I never know what to make of Preston Sturges. Wildly successful as a writer-director back in the 1940s, Sturges made a number of classic screwball comedies and is still considered one of America’s great film directors. Everyone is supposed to love Sturges, and I just don’t get him.
When I saw The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek — a ribald middle finger to the puritanical Hayes Code — I sat dumbly through the pratfalls and outrageous antics. I considered Sullivan’s Travels — Sturges’ light-footed justification of his preference for comedies over “important” films — to be scattered and overlong. And now The Lady Eve, his absurdist take on the battle of the sexes, just alienated me. I didn’t laugh much and spent the majority of the movie with my brow furrowed, trying to figure out how I was supposed to feel about what was happening on screen.
In The Lady Eve, Barbara Stanwyck plays Jean, a card sharp who falls hard for her mark Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), a snake enthusiast whose wealth is matched only by his naiveté. When Charles learns of Jean’s dubious methods of making money, he dumps her. Hurt and vengeful, she brazenly reinvents herself as Lady Eve, a visiting member of the British aristocracy, and sets about to seduce and dump him.
Sturges packs his screenplay with allusions to the biblical story of the fall of man. Jean calls herself Eve, Charles travels with his beloved snakes, and Jean twice falls for Charles’ queasily romantic pickup line about how he imagines that they have always been together, holding hands as children a long time ago in a garden far, far away. But the Eden references don’t really go anywhere; they just add drops of sophistication to a ludicrous battle-of-the-sexes plot that otherwise would have been punctuated only by Fonda repeatedly falling on his ass.
Physical comedy can be funny, of course, but for Sturges, too much is never enough. Fonda endures countless pratfalls, but even when none of the characters are auditioning for America’s Funniest Home Videos, the comedy veers toward lame physical gags. Take the famous scene in which Jean beguiles Charles by pressing her cheek against his and aggressively tousling his hair along with his ear lobes, eyebrows, lips and everything else on his head. The scene goes on and on, and Charles practically faints in paralyzed ecstasy, and I just crinkle my nose. Is this supposed to be sexy? Or funny? Or both? Because I don’t see it. Jean is pawing Charles’ head like an over-attentive baboon. It’s not appealing or amusing; it’s kind of creepy.
Also creepy is Jean’s revenge plan: to get the guy to fall in love with her and marry her and then to disgust him by revealing her supposedly extensive sexual history on their honeymoon. I know it’s not fair to judge this kind of scheme by contemporary standards, but when I try to look at it through 1940s eyes, it still seems perverse. And as if the surprise!-I’m-not-a-virgin ploy isn’t creepy enough, Sturges’ failure to truly resolve it makes the film’s conclusion feel all the more contrived and twisted.
Much of Sturges’ humor depends on the unworldly idiocy of one of his main characters, and frankly, that’s rather cheap. Compare The Lady Eve to Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, a risqué comedy released nearly a decade earlier. All three main characters in the love triangle in Paradise are clever and perceptive, which makes the humor much sharper and sexier than anything I’ve seen from Sturges.
To be fair, a few scenes in The Lady Eve delighted me. In one, Jean cheats at cards to keep her father from cheating Charles, who is blithely oblivious to all the intrigue. In another, we watch Charles through Jean’s eyes as she mocks attempts by lesser women to draw his attention. In fact, Jean is a wonderful character: witty and sensuous and far too good for an empty suit like Charles. Maybe I would have enjoyed the movie more if it were all about Eve and not about that dopey bore of an Adam.