Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Lady Eve (1941)
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Background

The Lady Eve (1941) is a sophisticated romantic/sex comedy (with light romance and mock seduction scenes) - a classic screwball film, a quintessential Preston Sturges work of art and the director's first real commercial hit. The film is a fast-paced battle of the sexes with the painful, antagonistic terrors of sexual passion, and numerous deceptions and character transformations. It metaphorically repeats the Garden of Eden biblical fable. In the plot, a cruelly manipulative temptress [the famed Lady Eve] snags a clueless, virginal Adam in a sexually-dangerous 'jungle' environment. [One of the film's posters describes his predicament - "Bewitched and Bewildered."]

On a transatlantic ocean liner, a resourceful, sophisticated and alluring Barbara Stanwyck, in her first true comic role, along with her crooked but lovable father named the Colonel (Charles Coburn), takes advantage of an innocent, dense and slow-thinking, snake-loving man nicknamed 'Hopsie' (Henry Fonda) - the wealthy heir to a brewery fortune. In slapstick scenes throughout the film, he 'falls' for her - literally and figuratively - in three inspired pratfalls. The serious young millionaire is lured to her twice when the wily con artist masquerades as a shipboard cardsharp (and is discovered as an worldly adventuress when they reach New York) and then in another identity as an aristocratic, English noble lady - excusing herself as the identical twin of her black-sheep, discredited half-sister. On their wedding night train trip, she relates fanciful tales of numerous love affairs to cause her 'husband' to become thoroughly disillusioned and then depart. By film's end, however, she is tempted and falls for her own prey, resists her father's attempt to maneuver for a rich settlement, and is happily reunited with her man on another cruise ship. Because of his successful pairing with Stanwyck, Fonda went on to co-star with her in director Wesley Ruggles' lesser romantic comedy You Belong to Me (1941). [They had also worked together in The Mad Miss Manton (1938).]

It was the third (and arguably his best and most expensive work to date) in a series of self-directed scripts (the first two being The Great McGinty (1940) and Christmas in July (1940)) from the great romantic comedy director Preston Sturges. His delightfully inventive, and ribald script with fast-paced witty dialogue, delivered mostly by a saucy woman, was taken from the short story Two Bad Hats by English playwright Monckton Hoffe. Amazingly, the film received only one unsuccessful Academy Award nomination - for Best Original Story (Monckton Hoffe), that lost to Here Comes Mr. Jordan. [In the same year, Charles Coburn was a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee (his first) for another romantic comedy, The Devil and Miss Jones (1941). And Barbara Stanwyck was a Best Actress Oscar nominee (her second nomination) for Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire (1941).] The film was remade in the mid-fifties as The Birds and the Bees (1956), with Mitzi Gaynor as the female lead, and David Niven and George Gobel as co-stars.

The Story

From the start, the main credits render the primal myth in cartoonish form - an animated, buck-fanged, top-hatted, besotted snake - with a slightly battered derby hat and maracas - slithers and curls around a tree as it descends in a coil. The image presents a hint of the twisting, snake-like plot that is to come.

On the banks of a tropical Amazon river following a year's snake-hunting expedition [in a primordial jungle cartoonishly representing the Biblical Garden of Eden] funded by the Pike fortune, Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), a serious amateur ophiologist (snake-expert), is given a wooden box by Professor Jones (Reginald Sheffield) before he boards a motor launch. The box contains a specimen - a Brazilian glass snake named Emma, and Pike is instructed on how to feed and care for the snake with a once-a-day diet of a couple of flies, a sip of milk and perhaps a pigeon's egg on Sundays. The Professor mentions that Pike is to tell another academic, Professor Marsdits, about the snake's Latin name: "I have named her especially in his honor." [Marsdits is an disguised reference to Raymond B. Ditmars, the best-known reptile expert in the country at the time.]

Pike is reluctant to say farewell to the "company of men" in the expedition that is on a "pursuit of knowledge," as he leaves with his watchful bodyguard/valet "Muggsy" Murgatroyd (William Demarest). Mac shouts a warning about "dames" to backward, egg-headed Charlie who hasn't dodged city traffic or women in a long time. He laughs and replies as the launch takes him away: "You know me, Mac. Nothing but reptiles."

His steam-powered launch's whistle sloppily signals the S. S. Southern Queen transatlantic ocean liner, a big white ship bound for New York. As his launch approaches to board the luxury vessel, a young girl, one of many marriageable daughters who seek a rich husband, points and shouts toward the launch. As the camera pans along the railing, it is hinted that Pike is fabulously wealthy - heir to a brewery fortune. Daughters are encouraged by their parents to entice and snare the handsome, eligible bachelor as a husband by dressing in provocative shorts or a peek-a-boo.

Pike becomes the obvious next target of calculating cardsharps and theiving con artists as the camera travels upward to the upper deck, where it finds two high-class figures in white sports clothes: predatory femme fatale Jean (Eugenia) Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) - appropriately nibbling on an apple - and her debonair father "Handsome" "Colonel" Harry Harrington (Charles Coburn). The confidence operators stand there noticing the arrival of their next unsuspecting prey (another "sucker" or "mug"). She protests that she shouldn't always have to romance and "do all the dirty work" on their victims. The Colonel reprimands her with his dignified 'business' creed:

Don't be vulgar, Jean. Let us be crooked, but never common.

Indeed, Pike is "dripping with dough," according to their colleague Gerald (Melville Cooper), the Colonel's valet. The new arrival is heir to the Pike's Brewing Company Pale Ale fortune in Bridgefield, Connecticut. Gerald identifies the newcomer's source of wealth: "Pike's Pale, The Ale That Won for Yale."

To begin her conquest and initiate her temptation, Jean considers going after the tiny figure in the approaching launch by clunking him on the head with an apple [as Eve also offered an apple to Adam in the Garden of Eden story.] Her father attempts to stop her, but he is too late. She holds her apple out over the railing of the ship, directly aims at Pike's pith-helmeted head, and drops the object. The apple bonks the explorer and splatters onto Muggsy, as they are just starting up the rope ladder from the launch onto the boat.

In the next scene, at the service bar at one end of the elegant main dining room on the ship, stewards place numerous orders for Pike's Pale. One of the waiters insists that the customers will only drink Pike's Pale: "The ale that won for Yale, rah, rah, rah." But the bartender replies that they have run out. The bookwormish chump Charles, meanwhile, is ignoring the rest of the passengers (with bottles of Pike's Pale adorning the tables), engrossed in reading a book titled Are Snakes Necessary?, by Hugo Marzditz [another instance of phallic snake imagery].

In a clever, imaginatively choreographed scene, society girls surrounding him compete and try to get him to notice them (or their ale choice) by smiling beguilingly or fluttering their eyelids. Filmed in a visually-striking style, Jean voyeuristically describes what she sees through a compact make-up mirror held up to reflect the obvious and futile efforts and tricks of the amateurish debutantes behind her. [As a conjurer, she literally holds his image and his actions in the palm of her hand as she begins to manipulate, connive, and control him.] Young women raise a glass of Pike's Pale to him, smile engagingly and flutter their eyelids, look enticely at him, pass his table with swinging hips, drop their handkerchiefs, or try to socially engage him in conversation. She narrates, in voice-over to her father, on the lack of skill of every other female in the room. She also mocks his unpreparedness and deplorable naivete - while she 'directs' the movie scene in her mirror:

Not good enough...they're not good enough for him. Every Jane in the room is giving him the thermometer and he feels they're just a waste of time. He's returning to his book, he's deeply immersed in it. He sees no one except - watch his head turn when that kid goes by. It won't do you any good, dear, he's a bookworm, but swing 'em anyway. Oh, now how about this one. How would you like that hanging on your Christmas tree? Oh you wouldn't? Well, what is your weakness, brother? Holy smoke, the dropped kerchief! That hasn't been used since Lily Langtry. You'll have to pick it up yourself, madam. It's a shame, but he doesn't care for the flesh. He'll never see it.

Jean speaks tartly to both the "bookworm" and one beauty with "nice store teeth all beaming" who wishes to catch his attentive eye. The girl eventually marches over to his table for a conversation - imagining that she knows him:

Look at that girl over to his left. Look over to your left, bookworm. There's a girl pining for ya. A little further. Just a little further. [He obeys her powerful orders.] There. Wasn't that worth looking for? See those nice store teeth all beaming at you. She recognizes you. She's up, she's down. She can't make up her mind. She's up again. She recognizes you. She's coming over to speak to you. The suspense is killing me. 'Why for heaven's sake, aren't you Fuzzy Oathammer I went to manual training school with in Louisville? Oh you're not? Well, you certainly look exactly like him. It's certainly a remarkable resemblance. But you're not going to ask me to sit down. I suppose you're not going to ask me to sit down. I'm very sorry. I certainly hope I haven't caused you any embarrassment, you so and so.'

The duplicitous Jean understands Charles' awkwardness and scholarly interest, getting into his mind by putting words into his own mouth. It is the first step in her own romantic downfall: "I wonder if my tie's on straight. I certainly upset them, don't I? Now who else is after me? Ah, the lady champion wrestler, wouldn't she make a houseful. Oh, you don't like her either. Well, what are you going to do about her? Oh, you just can't stand it anymore. You're leaving. These women don't give you a moment's peace, do they? Well go ahead! Go sulk in your cabin. Go soak your head and see if I care." As the reclusive millionaire closes his book and walks out, she devises a malicious and effective tactical strategy of her own to snare and hook him - she stretches out her shapely foot and ankle from under the table into his path, tripping him. He hurtles to the floor with a loud, frightful crash, and is left sprawled flat on his face [the first of many slapstick pratfalls for Pike in the film]. Then as he picks himself up, she stands and looks down on him, claims upset, and complains that he has broken the heel off her shoe. After introductions, he must immediately escort her to her room to replace the shoes he has ruined with "another pair of slippers." With her arm clasped in his on their way toward her stateroom from the dining room, she gimps on one heel to the exit, having shrewdly disarmed him as she pulls him away on their unusual way of getting acquainted.

The memorable scene in Colonel Harrington's cabin is one of the most satirically-sexy scenes ever filmed. As they enter the cabin, the naively-innocent, gullible adventurer remarks on the overpowering presence of perfume - he's "been up the Amazon for a year" where "they don't use perfume." In a black, exposed-midriff outfit and tightly curled hair, Jean aggressively leans back on a wardrobe trunk and flirtatiously insinuates: "See anything you like?" She invites him [her Prince Charming] to pick out a pair of evening "slippers' for her to wear. She points to a compartmented shoe bag with fifty pairs of shoes, seducing him with suggestive lines about touching the shoes, selecting a pair and putting them on her feet. After he has shyly chosen an appropriate pair of evening slippers, she sits down and crosses her nyloned leg in front of him - revealing her black evening gown slit to her knees. She elegantly dominates him, suggesting that he put the slippers on her feet. He clumsily gets down on one knee in front of her as she extends her foot, with his face almost touching her kneecap as he takes ahold of her foot. From his perspective, Charles' vision blurs as he reels and swoons dizzyingly in front of her. While holding onto her leg and fiddling with her shoe strap, he explains how he is a snake-enthusiast and an ale heir:

It's funny to be even here at your feet talking about beer? You see, I don't like beer, bock beer, lager beer, or steam beer...I do not! And I don't like pale ale, brown ale, nut brown ale, porter or stout which makes me ulp just to think about it. Ulp! Excuse me. But it wasn't enough so everybody'd call me Hopsie ever since I was six years old. Hopsie Pike.

What he detests about ale is that he was nicknamed "Hopsie" as a child. She playfully mocks his name: "And when you get older, I could call you Popsie. Hopsie Popsie!" As he holds onto her ankle, Charles stares deeply into her eyes, and she stares back. When he finishes putting on her 'slippers,' he comments on how he is smitten with her and bursting with desire after exploring the Amazon for so long. He attempts to make a pass at her, leaning forward to kiss her, but she holds him back - simultaneously pulling back and pushing him away as he leans into her for a kiss:

Jean: We'd better get back now.
Charles: Yes, I guess so. You see, where I've been, I mean up the Amazon, you kind of forget how, I mean, when you haven't seen a girl in a long time. (They stand together and remain close together.) I mean, there's something about that perfume that...
Jean: Don't you like my perfume?
Charles: Like it! I'm cock-eyed on it!
Jean: Why Hopsie! You ought to be kept in a cage!

She walks away from him, leaving him staggering and woozy, and adjusting his bowtie, while looking after her. But she does allows him to escort her back to the smoking room for the next step in her scheme. Having conspired to gain his trust and attention, she connivingly lures the unworldly young bachelor back to play a friendly game of cards with her and her father. When they return, the Colonel remarks: "Well, it certainly took you long enough to come back in the same outfit?" She makes a ribald retort: "I'm lucky to have this on. Mr. Pike has been up a river for a year." Considering himself to be quite a card player, Charles modestly demonstrates a card trick and how to palm a card, changing a king of diamonds into an ace of spades. Gleefully, they cannot believe that they have a sucker in their midst.

The Colonel, acting as a father figure, points overhead to a precautionary warning sign about PROFESSIONAL GAMBLERS. Jean slyly disarms the embarrassed Pike again: "You look as honest as we do." With glasses of brandy, they raise their glasses for quasi-historical toasts before a game of three-handed bridge:

Harrington: Washington and Valley Forge!
Charles: Dewey and Manila.
Jean: Napoleon and Josephine!

As the Colonel shuffles the cards (forgetting himself for a moment and showing his real card-shuffling skill), Jean warns: "Every man for himself." (In another smoking room, Muggsy is losing many card games to Gerald.) Col. Harrington and Jean allow Charles to win and insist that they were playing for money: "But we always play for money, darling. Otherwise, it's like swimming in an empty swimming pool." Charles is shocked and embarrassed as he wins $500 from the Colonel and roughly $100 from Jean by the end of the evening. Jean downplays their losses: "Oh, Father's in the oil business, dear. It just keeps bubbling up out of the ground." As he reluctantly collects his winnings, he is unaware that he has been set up and conned for the next round. After the Colonel leaves them for the evening to talk about whatever young people talk about, Charles notes how the Colonel's playing was slightly uneven, and then compliments Jean on her card-playing skill.

Acting charming and suggestive, she smoothly flirts with the impossibly-virginal explorer with a silly grin (who fortunately wasn't up the Amazon for two years), in a classic conversation, as they sit nose-to-nose. The couple predictably find themselves outside Charles' stateroom cabin, and now he self-assuredly invites her inside with a line dripping in sexual innuendo - to see his pet snake:

Charles: Would you care to come in...(he clears his throat) and see Emma?
Jean (flippantly): That's a new one, isn't it?

Inside the cabin, when Jean realizes that Emma wasn't just a gag but a rare type of Brazilian glass snake that has gotten out of its box, she picks up her skirt and then screams bloody murder when she sees the creature slithering around on Charles' pajamas on the bed. Jean rushes out of the cabin down the corridor outside his room, still screaming madly. He follows her down one flight of a circular staircase to her own cabin, where she anxiously expresses deep upset: "Why didn't you tell me you had a slimy...?" [The snake is a potent sexual symbol, although it has a female name.] After being assured that Emma hadn't followed them down into the room, she invites him to accompany her to a chaise lounge.

In one of the film's best, most artful, sexually-lustful scenes, she invites him to sit next to her on the divan - he falls to the floor - as she reclines on the chaise and hangs onto him for comfort and for recovery after allegedly being frightened by the snake. Soon, she leans over and wraps her arms around his neck, almost holding it in a vise, and begins to caress his hair, face and earlobe - while his eyes close. Jean cradles his head with her right arm. As they talk, she nuzzles close to his cheek, tantalizes him and drives him wild:

Jean: Oh darling, hold me tight! Oh, you don't know what you've done to me.
Charles: I'm terribly sorry.
Jean: Oh, that's all right.
Charles: I wouldn't have frightened you for anything in the world. I mean if there's anyone in the world I wouldn't have wanted to (her nuzzling causes exquisite torment and he pauses) - it's you.
Jean: You're very sweet. Don't let me go.

Self-conscious and shy, Charles steals a look at her legs, and appears to be on the verge of swooning again. To prevent himself from becoming more delirious - and with his eyes averted, he pulls down her skirt over her bared knees. She graciously accepts. At the beginning of a long, unbroken camera shot (a close-up of the two of them) in the film's most memorable scene, they share a conversation about his experiences up the Amazon, his interest in snakes, his disinterest in the brewing business, his bachelorhood, and their fantasy love ideals. With her face nestled against his, she teases and kids with him - and tenderly and seductively strokes his cheek and fools with his hair and ear, causing him to become paralyzed with desire. His eyes close at times, and his voice appears strangulated and broken:

Charles: Snakes are my life, in a way.
Jean: (thoughtfully) What a life!
Charles: I suppose it does sound sorta silly. I mean, I suppose I shoulda married and settled down. I imagine my father always wanted me to. As a matter of fact, he's told me so rather plainly. I just never cared for the brewing business.
Jean: Oh, you say that's why you've never married?
Charles: Oh no. It's just I've never met her. I suppose she's around somewhere in the world.
Jean: It would be too bad if you never bumped into each other.
Charles: Well...
Jean: I-I suppose you know what she looks like and everything.
Charles: I-I think so.
Jean: I'll bet she looks like Marguerite in Faust.
Charles: Oh no, she isn't, I mean, she hasn't, she's not as bulky as an opera singer.
Jean: Oh. How are her teeth?
Charles (startled): Hunh?
Jean: Well, you should always pick one out with good teeth. It saves expense later.
Charles: Oh, now you're kidding me.
Jean: (tenderly) Not badly. You have a right to have an ideal. Oh, I guess we all have one.
Charles: What does yours look like?
Jean: He's a little short guy with lots of money.
Charles: Why short?
Jean: What does it matter if he's rich? It's so he'll look up to me. So I'll be his ideal.
Charles: That's a funny kind of reason.
Jean: Well, look who's reasoning. And when he takes me out to dinner, he'll never add up the check and he won't smoke greasy cigars or use grease on his hair. And, oh yes, he, he won't do card tricks.
Charles: Oh.
Jean (sweetly): Oh, it's not that I mind your doing card tricks, Hopsie. It's just that you naturally wouldn't want your ideal to do card tricks.
Charles: I shouldn't think that kind of ideal was so difficult to find.
Jean: Oh he isn't. That's why he's my ideal. What's the sense of having one if you can't ever find him? Mine is a practical ideal you can find two or three of in every barber shop - getting the works.
Charles: Why don't you marry one of them?
Jean (almost indignantly): Why should I marry anybody that looked like that? When I marry, it's gonna be somebody I've never seen before. I mean I won't know what he looks like or where he'll come from of what he'll be. I want him to sort of - take me by surprise.
Charles: Like a burglar.
Jean: That's right. And the night will be heavy with perfume. And I'll hear a step behind me and somebody breathing heavily, and then...(She moans and sighs softly as she stretches back langorously on the chaise) You'd better go to bed, Hopsie. I think I can sleep peacefully now.
Charles (tugging his collar out because of the sexual heat that has been generated): I wish I could say the same.
Jean: Why Hopsie! (He rises to his feet and goes to the door. She giggles to herself.)


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