With a box holding the newly described snake affectionately known as Emma, the ophiologist and heir to the Pike Ale fortune Charles Poncefort “Hopsie” Pike boards the SS Southern Queen, returning from his year long excursion up the Amazon to Connecticut and his well-connected family, unaware that already on board there are sharks who can smell blood – card sharks.
Every woman on the ship is making cheap plays for the naïve Charles, but Jean Harrington is a professional, watching them all fail and then quite literally arranging for him to fall at her feet while playing the wounded victim; requiring escort to her cabin to change her damaged heels, she has him on the hook, ready to be reeled in with the assistance of her father and partner-in-crime, “Colonel” Harrington.
A hand of bridge sees the pair down $600 to Charles, and having convinced him they are novices the plan is to fleece him on the rematch, but a complication spoils the perfect plan when Jean realises she genuinely cares for Charles more than his money; can she protect him from her father and win his love without losing him entirely if she reveals she is a con artist, regardless of her intention to reform?
Having been writing for Hollywood for over a decade, The Lady Eve was only Preston Sturges’ third feature as writer and director and after the success of The Great McGinty and Christmas in July he was needlessly nervous prior to release despite the presence of two major stars, Jezebel’s Henry Fonda, on loan from Fox to Paramount on a deal that included Sturges create a script for the other studio, and Stella Dallas’ Barbara Stanwyck, leaving him breathless even though she is the one dancing rings around him.
Jean a woman whom it is dangerous to underestimate, it is rare to see Fonda out of his depth, swept up in the dazzle created by Stanwyck without ever seeing the practice and dedication which lies beneath her flirtatious persona, and in any film of the time it is rare to have the leading man constantly on the back foot and playing second fiddle but Fonda is a willing accomplice in Sturges’ shenanigans.
Shifting between sharp dialogue and slapstick and drama and comedy, The Lady Eve is a showcase not only for Stanwyck who later masquerades as “the Lady Eve Sidwich”, niece of Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith, another con artist, but for the entire ensemble of Sturges’ regular players, each gifted parts which play to their strength and with the director willing to focus the camera wherever the action is in a scene, none of them shortchanged.
Originally released in 1941, by the end of that year America would join the rest of the world in the war which is acknowledged by the characters even as they remain apart, and in the new 4K restoration for the Criterion Collection The Lady Eve has aged gracefully, as entertaining as ever and ahead of its time in the role-reversal and society commentary it presents.
As would be expected of Criterion, the new edition is packed, with a fascinating commentary from film professor Marian Keane, a lockdown recorded online conversation between Sturges’ son and his filmic friends, a video essay by David Cairns offering unexpected insights and a gallery of the costume designs of Edith Head with accompanying comments, as well as a radio adaptation and musical number.
The Lady Eve will be available on Blu-ray from Criterion from Monday 10th August