The Lady Eve on DVD
Preston Sturges was Hollywood's wunderkind in the early 1940s, but his work—especially Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, and The Lady Eve—is just as resonant and enjoyable today. Even the jaded and the cynical will not be able to resist the sophisticated, witty screwball comedies that Sturges wrote and directed; they're unpretentious and unassuming, willing to admit to no redeeming value other than inciting laughter.
Sturges, whose dilettantish, bohemian background is said to have influenced his worldview, concocted universes of whimsy in which eccentrics ruled the day and optimism always had the last word. The Lady Eve is no exception. It tells the story of brewery heir Charlie "Hopsie" Pike (Henry Fonda), who returns home on an ocean liner after years of pursuing "nothing but reptiles" in the Amazon. His good looks and wealth drive the females on board crazy, but the hopelessly naïve Charlie falls for the unapologetically exuberant con artist Jean (Barbara Stanwyck), who lures suckers to card games in which her "dad," "Colonel" Harrington (Charles Coburn), and his valet, Gerald (Melville Cooper), take them to the cleaners.
Jean, who knows how to "bump a fellow down, then bounce him up again," dazzles Charlie while unwittingly falling for him. She teases him mercilessly but admits her own vulnerability (her romantic nature), and warns him about the ill intent of people he "doesn't know well." After he proposes to her, he discovers the whole truth before she can tell him herself. Devastated, he bails out. Her pride hurt, Jean returns to haunt Charlie in his hometown, disguised as the British-born "Lady Eve."
Sturges' comedy veers between verbal wit and pratfalls, between high and low humor—hence its staying power. Jean comments on her surroundings with breathless enthusiasm, offering hysterically funny insights about people and their behavior. Her rapier wit slashes back and forth across the screen like so many duelists in action. But Jean's not above tripping her would-be lover in front of a big audience, then chastising him for the offense. The battle of the sexes has never seemed merrier.
Sturges didn't think of himself as a social critic, but The Lady Eve points out the differences between the amiable grifters and their self-styled code of honor, and the filthy rich with their snooty attitudes and rude behavior. Charlie can afford to be an innocent; Jean and her associates must be savvy to survive. But no one here is vicious—when he finds out how she feels, the Colonel agrees to lay off Charlie.
The Criterion Collection has done a smashing job with this new digital transfer, created from a 35mm duplicate negative and a sweetened soundtrack. The RSDL dual-layer edition yields a sharp, crisp black-and-white image, and the Dolby Digital mono sound is crystal clear. The focus never falters.
The Lady Eve appears on many ten-best lists, and was cited by the New York Times as the best film of 1941, ahead of Citizen Kane. I won't go that far, but this is still topnotch entertainment. Highly recommended.