The Lady Eve is a social charmer, a seductress, and a grifter. She’s never painted as being sinister or of ill repute, however. On the contrary, she’s insatiably affable, lovely, classy, and intelligent. We want to be her. Or we want to be with her, wrapped around her little finger. We identify with her in soul and spirit, even when she’s cruel. Jean Harrington, the protagonist (vivaciously brought to life by the perfectly cast Barbara Stanwyck) of Preston Sturges’ classic 1941 comedy The Lady Eve, provides a valuable feminist figure, a kind that was allowed to flourish onscreen for a brief moment or two in the 1930s-’40s heyday of the screwball comedy. But what distinguishes Jean from other intelligent female leads with agency of that time was that her character literally dictates the narrative.
From the moment Jean spots a new passenger getting on her cruise ship—Charles (Henry Fonda), the rich, clueless heir to a beer company who prefers studying snakes in the Amazon to socializing—she snaps into action with her con-artist team, consisting of her father, “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn) and his valet/partner-in-crime, Gerald (Melville Cooper). All three, especially the Colonel, are excellent card cheats, and their extravagant lifestyles have been well financed by the gullible nature of rich socialites who can’t turn down a game of poker. Any other film would show the Colonel as being the helm of this team, the natural patriarch passing down his skills to his daughter. But this is no ordinary film, Sturges is no ordinary director, and Stanwyck is no ordinary actress. Indeed, Jean turns out to be arguably better than the Colonel at their craft—not because of specific gender rules that, for example, allow her to seduce men, but because she already knows Daddy’s bag of tricks and how to circumvent them when need be. Her preternatural ability to predict human behavior makes her a master manipulator, whether in conversation or observing from afar.
Demonstrating her talent, wit, and ability to predict what’s going to happen in an unforgettable early scene set in the cruise-ship dining hall, we first see Jean holding a compact mirror. One might initially read this shot as indicating that she’s just like all the other girls on the ship—rich and vain, looking for some devious way to make conversation with the much-talked-about rich heir. But, more cleverly, Jean is actually spying with that mirror, mockingly narrating the gold diggers’ conversations from afar, and predicting with precision when and how they will fall. Then, effortlessly, she gets Charles all to herself in one fell swoop, by sticking out her foot as he walks by, creating what would in any other romantic comedy be deemed the innocent meet-cute moment.
From there, it’s only a matter of time before Jean’s charm does its magic on Charles and he falls helplessly in love with her. The catch, of course, is that Jean also falls for him. It’s a fascinating conundrum for such a cool, calculating con artist extraordinaire. But unlike her father (who is single, as far as we can tell—no mother is ever mentioned), Jean is allowed to have feelings and act on them. A female con artist is not a trope we see that often; a con artist falling in love is even rarer. This human infallibility endears us to Jean early on, ensuring that we stay on her side when the blooming romance between the cruisers wilts. When the moment of truth arrives for Charles, whose suspicious bodyguard Muggsy (William Demarest) exposes the team’s criminal activities, the hurt heir arrogantly tries to save face by pretending to have known Jean was fooling him the entire time. Naturally, this crushes the love-torn Jean…but then she conceives and enacts a masterful revenge plan: gain acceptance from Charles’ family while posing as a British high-pedigree socialite. It’s more successful than she could have ever dreamed, for Jean even manages to fool Charles, transfixed by her beauty, charm and resemblance to the woman he once loved.
Sturges’ penchant for transforming plot turns into deliciously frothy moments of comedic irony, while also playing with convention and stereotype to reveal their contradictions, is fully present in The Lady Eve, just one of many films in his four-year writing-directing blaze of the early 1940s, in which he churned out a career’s worth of gems like Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story and Christmas in July. Jean’s vengeful alter ego, the “Lady Eve of Sidwich,” swimmingly enchants Charles’ family, but despite their social status, the mansion entourage of family members, friends, and comically perplexed servant staff resembles more a circus than sophisticated high society. The rich, as Sturges presents them, are no less susceptible to being childish or gauche, as also demonstrated in the hilarious introductory scene of Charles’ cartoonish father, Horace Pike (Eugene Pallette), boisterously demanding his breakfast from anyone who walks by.
Perhaps Sturges’ most incisive—not to mention unwittingly feminist—plot turn comes with one twist at the end that finds the Lady Eve confessing to her new husband her long sexual history, news that makes Charles so enraged with jealousy he finally leaves her on their honeymoon. In the 1940s, such un-ladylike behavior might have been pooh-poohed in public, but the groom’s abhorrent reaction is more disdainful by comparison (today, Charles’ outrage is considered even less acceptable in relation to how we perceive a woman’s right to be sexual), and Sturges makes sure Charles suffers from his stubborn insistence to take the high road every time he’s deceived by the more-intelligent Jean—not only figuratively, but literally, too, for Charles bangs his head against things, trips and falls, and dirties his clothes multiple times throughout the film. We can’t help but laugh at his misfortune, but nor is he presented as such an utter tool as to be below Jean’s standards. Such even-handed character nuances point to why comedies like The Lady Eve continue to endure. Sturges understood that screwball comedies work best when they enact the kinds of capricious and ambitious desires we all identify with, but typically choose not to act out in real life, for fear of being rash: head-over-heels love, shotgun marriages, hasty gambling bets, extravagant spending, and so on. Entangled with unpredictable emotional developments, these stories can become more believable than some ostensibly realistic dramas, grounding even the most fantastical premises—like a brilliant fleecer falling hopelessly in love—in an astute understanding of human behavior.