The Lady Eve (1941)

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Its always wonderful to finally watch a legendary film, one that has its place in the pantheon of iconic cinema. Being the huge comedy fan I was, I was very much anticipating the experience of watching one of the greatest comedies of all time, and one of the first and finest examples of the romantic comedy. That film is, of course, The Lady Eve, an exercise in great restraint and remarkable humor, and while I have to say it doesn’t come close to reaching the highs of other screwball comedies of the period, it is still a fantastic film.

Screwball comedies were a genre that a select few could master. Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant were perhaps the greatest of all time. After seeing their work in Bringing Up Baby, I made the mistake of going into The Lady Eve expecting the same level of chemistry from Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck. I won’t deny that both Fonda and Stanwyck give absolutely marvelous performances, but together, they didn’t quite gel. Stanwyck and Fonda seemed to be in very different spaces, and that is my only complaint with the film. Don’t get me wrong, both Fonda and Stanwyck are brilliant, and Stanwyck particularly is an absolute delight. They also have better chemistry than any couple from a modern romantic comedy, and maybe I am just being hard on them, and maybe another rewatch or two will lessen my concerns in this aspect, but for now, I just felt myself wanting more from the two of them, and its actually a little sad that Stanwyck, who had such an effervescent and magnetic personality in this film, had to struggle to form a truly unbreakable connection with Fonda, but once again, that’s a very thin and weak complaint about this great film.

The Lady Eve has so much charm compacted into its dreadfully short running time, and the story itself is unlike anything seen before or since. Anyone who complains that cinema is notoriously patriarchal and male-centric would be strongly advised to look at The Lady Eve. This is one of the rare romantic comedies where the main female character is strong, powerful and has free will, and most of all doesn’t depend on love to get her happiness. Instead, it is Henry Fonda who is the objectified romantic interest, and playing Charles Pike, the very naïve and very innocent heir to a fortune, you can’t help feeling sorry for his constant falls at the hands of Stanwyck’s Jean Harrington and her cunning plans to procure money for her and her father, played by Charles Coburn in a sadly underrated performance. This film also has a fantastic sense of progression – for 1941, it is remarkably ahead of its time, and it flirts with various concepts that even romantic comedies today don’t get right – concepts like flirtation, adultery and at times, obsession (but not the Misery kind of obsession…could we call this “good obsession”?).

As much of a cinema icon Henry Fonda is (and he brought two more cinema icons into the world as well), this film deservedly belongs to the beautiful and talented Barbara Stanwyck, who is so charming and unbelievably talented, and her comic timing makes it hard to believe that this was her first hit comedy film, and that she was primarily known as a dramatic actress, best remembered (at the time) for her femme fatale roles in a series of dramatic thrillers and romantic dramas. This is a star-making turn for any actress, and one that any contemporary actress wants to enter her stakes into mainstream cinema. However, a role like this only comes around once in a lifetime, and while many successful actresses have had remarkable breakthroughs, none of them will ever reach the heights that Stanwyck was able to do here, and that’s perfectly fine. There will never be another Jean Harrington, and I personally wouldn’t want there to be one either. This is Stanwyck’s film, and while Fonda is equally as excellent, Stanwyck blows him out of the water throughout the film.

Another aspect of this film I noticed about (I won’t say that this is a criticism per se, but instead an observation) was that throughout the film, it had no idea what it wanted to be. At times it was a broad screwball comedy. At other moments it was a daring romantic comedy. There were even some moments that made it seem like it was trying to be quite dramatic. Of course, I am unfavorably comparing this to the greatest comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot, which is a laugh-a-minute fare. The shift in genre here threw me off quite a bit, but once again, that isn’t in any way a complaint, but actually borders on praise. Such a simple story being portrayed across multiple genres, and constantly being elegant, funny and of the highest quality is something very difficult to achieve, and it takes a true master of both filmmaking and capturing the human sprit, which Preston Sturges does here with extraordinary gusto and brilliance.

I really loved The Lady Eve. It was a fantastic film. However, I didn’t find myself loving it as much as I should have. Sure, it was funny and classy, and the leads were fantastic. The script was sparkling and the precision filmmaking here is unfounded. Yet I just didn’t love it as much as I was supposed to. That isn’t to say it was a bad film – quite the contrary, it is an excellent film, and deserves its place as an iconic piece of cinema, and it will most certainly grow on me as time goes on, and I will definitely be visiting it again soon. My advice is not to go in with high expectations, because you might be disappointed. However, if you are expecting a funny, elegant and good-natured film classic, this is the way to go for sure, unless Some Like It Hot is available (then watch Some Like It Hot instead). The Lady Eve is a fantastic and very quirky little film and one I truly did enjoy, but not as much as I was hoping to. But let’s see how time changes my mind, shall we?

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