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‘I suppose you know I am very rich?” “Aren’t we all?” This pert exchange typifies the throwaway attitude to wealth in Preston Sturges’s glorious screwball comedy from 1941, now revived in selected UK cinemas as part of the Barbara Stanwyck retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank. Being rich, wanting to be rich and wanting to stay rich are desires that are all immersed in a champagne punchbowl of musical-comedy fantasy innocence. All the cynicism is removed and replaced with something childlike.
The Lady Eve is a film that sports with events in the Garden of Eden. It is a world away from unpleasantness. Or almost. When someone does a Hitler impression to show what dishonesty looks like, the historical context is restored with a jolt.
Stanwyck supplies a bravura double performance, a showcase for her brilliant versatility. She is Jean, a woman of mystery aboard a cruise ship who is travelling with her portly father, “Colonel” Harrington, played by Charles Coburn. They are a daddy-daughter team of professional gamblers and cheats who rook unsuspecting fellow passengers over the card tables after dinner. In their sights is Charles Pike, played by Henry Fonda: clumsy, shy and as unworldly as any debutante.
Charles is a biologist and naturalist, and he has in a basket in his cabin a previously undiscovered species of snake found on a recent trip to the Amazon, but he is also the heir to his father’s staggering brewery fortune, based on the bestselling Pike Ale – “the ale that won for Yale”. (Nowadays, Yale University would guard its trademark a bit better than that.) The snake will keep escaping.
Poor Charles is someone Jean would ordinarily eat for lunch. But he is just so charming that she falls in love with him – to her dad’s astonished disapproval – and proposes to grab all his money the legitimate way instead: by getting married. But things go awry and then Charles succeeds in hurting Jean’s feelings, so she hatches an outrageously complex plan: to pose as someone else, a drawling Brit aristocrat called “the Lady Eve”, and break Charles’s heart, so that humble card-sharping Jean is going to look the soul of decency.
Cheating at cards could well be a satirical metaphor for the marriage/divorce racket, with “Colonel” Harrington giving the bride away to every sucker whose money is about to be removed. But Sturges is also giving us a wacky Book of Genesis. When Jean goes to Charles’s cabin and encounters his snake, it’s of biblical as well as Freudian significance. She is nervous and obscurely impressed by it. Who is eating from the tree of knowledge, though? Charles is stunned to discover the truth about Jean, and Jean is hurt to find that man she loves is cold and unforgiving. And who is God the father? Is it Harrington? Or is it Charles’s father, the insensitive beer magnate, played by corpulent Eugene Pallette.
In this Wodehousian world, crooks are always pretending to be British blue-bloods, but in a spirit of honest homage to how classy the Brits are fondly imagined to be. Amusingly, Coburn would himself play a British nobleman, Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman, on board a cruise ship full of eligible millionaires in a comparable comedy of gold-digging: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, from 1953.
The dialogue scenes between Stanwyck and Fonda are tremendous, particularly when they are repeatedly interrupted by a nuzzling horse. In fact, Stanwyck completely upstages Fonda, who looks as delicate as a Lalique vase. Her chemistry is more with the dads: with Coburn and Pallette. She is the real thoroughbred.
Source: The Guardian
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