The Lady Eve

It's not for nothing that Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve opens with an animated title sequence in which a leering serpent winds across the screen, because Barbara Stanwyck, who spends the first half of the film as the card sharp Jean Harrington and the second half as the British noblewoman Lady Eve Sidwich, is a sly, sexy, serpent-like incarnation of the woman as a temptress and a conniver. She's a con woman of the first degree, a seasoned hand at luring men to their financial doom, usually at the hands of her con man father the "Colonel" (Charles Coburn) and his wily valet Gerald (Melville Cooper). So when she meets the inheritor of an ale fortune, the reptile scientist Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), she immediately sets out to snare him the same way she's snared so many other men. She sets a trap, gets his interest, snuggles up to him and not so subtly seduces him. She oozes sex: in one scene, she cuddles up to the helpless Charles, speaking to him with her cheek pressed against his and her lips moving just inches from his, constantly threatening to kiss him but never quite doing it. It's steamy, and so disarming that the audience is seduced right along with Charles, which is part of the film's charm. Sturges has concocted such an irresistible con woman — and embodied her, wisely, in the slinky toughness of Stanwyck — that one is constantly rooting for her to succeed, to get the hapless and, at times, brainless Charles in her clutches, to do with as she pleases. That she predictably falls in love with the guy and winds up wanting him for more than his money is expected but almost incidental to the plot. Whether she's looking for love or squeezing another con, we're rooting for her to get her man.

The implicit undercurrent of the film, in these scenes of wooing and seduction, is that love is a con like any other. At one point, Jean gives Charles a speech about how cleverly women must win over men; she's talking about love, about the ways in which women use their feminine powers to subtly ingratiate men to them, but she might as well be talking about her con jobs and plots. It's all the same, and the methods she uses to get the guy she wants to fall in love with her overlap conspicuously with the methods she would use to cheat him out of his cash. In one of her more candid moments, Jean admits, "a moonlit deck is a woman's business office." Sturges has a lot of fun with this basic conceit, turning games of love into games of trickery and deceit, games of lies and truths, with the increasingly floundering Charles obviously in over his head, whether he's being swindled out of money or tricked into love. The name Eve, which Jean takes on as her alias, is particularly well chosen, because in this film the woman has all the power, the woman is in control, the woman guides the man into folly and then, if she chooses, back out again.

Fonda gamely plays along with these shenanigans, tripping into one bit of horseplay after another. He eventually figures out that Jean, who he wants to marry, is not an oil man's daughter but a notorious swindler and card cheat, and he's crushed. But when she shows up again, in the second half of the film, as the Lady Eve, niece of a nearby British nobleman, he incredibly doesn't believe it's the same woman; he falls for her disguise completely after some initial doubts. At first, this seems like an unforgivable contrivance, a stretch even by this film's standards of masculine stupidity. But the longer the gag plays out, the better it gets, and the more believable. It's as though Charles wants to be deceived, wants to be conned, because more than anything what he wants is Jean, or Eve, or whatever she's calling herself, and if he has to be blindsided to get her, then he'll clear his brain and fall for any lame scheme she cooks up, just so he can be in her clutches again.

It's all totally delightful, particularly when, predictably, he falls hard for Eve and asks her to marry him — and the same scene from earlier plays out again, with him delivering the same corny lines, the same poetic visions, as though he'd rehearsed this speech over and over again for whoever he was going to marry. This time around, she fills in some of the lines for him, knowing this bit pretty well by now, and Sturges turns the scene into even more of a farce by having a horse continually interrupt the expressions of love by nuzzling Charles' head, thrusting its big head into the frame, looming over the two lovebirds below. It's brilliantly staged, a would-be romantic scene that's utterly undermined both by the fact that this is the second time it's played out within a half hour of screen time, and by the horse's insistence on butting into the frame, ruining the glorious romantic shot of the lovers framed against a dramatic sunset. Sturges takes the usual romantic imagery and completely subverts it, mocking the whole idea of a grand and pure romantic love: his characters eventually do find love, but only through a maze of misunderstandings, misidentifications, lies and schemes.

Sturges' sense of comic timing, his visual and verbal wit, is impeccable throughout, and the script is teeming with sharp lines and quick turns of phrase. When Charles tells Jean she has a "nose" for cards, she asks him if there are any other parts of her he likes, a neatly suggestive line that only gets better when his flustered reaction prompts her to say, "Relax, I was only flirting with you." This guy's such a dolt he doesn't even recognize flirtation, and in the second half of the film he's subjected to a ludicrous series of pratfalls and mishaps, especially at a party where he's distracted by Eve's uncanny resemblance to the woman who had earlier broken his heart. He falls over a sofa, gets the roast dumped on him by his comically snooping bodyguard Muggsy (William Demarest), and stoops to free up a snag in Eve's dress, only to stand up into a dessert tray. This stuff works because Sturges never leans too hard on the slapstick for its own sake; the physical comedy is an expression of Charles' humiliation and abasement, as similar scenes often were in the romantic comedies of Howard Hawks.

Muggsy, for his part, provides a running commentary on his employer's stupidity, as he instantly recognizes Eve as Jean and can't understand why Charles has any doubts. Muggsy keeps popping up every so often, dubiously exclaiming, "it's the same dame," as though to remind the audience, as if we could forget, of just how loony this whole business is. Muggsy's parody of detective work, as if there's any real sleuthing necessary to figure out this non-mystery, is just one of the running gags running through the film, among which the most prominent is probably Charles himself. Charles' inability to grasp what's happening to him — that he's falling for the same woman twice, and in the end, three times — is mirrored in his physical incompetence. Early on, he practically melts in Jean's arms, closing his eyes, his face slack, barely able to mutter a word as she patters on with her lips so close to his. If he was in a Warner Brothers cartoon of the era, he would've literally turned into mush and puddled on the floor, and he all but does it anyway here, constrained only by his corporeality.

That's why that cartoon snake at the beginning of the film is so appropriate, in so many ways, suggesting the themes of seduction and trickery, and the Adam and Eve myth, as well as the literal snake (from Charles' scientist gig) which keeps showing up in unlikely places and providing fodder for more comic wordplay. But also because the film is a cartoon, with Jean/Eve as a kind of fleshy, sexy Bugs Bunny, doing anything to trip up and toy with her opposite number, turning rivalry and hunting into a big game of constant reversals and dress-up routines. The crackling dialogue, the edgy persona of Stanwyck, the good old boy dumbness of Fonda, Sturges' casually effective way of staging comic scenes, all of it is in service to the film's celebration of love as a long con that's well worth being tricked into.