The Lady Eve (1941 USA 90mins)

Source: ACMI/NLA Prod Co: Paramount Prod: Paul Jones Dir, Scr: Preson Sturges Phot: Victor Milner Ed: Stuart Gilmore Art Dir: Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegte Mus Dir: Sigmund Krumgold

Cast: Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest, Eric Blore

Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve was released the same year as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, 1941, and I’ve always felt that a kinship exists between the two films if one looks beyond their fundamentally different intents and achievements. To be sure, those differences are dramatic and inherent. Citizen Kane is intensely visual; The Lady Eve is fundamentally dialogue driven. The stylistic glitz of Kane stands in stark contrast to the simplicity and straightforwardness of the compositional and editorial style Sturges chose for Eve. Kane attempted to tell a story in a manner that film stories really hadn’t been told in before; Eve didn’t have any such aspirations to innovation, at least in terms of how the plot was delivered.

And yet, the impulse to draw comparisons between these two works persists for me, perhaps because they both stand in such a similar place in their directors’ respective careers. Both films were directed by ‘boy geniuses,’ despite the 20-year age difference between Welles (who was 25 when he made Kane) and Sturges (43), who, after a brief flash of glory, supposedly burnt out. While Welles’ moment in the sun is generally restricted to Kane, Sturges is permitted the extraordinary run of films he made from 1940 to 1944 – The Great McGinty (1940); Christmas in July (1940); The Lady Eve; Sullivan’s Travels (1941); The Palm Beach Story (1942); The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944); Hail the Conquering Hero (1944); The Great Moment (1944) – to constitute his heyday.

Many assume Sturges’ career simply ends there. And just as many would prefer to ignore or feign forgetfulness over The Great Moment, an utterly personal and idiosyncratic ‘serious’ work about William Morton, who discovered ether anaesthesia. Its artistic failure apparently made it impossible for Sturges to direct another straight ‘drama’ (as a point of contemporary reference, imagine how depleted the oeuvre of Woody Allen would be – and our sense of what he is capable of – had he been denied the opportunity to make Another Woman [1988] or Crimes and Misdemeanors [1989]). Sturges struggled to find ways to make films even after he had gone out of fashion in Hollywood.

Indeed, his manic comedy reached an apogee in Unfaithfully Yours (1948), a film of staggering purity. It was as if Sturges had peeled away everything to reach the delirious heart of his comic vision of the world. And yet, Sturges’ films after Unfaithfully Yours are few because it’s a virtual truism that fashion and economics dictate the choices Hollywood makes more than talent or ambition. That film was made for Fox and he made another for the studio in 1949, The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend. He had a partnership with Howard Hughes for a time which netted a single picture, Mad Wednesday (1950); the picture was re-cut by Hughes and today circulates in several different versions. Sturges would make only one more film, in Europe, five years later: 1955’s The French They are a Funny Race.

While he apparently had greater creative freedom on this film than his previous two, it is almost completely unavailable in the United States – I’ve never seen it and I’ve yet to meet anyone who has – a fact which constitutes an almost blasphemous insult to a great artist. Because of this, there’s no way of knowing for many of us what sort of direction Sturges’ career had taken by that point. And since he never again enjoyed the sort of freedom which allowed him to produce eight pictures in four years, there is no way of knowing which route his cinema would have taken had his production circumstances not been altered.

It is here that Sturges begins to diverge from Welles most profoundly. While Welles continued to make films (albeit often under duress) and deepen as an artist – even if most people don’t care to seek these works out – all we have to judge Sturges by are his early films and an uneven, though suggestive smattering of late works. Because of this, the films Sturges did make feel like mere surveys of his vast creative imagination; indications, not fulfillments, of all he was capable of. We will never know if the New Hollywood of the 1970s – so reverential of the masters of Hollywood’s Golden Age – would have been able to find him work (as they did not for Welles); Sturges died at the age of 61 in 1959, working on an autobiography of his storied, patrician life.

And yet, despite the glorious marvels Welles would go on to direct late in life and despite the sense that we’ve been deprived of witnessing Sturges’ full maturation as an artist, we return to The Lady Eve just as we return to Kane. There is the temptation to underrate these works because they are so well-loved, but such contrarian impulses don’t do anybody any good. While stressing the importance of a full view of these artists’ careers, the following are some notes on the many wonders of The Lady Eve:

1. The film is certainly one of the finest screwball comedies ever made, existing, as some have observed, in a sort of medium ground between the unadulterated slapstick chaos of Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) and the more human-based aesthetic of Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937). To put it another way: Sturges clearly loves his characters, but that doesn’t prevent him from subjecting them to comic mayhem.

2. As much as Hawks’ screwball comedies, The Lady Eve is a virtual embodiment of some of the precepts of the feminist movement. Barbara Stanwyck’s devious card shark Jean Harrington easily outwits her bumbling target, ale fortune heir Charles Pike (played by Henry Fonda), reflecting the screwball comedy’s everlasting insight that women catch on faster than men. That Harrington quite unexpectedly falls for Pike in the process of conning him isn’t a betrayal of feminist precepts, but an affirmation of the form’s enduring sagaciousness with respect to gender and sex: women, the form rightly tells us, are the pursuers of love as much as they are the pursued.

3. This film was made in an age when ‘serious’ actors were permitted to undermine the personas they cultivated in their dramatic work, as Henry Fonda (just two years after his practically mythic performance in John Ford’s masterpiece Young Mr. Lincoln) does here. His characteristic virtuousness is only a step away from Pike’s relative cluelessness; in fact, I think The Lady Eve suggests the two qualities are hopelessly intertwined.

4. The film was released in the same year as Sullivan’s Travels?! Unbelievable. Unexplainable. Inspiring.

About The Author

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. His work has appeared in Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, and many other publications.