For contemporary audiences, the ‘romantic comedy’ immediately invokes eye-rolling, cliched tropes. That’s unfortunate, because the genre has a rich and varied history and previously encompassed a lot more than the boy-meets-girl-and-both-fall-in-love storyline (after navigating the inevitable pitfalls and misunderstandings, of course). The screwball comedies of the 1940s balanced romance and comedy with sharp scripts, suspend-your-belief plotlines and unconventional characters who subverted traditional gender norms. Rooted in the turbulence of the Great Depression and WWII, films including Preston Sturges’ 1941 classic The Lady Eve, invited audiences to throw away their judgements and become complicit in the ideals of ‘romance’. In the interests of escapism, they were more than happy to do so, in fact, there’s a feeling that this invitation was positively relished. What makes films such as The Lady Eve enduring classics is their ability to make audiences question conventional ideas: in the case of Eve, reality, identity, and knowledge, specifically that which is useful or counterproductive to our interactions.
To briefly set the scene: a con artist (Barbara Stanwyck, first introduced as Jean Harrington, later as Eve) meets Charles Pike (or ‘Hopsy’, played by Henry Fonda), heir to a brewery fortune, on an ocean liner. She lures him back to her cabin, and before he realises it, he’s kneeling at her feet and buckling her shoes with blurred vision. It’s pretty obvious what’s happened to Charles, but what’s surprising is that Jean falls in love too – a dangerous game considering her and her father (whom with she is travelling) are in the habit of conning their fellow passengers through dubious card games. They con Charles too, despite Jean’s best avoidance tactics and, when he learns of her indiscretions, he breaks of their engagement. A hurt Jean arranges to visit a family friend, another con artist, who is masquerading as Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith a well-to-doer, who just happens to live next door to the Pikes. Adopting an English accent, a new wardrobe, hairstyle and gait, Jean (now Eve) sails into the Pikes’ drawing room for her revenge. The course of true love never does run smooth.
In Pursuits of Happiness, Stanley Cavell describes The Lady Eve as a film that “knows itself to have been written and directed and photographed and edited.” Indeed, there’s a lot of ‘knowing’ in Eve, but there’s a lot of unknowing, too. Contemporary audiences are invited to suspend disbelief in a different way to those in the 1940s – after all, in an age of Google and social media platforms, mistaken identity is almost non-existent – but the effect is the same. Sturges handles other comedy aspects so well it doesn’t matter that one of the central ideas now bears little relevance. Charles Pike’s clumsiness is genius. In his memoirs, Sturges claims the studio were on a mission to limit these ‘pratfalls’ (think: roast beef in the lap, falling curtain poles, misplaced tea trays – the more everyday and sillier the better) but they are all perfectly timed. “That couch has been there 15 years and nobody ever fell over it before!” exclaims Charlie’s father. Lady Eve: “Oh, well – now the ice is broken!”
Despite the mishaps that Fonda is forced to endure, this is Stanwyck’s film. Prior to The Lady Eve, she had starred in more ‘dramatic’ roles, this was her first comedy. She shines as both Jean and Eve, and the audience is able to feel sympathy for (and forgive) her character even when she’s playing Pike for a fool. We know that she’s in love with him, even though she won’t admit it to herself. She doesn’t just play for laughs though: there’s love and genuine feeling in her scenes with Fonda and she becomes caught up in her idea of Eve, perhaps taking the seductress role (borrowed from her original namesake of course) too far.
Fonda is her perfect foil, and an interesting character in his own right. Although not a screen heartthrob at the time of the film’s release, he was quite well-known, and it’s interesting to see him play a ‘weak’ character, particularly in an era when male actors liked to emphasise their masculine qualities. Jean controls Charles without him realising it and, in one of the earliest scenes when she reclines on a chaise lounge and ruffles his hair, is clearly the dominant character. In every aspect of the scene – from the framing to the dialogue and the action – Jean is in control. It’s not even subtle: when Charles tries to join her on the couch it’s apparent there’s not enough room for them both and he falls off onto the floor. She is literally above him, he’s subservient and controlled by her embrace. Whilst this film is not particularly feminist it involves so interesting commentary around gender, the idea that women catch on faster than men and that they can pursue love as much as they can be pursued. Many of these ideas are played for laughs, but Sturges does ask: who really is in charge here?
Jean/Eve might be a femme fatale, but she is never punished for using her sexuality as weapon. In fact, despite her lack of morals, she manages to charm everyone she meets whilst following her own course, despite her father’s remonstrances. She uses what she needs to get ahead, but it’s impossible to judge her actions negatively – after all, she turns down Pike seniors’ generous divorce settlement.
These are just some of the elements that make The Lady Eve such a compelling romantic (screwball) comedy. It sits somewhere between Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story, the former perhaps took capers a little too far (Cary Grant in women’s clothes, anyone?) and the latter involves too many lectures (mostly from the male characters). In Eve, Sturges created relatable characters who, as Jared Rapfogel observed, he was happy to celebrate; everything from their craftiness to their characteristic American capacity for reinvention. Stanwyck is the main reinventor, and we take delight in watching it – and of course, the inevitable happy ending. Some aspects of the cliche might not change, but in this instance we probably wouldn’t want it to.
Costume note: Stanwyck wears some incredible Edith Head costumes in All About Eve, and they were instrumental in the creation of the actress’ two personas. There’s a lot to say about them…so look out for a stand-alone costume post!