Usually, when Alex joins me in a film, we have a lively discussion after. This time, his commentary was more pithy – about halfway through The Lady Eve, Alex blurted out, “….this movie is so dumb.”
The thing is, he didn’t mean it as an insult. And I agreed.
The Lady Eve is a screwball comedy starring two people better known for dramatic roles (Barbara Stanwyck, who we last saw from Stella Dallas, and Henry Fonda, late of Grapes of Wrath). Fonda is Charles Pike, the heir to a millionaire brewer who is instead pursuing a career in ophidiology (the study of snakes); he’s just wrapped up a year in the Amazon assisting one of his professors, and is bringing a live specimen home via steamship. Stanwyck is Jean Harrington, part of a father-daughter team of con artists who’ve been hopping from steamer to steamer roping people into card games and fleecing them before they hit the next dock. They first see Pike in the ship’s dining cabin – ignoring all the other women making eyes at him as he reads a book about snakes – and peg him as an easy mark; Harrington can try turning on the charm and romancing him a little, persuading him to a friendly card game with her and her dear old dad. So what if he is oblivious to the point that Jean literally has to trip him to get his attention. She then accuses him of breaking the heel on her shoe, and hhe’s such a decent chap that he offers to escort her back to her cabin to change shoes, and is soon falling sway to her feminine wiles. Harrington has him right where she wants him. Except – he’s such a decent guy that now she’s not sure she wants to go through with the con, and actually tries to double-cross her own father to spare Pike.
But then right before they dock back in the USA – right when Jean is about to confess her feelings – Pike discovers evidence of her criminal past, and angry breaks up with her. Stung, Jean persuades her father to join her in a second, different con against Pike – and this time, it’s for revenge.
Fonda manages to play Pike as somehow both intelligent and stupid; he’s a student of biology who can’t even pick up that the woman turning up at his house and calling herself “The Lady Eve Sidwich” is actually Jean Harrington, even though she’s made no effort to disguise herself aside from affecting an accent. He’s a fuddy-duddy who gets the vapors when “Eve” relates a long list of past lovers she’s had, but is easily swept off his feet simply by Jean showing a bit of leg. Surprisingly, Fonda’s salt-of-the-earth earnestness serves him here, as it did in Grapes of Wrath – he oozes “decent upright citizen” all throughout, the kind of trusting soul who takes everyone at their word and believes in decency and fair play. Exactly the kind of person who’d be taken in by such a pair of cons.
As for Stanwyck, she’s having a blast – she gets to play two characters, both of them the smartest people in the room by far, and one of them a juicy femme fatale. There’s an extended sequence when Jean is in her cabin with Pike, having a conversation, and she begins playing with his hair while she speaks. An enraptured Pike sits enchantedfor a full three minutes while Jean strokes and caresses and runs her fingers through his hair, talking away about something perfectly inconsequential – because she knows that Pike isn’t listening to her anyway, and that’s the point. (Incidentally, an earlier draft of the script implied the two went on to hook up in Jean’s cabin; but the Hays Board put a stop to that.)
This movie is ridiculous. But not unpleasantly so – even as you’re rolling your eyes at Pike’s naïveté or over some of the sight gags (Fonda has five pratfalls in a single scene), you’re also chuckling at Jean’s wit. Actor William Demarest has a small role as Pike’s valet and self-appointed protector, and a recurring gag sees him going to greater and greater lengths to convince Pike that “the Lady Eve” is not who she seems. There’s a completely pointless gag involving a horse that nevertheless had me giggling. This film is dumb, but in the way that some big cuddly dogs are a little endearingly dumb and you end up fond of them in spite of yourself.