The Lady Eve (1941) Written and Directed by Preston Sturges. Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest.When the American Film Institute published a list of the 100 Greatest Films, a most outrageous omission was the films of Preston Sturges. He was the first screenwriter to direct his own scripts. The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero spilled out in a manic burst of energy between 1940-44. His fiercely literate comedy films have a love for slapstick, but also zingy dialogue.The Lady Eve may seem like a classic screwball comedy, but Sturges combines the gaiety of the 1930s romantic comedy heroine with the 1940s predator heroine in Stanwyck's cardsharp, Jean Harrington. Her malicious exuberance and alluring wardrobe take advantage of Fonda's naive ophiologist (snake expert) Hopsie Pike.
The Lady Eve is a fizzy mix of the Garden of Eden, Freud, and screwball comedy. Screwball comedy has been described as sex comedies without the sex. This Depression-era genre thrived because Production Code that was enforced starting in 1934 eliminated all racy language, saucy behavior, double beds, actresses in scanty lingerie and so on from films. The poor were often portrayed as virtuous and the rich unhappy in screwball comedy, and luck made anything possible, particularly where love was concerned.Sturges brought much of his own unconventional experience to his screenplays. His mother, born Mary Dempsey, recreated herself as Mary Desti, an imaginary part of an aristocratic Italian family. One of her several husbands, the man he considered his father, Solomon Sturges, was a prosperous Chicago stockbroker. Sturges spent much of his youth being shipped between the proper, tailored suit world of his father, and the Grecian-robed Bohemia of his mother, Isadora Duncan's best friend, and various European boarding schools. Mme. Desti supported herself intermittently with a cosmetics firm Maison Desti, whose best-selling product was a youth creme called "Secret of the Harem." Sturges created for Maison Desti a kiss-proof lipstick, Red Red Rouge. Another of her business ventures was batiked scarves, and a long, red fringed one she gave as a gift to her friend Isadora, and caused her death, when the fringes caught in the wheels of her open automobile. As a teenager, Sturges assumed Maison Desti would be his career, although he dabbled in others. He was an amateur inventor with a patent on a diesel engine and later ran a popular restaurant in Hollywood, The Players. As he grew older, the financial disparity between his two worlds narrowed, but the philosophies remained opposed: art and commerce, spontaneity and routine, Bohemia and Main St.
Play writing arrived accidentally, as did many things to the dilettantish Sturges, but his 2nd play Strictly Dishonorable was the big comedy hit of 1929. Separated from his second wife, Post cereal heiress Eleanor Hutton, (who had given him a glimpse into the lives of the fabulously wealthy) Sturges was lured to Hollywood. He wrote many freelance screenplays during the 30s, primarily comedies, but also a drama, The Power and the Glory that many (including Orson Welles) considered a blueprint for Citizen Kane.
But, he realized the director was the boss on a movie set, and longed to direct his own screenplays. Paramount studios was the most accommodating to creative spirits in the team-oriented studio era, and they bought a screenplay that became the Oscar- winning The Great McGinty, for $1.00 and the promise Sturges could direct it.
For The Lady Eve he got a big budget and big stars. He wrote part of himself into the character of the timid heir, Hopsie Pike, and part into Jean Harrington and her father, who live by their wit and style, much as Preston and his mother had. He had lived the life of the rich enough to know how these good sons behaved, and had spent enough of his life scrambling up and down the social ladder to know how that was done, too. This film is Sturges' most inventive autobiography.
Two incidents were directly from his own life. One, the divorce scene mirrored Sturges divorce from his 2nd wife, Eleanor Hutton. The second involves Hopsie Pike's inability to recognize Jean when she is disguised as Lady Eve. While honeymooning with Eleanor in Conn., Sturges answered the door to a strange young woman. She asked, "And, how are YOU, Preston." She was his first wife, Estelle. He wasn't in love with her anymore, so he didn't recognize her.
Sturges had promised Barbara Stanwyck that he would someday write a comedy for her. She had become a great star of the women's films disparagingly called "weepies" many directed by Frank Capra. Just before The Lady Eve Stanwyck had starred in Meet John Doe for Capra, and while Capra's set was like "a cathedral" The Lady Eve set was more like "a carnival." The morning Sturges shot Stanwyck's bedroom scene, he wore a bathrobe, to get in the mood. In the scene where Fonda, seated at Stanwyck's feet, grimaces with repressed desire as she caresses his hair, Stanwyck burst out laughing, over and over again. Sturges used her hilarity, patiently stopping the camera when she laughed, and starting where he'd left off, from a slightly different angle. The editor pieced 30 takes into one of the film's best sequences.
She also had her first glamorous wardrobe, designed by Edith Head. Paramount gave her 25 costumes the full publicity treatment, turning Stanwyck into an instant trend setter.Henry Fonda, was of course, also a stranger to comedies. Sturges insisted he do all his own hazardous pratfalls, which he weathered without a scratch. The last day of filming, he left the stage to answer a telephone, fell and sprained his wrist. William Demarest, playing Fonda's keeper, Muggsy, is the most prominent of the stage actors, bit players, and silent film survivors Sturges used as a stock company in all of his Paramount films.
Sturges idiosyncratic comedy universe remains unique. The Lady Eve's dizzy sparkle is an enticing invitation inside.
(Photo of Isadora Duncan inspired dancers in Portland, Oregon, c. 1920. Miss Alma L. Wertley, 4th from left, was a dancer in The Ziegfield Follies and other Broadway shows. Stanwyck photos from anonymous movie star scrapbook, c. 1941. Stanwyck in costume as Lady Eve from Hollywood Costume Design by David Chierichetti. Those hankering after a science fiction version of The Lady Eve might wish to read the witty Corrupting Dr. Nice by John Kessel)