $600 the richer. He’s mortified but Jean assures him that her father is in oil and such a sum hardly matters! Charles promises to play again on the voyage and hopefully return what he’s won. “You can bet on it,” says Jean, slyly.
Meanwhile, Jean and Hopsi are becoming very good friends:
Jean even walks Hopsi back to his cabin, but runs screaming when she sees that “Emma” is a snake! It’s a great excuse to get Hopsi back to her cabin for some canoodling in the name of calming her nerves after such a fright!
This scene is amazing: about five minutes (most of it in a nearly four-minute long take) of steamy cuddling with Jean completely in control on the chaise and poor Hopsi barely keeping it together on the floor.
Poor Hopsi! He even pulls her skirt down over her knees in an effort to keep some control, a gesture she acknowledges with a polite “thank you:”
But Hopsi has no chance. He’s undone with Jean’s snuggling caresses and talk of “ideals.” She’s looking for a certain type of man:
They discuss their ideal mates, but Hopsi barely keeps up with the conversation as Jean fondles his ear and musses his hair. It’s hilarious and romantic all at the same time. Hopsi’s choked reply when Jean tells him how she wants to meet her ideal man makes me laugh out loud every time:
Stanwyck is wonderful in this scene. She’s completely in control, playing with Hopsi as part of the con, but enjoying herself, too. This is no fat old sucker stepping on her feet in the moonlight! And Hopsi has no idea what’s happening! The scene passes the 1940s censor-proof decency code, but it doesn’t feel at all old-fashioned. That’s Sturges’ genius. It reminds me of the dress-unbuttonings in The Palm Beach Story. Both scenes have sexual-tension for days wrapped in a classy, sophisticated package.
The sexy merriment between Hopsi and Jean ends with this gem:
Poor, dear Hopsi! You can watch this incredible scene here, and here’s a behind-the-scenes shot paired with an image from the film:
Let us pause to appreciate this glamorous get-up. Midriffs could be bared, just no belly buttons. The slit in the skirt makes the Cinderella-esque shoe-replacement scene extra sexy for naive Hopsi, and the top of the gown is heavily beaded, which shows up just beautifully in those close shots of Stanwyck on the chaise:
This was a different kind of role for Barbara Stanwyck, and therefore a different kind of wardrobe. Stanwyck usually played tough, down-on-her-luck working girls or mothers as in her famous turn as Stella Dallas. She didn’t act in many comedies, and she rarely had the chance to play wealthy and glamorous clothes-horses of the type Carole Lombard brought to the screen so well.
Audiences were stunned to see her as sophisticated, gorgeous Jean strutting her stuff in chic gowns and wowing with a new kind of sex-appeal. She’d played a lot of prostitutes, but never a character like Jean Harrington!
And she’d never never worn clothes like the ones Edith Head designed for this film. Stanwyck wasn’t into clothes, personally nor professionally, and although she was quite fit, she had a “figure problem,” a long waist and a low, wide bottom that stumped designers. Until Edith Head came along…
Head described in Edith Head’s Hollywood how she solved Stanwyck’s “problem:” “By widening the waistbands on the front of her gowns and narrowing them slightly in the back, I could still put her in straight skirts, something other designers were afraid to do, because they thought she might look too heavy in the seat. Since she wasn’t the least bit heavy, I just took advantage of her long waist to create an optical illusion that her derriere was just as pertly placed as any other star’s” (43). None of the waistbands are cut straight across, and you can see Head made the waistbands dip in the back to make Stanwyck’s rear end seem higher.
Stanwyck’s costumes almost always have a defined waist, too, rather than dropping straight down from bodice to skirt without any breaks in color or cut.
Edith Head, who had a gift for self-promotion, would become known as “the Dress Doctor” for her ability to camouflage any “problems” a woman might have. After this film, Stanwyck was a believer: “Edith made the most beautiful clothes I had ever worn. Every change was spectacular.” From this movie on, Stanwyck requested that Head design all of her costumes, getting “Edith Head’s name written into every contract, no matter what studio Stanwyck was working for.” (Edith Head’s Hollywood, 42). Head would design the costumes for more than twenty-five of Stanwyck’s films and for her personal wardrobe.
Fun fact: Stanwyck called Head to ask her to design some personal clothes after attending one of her future husband’s, Robert Taylor’s, movie premieres: “The girl fans broke down the barricades and mobbed Bob. I was still clutching his arm when a policeman yanked me away. ‘Okay, young lady, let the man have room to breathe!’ When we tried to explain who I was, the officer just shook his head. ‘Don’t look like a movie star to me!’ I went right home and phoned Edith” (Edith Head’s Hollywood, 80).
Another fun fact: Edith Head had some crooked teeth, which is why she smiled close-mouthed. After working together on this film, Stanwyck took Head to her dentist to get the teeth fixed, as a thank you for changing Stanwyck’s screen image.
Anyway, Hopsi is enamored and overwhelmed by beautiful, sexy Jean, and Jean is thrilled with her success. The next morning, Colonel Harrington shows his daughter some of his new card tricks. They’re a good deal more impressive than Hopsi’s simple palming trick. The Colonel is a virtuosic cheater. He and his daughter are confident they can take Hopsi, especially now that he is over-confident after “winning” the night before.
Stanwyck changes out of her negligee and into a pant/vest outfit with a weird striped cap. Hopsi sent her some roses, so she brings one with her, chewing on the bloom adorably. Here they are on set between takes of this scene with Preston Sturges:
Fun fact: Stanwyck always memorized every line in the script, not just her own, and knew each part cold by the time shooting started. Fonda was also always prepared, known as “One-Take Fonda.” Together they were a great, highly professional team, and the filming of this movie was a happy, sociable experience with Stanwyck and Fonda rarely retiring to their dressing rooms. They preferred to sit and talk with Sturges, making suggestions and working on the scenes.
Jean and Hopsi spend the day together, and by that afternoon, Jean tells her father and their partner that Hopsi’s in love with her, and she might be in love with him, too. She doesn’t want to con him anymore. She’s even decided to be the girl that Hopsi thinks she is–she’s going to go straight!
Her father is flabbergasted and upset to lose out on the thousands and thousands of dollars he knows he could get from Hopsi. Jean asks him not to cheat Hopsi out of any more money, but agrees that it would be okay to win back the $600 they lost the night before. But no more! You can watch the scene here.
Then Jean is off to change into a white gown with lamé accents, a cape, and plenty of Latin American flair.
Fun fact: the costumes in this ocean-liner section of the film inspired a “Latin American craze” in fashion.
The Harringtons play cards once again with gullible Hopsi. This time he loses, but in a wonderful scene of cheating, more cheating, and even more cheating, Jean keeps her father from fleecing Hopsi too badly. She has some card tricks of her own, you see! Jean leaves the two men alone to square accounts, but first she gets Hopsi’s word of honor that he won’t play another hand.
Turns out Jean underestimated her father. He challenges Hopsi to high-card double or nothing, telling him that he hates to have his future-son-in-law owe him money, and surely they can square things in a jiffy! Hopsi is only too happy to oblige!
In no time at all, Hopsi has lost $32,000 to the cheating Colonel. He decides to stop there, before he loses “a really large amount.” He’s writing out the check when Jean returns. She’s furious.
But her father rips up the check, telling them he was just fooling. He wouldn’t take that much from Hopsi! Hmm…You can watch the scene here.
To the deck go Hopsi and Jean for some tender sweet-nothings in the moonlight. Hopsi tells Jean he’s loved her, always, and can see them together way, way back, when they were just children. It’s very sweet, but while Hopsi is losing his head, Jean tells him she’ll try to think straight for both of them, since:
They’re engaged, and very happy. But gruff, unsophisticated Muggsy, Hopsi’s bodyguard, is suspicious of the Harringtons. He talks to the ship’s bursar, who furnishes him with a photograph of known cardsharks.
Muggy passes it along to Hopsi just before Hopsi is due to meet Jean for breakfast. The music rises, and Hopsi’s face falls.
He’s devastated and heads straight for the bar, where Jean finds him, cheerful as ever.
She’s determined to tell him who she really is, or used to be, but her father asked her to wait until they are off the boat in case Hopsi tries to have them arrested. She wants to prepare Hopsi for the bombshell, not knowing that it’s already exploded:
He shows her the photograph, and then lies, saying he’s known since the very first morning on the boat, and was playing her just as she was playing him. Tears.
She’s devastated that he didn’t give her the benefit of the doubt, or believe her when she said she was going to tell him everything. And his foolish, earnest heart is broken.
When it comes time to leave the ship, Jean’s heartbreak has turned to anger. She desperately wants to get back at Hopsi for hurting her, and her father gives her a pleasant surprise. That $32,000 check he “ripped up?” It was all a trick; he reminds Jean, sardonically, that Hopsi showed him how to palm things…
Next thing we know we’re at the races, and Jean is looking extra-chic in black and white.
Fun fact: Horse racing was very popular amongst the Hollywood community, and Stanwyck owned a ranch and breeding farm, and often attended races with her famous friends.
At this race, the Harringtons run into an old pal and fellow con man/cardshark, currently masquerading as English aristocrat Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith (Eric Blore). He tells them of his sweet deal amongst the Connecticut millionaire set: an occasional card game with those suckers has him set up quite nicely! When Jean hears that he’s living in a house near the Pike’s country estate, an idea strikes! She asks if she can visit him sometime as his niece…
Cue the explanatory telegram:
So Jean Harrington has become the Lady Eve Sidwich, who crossed the Atlantic in a destroyer, cruiser, or submarine, as the various rumors have it. (The curiosity about how the Lady Eve got from England to America since the boats stopped running is the only real reference to World War II in the film.)
There’s a comedic interlude with Eugene Pallette as Hopsi’s father, who has no idea that he’s hosting a party that evening, and is very distressed to find that the immense household staff has forgotten his breakfast in their frenzy of party preparation:
Eventually the party begins. Jean/Eve arrives and seems a bit nervous to be recognized. She’s right to worry, Muggsy thinks that there’s something familiar about “that dame.”
The Lady Eve is announced, and wows in her splendid white gown, tiara, and fan.
Eve is more sophisticated and elegant than Jean; no more exposed midriffs! Notice the elegant chignon, too, which is different from Jean’s curls.
Eve is the life of the party: charming, amusing, beautiful. Mr. Pike is especially taken with her. That’s Hopsi’s mom with them on the left (Janet Beecher). No one notices Muggsy skulking outside, watching Eve. So no one notices Muggsy fall off the window ledge into the shrubbery.
Hopsi comes downstairs after Eve’s spectacular entrance. When he’s beckoned over to be introduced to the guest of honor, he goes pale and looks as though he’s about to throw up. Eve plays it off brilliantly, giving no sign that she’s ever seen Hopsi before, and acting genuinely concerned when he seems unable to speak or move.
His father tells him to pull himself together, but Hopsi is flummoxed. Eve and Jean are identical, but Eve has an English accent, and surely she would have dyed her hair or something if she was trying to fool him!
Pause for costume appreciation:
Notice the defined waist and narrowed waistband that slopes downwards–typical Edith Head magic.
Next begins a series of delightful pratfalls that Sturges fought to keep in the movie. The first sends a distracted Hopsi over the sofa and into a bowl of pudding or something:
His father, in that distinctive voice of his, scolds his clumsy son, but Eve rushes over to wipe his face, telling him that anyone is liable to trip.
Poor Hopsi is humiliated, but there’s so much more mortification in store for him! As he leaves the room, he trips on the step, pulling down a grand drapery in an effort to steady himself. Muggsy gets caught, too, and servants rush over to extricate the pair:
Eve can’t stop a giggle.
Hopsi changes into another tuxedo and returns for dinner. Muggsy is sure “it’s the same dame,” but Hopsi doesn’t believe him. He says the two women look too much alike to be the same! Muggsy can’t give it up, and pushes his way into the dining room with a massive tray of roast beef. Guess where the roast beef ends up when the butler attempts to take it from him?
Hopsi’s last dinner jacket doesn’t fare any better. When he bends down to remove a chair leg from Eve’s train, the butler steps right into him with the after-dinner coffee tray!
It’s an amazing sequence. You almost feel sorry for Hopsi, but you’re too busy laughing.
According to Sturges, most people thought there were too many pratfalls and encouraged him to cut it down. But he fought for each one, and it pays off. It shows how confused and disoriented Hopsi is in a particularly hilarious way, in my opinion.
As Sturges said later, “…it was actually the enormous risks I took with my pictures, skating right up to the edge of nonacceptance, that paid off so handsomely. There are certain things that will convulse an audience, when it has been softened up by what has occurred previously, that seem very unfunny in cold print. Directing and acting have a lot to do with it, too. I had my fingers crossed when Henry Fonda went over the sofa. I held my left ear when he tore down the curtains and I held everything when the roast beef hit him. But it paid off. Audiences, including the critics, surrendered to the fun, and the picture made a lot of money for the studio.”
Jean is delighted with her evening as Lady Eve. She bets that Hopsi will propose in six weeks, then changes it to two when a mess of long stem roses arrives for her. It’s just like on the boat, remember?
And, true to her prediction, in two weeks Hopsi proposes on a horseback ride. He uses the same lines about having loved her “always” and seeing them “way, way back,” that he used on the boat, and Stanwyck plays it brilliant
There’s a wicked gleam in her eye as Hopsi repeats his proposal. Obviously she can’t let him know that she’s heard all this before, as that would give the game away. But she also doesn’t let him know that in fact she hates him, and “needs him like the ax needs a turkey.” Sturges later said that “Barbara Stanwyck had an instinct so sure that she needed almost no direction; she was a devastating Lady Eve.”
The whole proposal scene takes on a hilarious dimension when one of their horses keeps butting Fonda in the back of the head, intruding on this most intimate and important of conversations. It’s a wonderful combination of romance and farce. Eve chuckles at the horse, but poor Hopsi is so earnest and sincere that he just gets annoyed and swats at the horse.
So now they’re engaged for the second time, though Hopsi still has no idea it’s the same dame! Wedding preparations go into full swing:
And then it’s the big day. Eve comes down the Pike’s staircase dripping in satin, tulle, and pearls, escorted by her “uncle.” Look at his face! He’s against this marriage for several reasons, one of the most important being that he’s afraid his sweet deal will be compromised when Jean completes her revenge.
Colonel Harrington gets on the phone with “Sir Alfred” after the ceremony to ask how it all went. He’s very sad to have missed his own daughter’s wedding, even though it’s a con, and he’s not sure what Jean plans to do now that she’s Mrs. Pike.
Cut to the train where the newlyweds are starting their honeymoon. Of course a suitcase drops onto Hopsi’s head in their compartment, adding some slapstick to this serious moment. And then Jean’s mysterious plan swings into effect. As she and her husband sit side by side, she breaks into giggles about how it reminds her of that “other time…”
And before we know it, Eve is dropping name after name of former lover and former husband. There’s twins, the twin’s friend, a groom on her father’s estate…the list goes on and on, punctuated by train whistles and wheels thumping against the track, a nice expression of Hopsi’s mounting emotion. After he hears about the first (the groom she eloped with at sixteen), Hopsi tells Eve he forgives her for her youthful indiscretion, but as the list grows…well, there’s only so much a man can take! The beautiful Lady Eve is much more, ahem, experienced, than he thought!
He gets off the train in a huff, falling in a giant mud-puddle, as Jean watches, subdued, from her compartment. Fonda has so many amazing pratfalls in this movie…
Jean doesn’t seem as satisfied with her revenge as one might expect…
Next thing we know, Jean is back with her father negotiating the divorce over the telephone with Hopsi’s father.
Shockingly, Jean/Eve is not asking for any money from the Pike’s. Her father can’t quite believe this, and neither can the Pikes’ attorneys! But Jean is adamant that she doesn’t want anything from Hopsi, she’ll even return the jewelry he gave her; all she wants is to see Hopsi and have him ask for the divorce in person.
Fun fact: Eve’s request to see Hopsi in person was inspired by Sturges’ divorce from his second wife, heiress Eleanor Hutton. He asked her to come to him in person, too.
(Any time I see Stanwyck on the telephone, I flash to her in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), a film noir where Stanwyck plays an invalid in a frilly negligee stuck in bed with her telephone.)
Anyway, Hopsi refuses, and his father tells Jean that he’s leaving for South America on the next boat. Inspiration strikes Jean yet again!
As Hopsi walks through the dining room on this ocean liner, a slender foot takes him down, yet again…
He’s never been so happy to fall down. As they hurry to his cabin, he begins to explain that it was all a big mistake, and he’s terribly sorry, but he’s married–Jean cuts him off with a simple, “But so am I, darling, so am I.” And off they go.
So that’s The Lady Eve. Watch it.
As I mentioned earlier, this was Stanwyck and Fonda’s second movie together. They were paired again after their fabulous work in this film for You Belong to Me (1941), but The Lady Eve remains their best movie together. Henry Fonda would later say that Stanwyck was his favorite leading lady.
This film was re-made in 1956 under the title The Birds and the Bees, with George Gobel, Mitzi Gaynor, and David Niven. It didn’t do well. Fun fact: Barbara Stanwyck refused to attend the premiere.
Another fun fact: Mary Orr, writer of the short story “The Wisdom of Eve,” liked this film so much that she combined the names of Stanwyck’s two characters into the name of her main character, Eve Harrington. That story would be adapted for the screen as 1950’s classic All About Eve.