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Criterion Files #103: ‘The Lady Eve’

From 2011, this entry in our column digging into the Criterion Collection library explores Preston Sturges’ hilarious 1941 entry into the romantic comedy genre.
The Lady Eve
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on February 16th, 2011

Welcome to Criterion Files, our early column focused on the Criterion Collection’s extensive library of classic titles. This entry spotlights spine #103, Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve.

Classic Hollywood romantic comedies provide an interesting moment in film history where genre formation and genre subversion developed as one and the same. The premises of these films are essentially contradictory. They reveal the institution of marriage to be just that, an institution constantly reinforced by culture but one that has only ascribed rather than inherent value.

They play with and thus reveal the false ideals associated with the notion of perfect couplehood that in theory should propel two people toward marriage by portraying the constant dis-union and inevitable union of their characters as one predicated on deceit and double-crossings. All this occurs to ultimately marry the couple which as an act alone functions as narrative closure in of itself without ascribing exactly what that closure means to its characters, an overlooking of contradictions that supposes the institution itself wipes away all previous tensions. Marriage here is not a means to an end, but an end – and “The End,” as the union is always accompanied by such a title card.

It’s not that marriage operates in these narratives as an all-too-convenient wrap-up of too many plot twists and too many obstacles that the characters need to overcome for the movie to end in any “honest” way. For even if this narrative convention was simply employed out of convenience and genre expectation, there still seems to be something else unavoidably present: that the classic screwball romantic comedy is in formation and in effect an exercise in these contradictions which feel as real as they seem impossible. It is not that the inevitable ending in matrimony acts as both plot hole and genre convention, but that these films seem to subvert romance through portraying the many trials leading up to marriage when it is ultimately the marriage itself, and all its emptiness in meaning with respect to everything that has come before, which is the most subversive element of the plot.

The relationships in all of these films are incontestably dysfunctional, predicated on an ever-suspicious trust that borders on codependency for the shared neuroses of the two leads. But we don’t come to these movies for the endings. We come to them for the comically and endearingly (though, when closely examined, disturbingly) tumultuous road it takes to get to these endings: the difficult path to an expected but always abrupt (re)union. Even in films where marriage exists at the beginning and the plot is predicated on the reunion of an estranged couple (what Stanley Cavell called “the remarriage genre,” exemplified by films like His Girl Friday and, my favorite, The Awful Truth), the reunion of remarriage acts as false closure because the institution of marriage was revealed as troubled from the very beginning. The plots becomes cyclical, not progressive, implying a continued battle/play of pushing and pulling rather than an offscreen eternal bliss despite (or because of) the institution of marriage.

In a sense I have already been speaking of Preston Sturges’ brilliant and hilarious entry into the genre, The Lady Eve (1941), even if I did not mention it until now, for the film acts as something of a demonstration to the extremes of this genre function.

In terms of its narrative structure, The Lady Eve is really two movies. The first involves the attempted con of reluctantly rich anti-socialite Charles (Henry Fonda) by professional criminal Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) and her partner in crime posing as her father. Charles predictably falls in love and Jean returns his affection until the telegraphed moment where he realizes her original intentions. The second “film” takes place on the estate of Charles’s father where Jean – either shooting for the long con or attempting to win him back, her initial intentions are never quite clear – poses, with only an accent and a fancy dress with nothing else to obscure her appearance, as a British socialite there to woo him, and Charles is impossibly convinced the two are not the same person. In a scene that feels like it came from another movie, Jean appears as her original self and the two reunite despite all that has transpired before, Charles still not knowing the long con she has just pulled as her alter ego.

It is through both these films that both the contradictions of the genre and the traditional poking-of-holes into marriage itself becomes doubly apparent. The Lady Eve is shrewdly self-reflective as the initial con requires Jean and her older partner to literally “act” their expected parts in Charles’s entry into couplehood. But it’s when Jean reappears as the eponymous Eve with her full likeness in tow that the reflexivity becomes dizzying. Like Stanwyck herself, and any studio era movie star for that matter, Jean uses her likeness and her persona from previous appearances (Charles gets déjà vu but isn’t convinced it’s her) to inform a new character punctuated with accent and dress to make, like any star worth their name, a new iteration of a familiar form: she is slightly different but essentially the same.

Charles’s unassuming second round at courtship then seems calculated and performative despite any sincerity on his part. They go through the motions of courtship and touch on every expected beat, and through this redundancy the path towards marriage is framed as a social ritual expected of us rather than a definite, essential signification of real human connection. After all, by what logical reason should we feel that the first courtship is real and the second false if an arguably equal degree of deception is at play on the part of Jean and an equal degree of naïvety on behalf of Charles? This contradiction becomes its most hilariously pointed when Charles admires nature with Eve and delivers a connect-the-dots monologue over-sentimental music as he prepares her for a proposal. Not only does the moment ring decidedly false because of its deliberate familiarity and the knowing deception at play, but as Charles delivers the speech a horse repeatedly licks the back of his head, interrupting the contrived prose. It’s a hilariously irreverent moment that not only makes transparent the constructed-ness of the genre but also of social institutions surrounding couplehood.

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