Director: Preston Sturges
USA 1941, 93 min, Digital U
The Lady Eve Plays at BFI Southbank until 17 February. Also available on player.bfi.org.uk
The Coen Brothers' latest manic comedy caper, Hail, Caesar!, is about to hit UK cinemas, and with it will inevitably come the comparisons between the work of the brothers and that of their acknowledged idol from decades' past: director Preston Sturges. With many of his films sitting permanently in several 'greatest of all time' categories (four of his seven 1940s hits – The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek – made the Writers’ Guild of America’s 101 Funniest Screenplays poll last year) Sturges’ is considered one of the masters of the screwball comedy genre, easily juggling witty repartee, laugh-out-loud slapstick, and a good bit of poleaxing of social mores. Conveniently coinciding with the release of the latest Coen film is the BFI's month-long tribute to Sturges this February, and viewers not sure where to start with the director are heartily advised to check out the much-admired The Lady Eve.
If you are only used to seeing Henry Fonda in his traditional film roles as a modest, apple pie hero, his turn as the lead in The Lady Eve might surprise you. Here he is literally a doofus: one Charles ‘Hopsie’ Pike, a bumbling biologist and snake expert who also happens to be heir to an ale fortune built up by his even more eccentric (and gastronomically-enthused) father. When he is not hunting down snakes, one of whom we see he has decided to keep as a pet called Emma (complete with its own cushioned travel box) after picking her up on a previous expedition, he is typically falling over his own feet, or avoiding the legions of hungry female gold-diggers desperate to get at his trust fund.
Fonda is a lot of fun as the hapless-but-minted rube, and gets to have a good go at a lot of physical comedy: about half his screen time is spent pratfalling and getting covered in spilled condiments. But the film is really stolen by a firecracker of a turn from Barbara Stanwyck as the sultry, wisecracking con artist Jean. Jean sets her sights on conning Charles out of his fortune by getting him to fall for her and wed her, so she can ruthlessly poison the marriage until the expensive divorce. It is all part of a long-in-the-making plan she and her co-conspirator father Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn) have thought up: their career path being that of the itinerant crook, albeit ones who aim for marks who can get them access to the finer things in life.
Jean's ruse comes undone just a tad when she genuinely falls for the guileless Charles after catching his eye during a boat cruise, and he also falls for her because she seems to be literally the only woman there who seems disinterested in his fortune: a result of the cunning Jean knowing exactly how to play him. But when Charles finds out about her past, he rebuffs her, leading a hurt Jean to plan another brazen caper to get revenge on him, with even more crazy results. Jean and Charles's madcap relationship arc zips along at breakneck pace, and is peppered with cracking dialogue, stylish settings (much of the action takes place on both a luxury cruise ship and a sleeper train), and some side-splitting set pieces (witness the over-eager horse keen to butt in on Charles's parade during his already-awkward wooing speech, a superbly staged sequence). Sturges even gets to fool around with the traditional romantic Hollywood ending.