17 November 2005

100 films: The Lady Eve


starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, and Eugene Pallette
written by: Preston Sturges and Monckton Hoffe
directed by: Preston Sturges
NR, 97 min, 1941, USA

Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), heir to the Pike's Ale fortune ("the Ale that won for Yale."[1]), has absolutely zero interest in brewing ale or beer or anything in between. In fact, he's an ophiologist returning from a year in the Amazon studying snakes because, well, that's what an ophiologist does. On the voyage from South America he meets Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father "Colonel" Harrington (Charles Coburn), who aren't so much rich socialites as they are con men and gamblers. In the midst of their scam, Jean falls in love with him, but after he proposes marriage his bodyguard discovers her identity and the engagement is off. Because revenge is sweet, she poses as an English lady and tricks him into falling in love with her all over again.

You wouldn't expect a script written by Preston Sturges while he waited for the finalization of his third divorce to have a positive or healthy view of love and marriage, and The Lady Eve doesn't disappoint. Charles Pike is no great romantic; he's no great anything, really. It's entirely possible he's good with snakes, but other than that, there's no real evidence that he's got a clue. He proposes to Jean on two different occasions and uses the exact same wording each time, even though he thinks he's proposing to different girls. He does bad card tricks, is an awful poker player, and views life as a dim-witted holier-than-thou fool. Accordingly, Fonda plays him as a bit of a bumbling idiot of the worst kind: he thinks himself intelligent and sophisticated, despite the fact that it takes him three changes of clothes just to get through a simple dinner. On the other hand, Jean is a street-wise hustler. In a clever scene, she deals her father a cold deck while giving Charles four Queens and a nine[2]. Her father then switches in four Kings, she switches it back on him, he switches in four Aces from his other pocket, and she finally trumps him by "accidentally" exposing the Ace she's conveniently kept on the top of the deck. Her father must then fold and claim he was bluffing. Charles, though, has no clue any of this is going on, he's so focused on his cards. That he doesn't realize they're con artists is odd, that he falls in love with her in the course of maybe two days is even odder. And when he discovers the truth, he doesn't give her an opportunity to explain what she was willing to give up for him. What sort of person proposes to someone he just met then discards her at the slightest bit of bad news? Can that be love?

Later, as an English Lady who looks suspiciously like a certain con artist, she marries him for revenge, then avoids sleeping with him on the wedding night by giving him her full "history of lovers". Suffice to say it's a lot for a upper-class lady of her standing. Charles is horrified, gets off the train, and refuses to speak to her, even to arrange a lawyer-free divorce. A man this stupid deserves to get conned, but somehow he ends up ahead. If he really were the card player he thinks himself to be, you'd do everything you could to play with him, because someone this delusional is just giving money away left and right. Even if he beats you, he'll feel bad and try to give it back.

[1] Back then it was commonplace for alcoholic beverages to win sporting events. In fact, Sam Adams Summer Ale won a national championship for Harvard.

[2] She's decided not to hustle the man she loves, which is a good thing to look for in a potential wife. He doesn't seem to realize the value of this virtue, hence the revenge later in the film.


johanna said...

fonda does it so well that for half the movie i thought he'd been badly cast

but then, i had never seen him in a romantic comedy before