Saturday, March 30, 2013


(February 1941, U.S.)

For me, the great American screwball romantic comedy simply doesn't exist least not on any reasonably intelligent level, it doesn't. Preston Sturges' THE LADY EVE doesn't just give us comedy, but gives us comedy with more than several plot twists attached to it. In just over ninety minutes of film, we watch a mismatched couple fall in love not once, not twice, but THREE times! And all along the way, our male protaganist just can't help but constantly trip all over himself.

Jean Harrington (played by Barbara Stanwyck) is a beautiful con artist who, along with her equally larcenous father, "Colonel" Harrington (played by Charles Coburn) are out to fleece very rich and very naive Charles Pike (played by Henry Fonda), the heir to the Pike Ale fortune, while on board a luxury ocean liner. Pike is a woman-shy snake expert just returning from a year-long expedition up the Amazon. Though surrounded by ladies desperate for his attention and his money, Charles is inexplicably putty in Jean's hands. And although Charles is intended to be a financial target, cliche dictates that Jean eventually realizes that she really loves Charles. That should be "happily ever after", yes? No. Upon realization of Jean really is, Charles terminates the relationship. Now it's onto Jean's revenge of "Phase 2" in which she assumes the completely new identity of Lady Eve Sidwich (without physically changing a thing) accompanied with an English accent and is reintroduced to Charles. Charles falls for it completely, the logic being that Eve looks so identical to Jean that they couldn't possibly be the same woman. In other words, it's so obvious that it couldn't possibly be...well, that obvious?? Love is followed by marriage which is inevitably followed by annulment when Charles learns that Eve has a notorious past involving other men (a story which is likely not true and only part of the ultimate plot). So having purposely failed Charles as Eve, Jean is now free to return to her identity as Jean again and collide with Charles for the second time ("Phase 3") on the same ocean liner so they may affirm their love for each other all over again (hence, the THIRD time!). This time it will work out and love will triumph for these two dopey people.

(did you get all that??)

For today's audience, THE LADY EVE is simple, light-hearted screwball comedy. Hard to believe, however, that back in the day the censors at the Hays Office initially rejected the script that was submitted to them, because of "the definite suggestion of a sex affair between your two leads" which lacked "compensating moral values" (whatever THOSE were supposed to be). One of these moments of suggestion that may have concerned the censors back then is a scene of Charles sitting on the floor while Jean seductively strokes his hair while verbally seducing him. Charles is clearly disoriented and filled head-over-heels with lustful thoughts of Jean and her actions (by today's standards, Charles would have a raging hard on!). Note carefully how the camera doesn't move off of these two characters the entire time, allowing the scene and the dialogue to be played out to its conclusion. In terms of a clear cinematic theme, it's very easy to pick out early in the film that it's of gender inversion. Stanwyck's Jean Harrington is clearly in total control of the situations for the majority of the film, until her unexpected genuine feelings get in the way of her previous, dubious intentions. Until she realizes that she really loves Charles, there is very little sense of the struggle between equals that typifies most romantic comedies. This may all sound a bit heavy-handed for a romantic comedy, but then again, sometimes romantic complexities can be funny in themselves. It's a thought, anyway.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Muggsy: "Positively the same dame!"

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