1941. Starring Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck. Directed by Preston Sturges.
There’s no better cure for a dark, rainy, depressing day than a Preston Sturges film. The Lady Eve is one of his best. Henry Fonda stars as snake expert Charles Pike, who, although heir to the Pike’s Pale fortune (“Pike’s Pale – The Ale That Won For Yale!”), doesn’t know much about ale or beer, and even less about women. As he states many times, he “just spent a year up the Amazon” and is returning with a newly discovered type of snake. But Charles is about to meet a snake on the boat back to New York — one that he is completely defenseless against.
Barbara Stanwyck portrays Jean Harrington, who with her father, “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn), are a successful con-artist team known but apparently tolerated by the ship’s crew. Into their midst wanders this very rich, very naive young man still a little dizzy from his year upriver. All eyes are on him — particularly those belonging to the young golddiggers on the boat — but Stanwyck immediately captures his attention by tripping him. He helps her to her cabin, smells her perfume, and helps change her high heels, wide-eyed just an inch from her legs — and knows he is no longer in the Amazon. She toys with him, nicknames him “Hopsy” and sends him back to his cabin. This apparently will be a long con.
Almost as happy to meet young Mr. Pike is her father, who is excited to get him to the card table and separate his cash from his tuxedo. (So practiced a dealer is he that he rushes to his daughter’s bedside and deals her a hand as soon as she awakens.) But Jean is falling for the earnest, clumsy young man and asks her father to spare him — she thinks he’s about to propose and she’ll admit to the con game she’s started, but only after they get off the boat. Pike’s security man, played by the great Sturges regular William Demarest, gets wind of the grifters and exposes them before Pike can pop the question.
Pike is crushed and confronts Jean, who admits that, yes, she toyed with him, knowing how she could manipulate him, explaining how easy it was to get him on his knees. But she’s talking about how she got him to fall in love with her — it turns out that seduction is the biggest short con in the world. The young man feels foolish and leaves her once the boat reaches the shore. She vows revenge for the slight. “I need him like the ax needs the turkey,” she growls.
The second half of the movie takes place at charming Pike Manor in Connecticut, where we meet the party-giving Pike clan, whose circle is being invaded by a long-con grifter who suddenly shows up with his British niece, “the Lady Eve Sidwich” — who looks exactly like Jean from the boat. I’m going to stop the plot description here, except to say that there may be more than simple revenge that drives this spurned woman.
Since this is a Preston Sturges film, there’s plenty of slapstick and cocktails, oversized characters and, somehow, a love scene with a scene-stealing horse in the background. (There’s also a great crooked-card game.) There are many great lines, and an amazing scene in which Jean watches Charles by holding up a compact and narrating all the attention he’s drawing from fellow passengers. Both Fonda and Stanwyck are great — especially in the scene where she knows he’s discovered her real identity and is trying to keep him from slipping away. “You see Hopsy, you don’t know very much about girls. The best ones aren’t as good as you think they are and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.” For a snake expert, young Charles Pike doesn’t recognize a creature shedding her skin.
The Lady Eve was made in 1941, the same year Sturges wrote and directed his masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels. That was a heck of a year for American movies.