Between 1940 and 1944, Preston Sturges made perhaps the most remarkable string of comedies to ever flow from a single mind in the history of Hollywood. That the seven films he made during those years are all literate, zany, witty, madcap, intelligent, and even a bit risqué makes the achievement all the more remarkable. In the middle sits The Lady Eve, perhaps the best of the lot and one of the high points of the romantic comedy genre. Sturges’ comedy consists not only verbal sparring (which he excels at), but wordplay, innuendo, farce, pratfalls, sight gags, and the kind of plotting that is so intricately funny it comes across as spontaneous. In other words, he was not only one of the great comic screenwriters (a reputation which has never been in doubt), but also one of the great comic directors, a fact which has been perhaps overlooked due to the wit of his scenarios.
In The Lady Eve, cardsharp and con-woman Barbara Stanwyck sticks out her leg and Henry Fonda who plays a scientist that knows more about snakes than women (loosely veiled Freudianism?) keeps tripping over it. He’s heir to a brewing fortune (“The ale that won for Yale”), but has spent the last year in the Amazon studying snakes and now finds himself on a ship with Stanwyck and her charmingly crooked father pretending to be an oil baron in order to fleece the naive Fonda in a few well calculated card games. But, as often happens in such comedies, she falls for him.
Often lost amongst Sturges’ undeniable comic genius is the little reported upon moral dimension which holds the film together. In this case, when Fonda discovers the truth about Stanwyck’s less-than-reputable occupation, he reacts with a kind of moralism common to the insulated rich and calls off their engagement. She is enraged by his lack of understanding and forgiveness and spends the entire second half of the movie in an elaborate scheme to teach him a lesson. Here’s where it gets tricky: in less sturdy hands, this material could easily turn bitter and spiteful, yet Sturges never allows that kind of motivation to direct her actions. Hers is a mission of moral refinement (for him), and not one of vengeance; so the inevitable conclusion becomes immensely satisfying both dramatically and comically.