"The Lady Eve" (Preston Sturges, 1941) Ale heir Charles "Hopsey" Pike (Henry Fonda) has been up the Amazon for a year as an ophiologist (emphasis on the "oaf."). It must have been without a paddle because he can't tell two snakey grifters (Charles Coburn, Barbara Stanwyck playing a father-daughter con artist team—the family that preys together...) are trying to collect him...and his dough...on the cruise back to the States. She's already beaned him with an apple as he was boarding ship—it's not exactly Cupid's Arrow, but it'll do, in theory. After he gets hit, well, he's not a lot wiser.
Sturges' third film (and first big hit) is a distillation of every screwball romance that had come down the pike previously. As with the best screwball comedies, the woman has all the power and nobody could play power better or with more cruel humor than the ungainly Barbara Stanwyck, here as fast as quicksilver and, frankly, a bit tough to keep up with—you want to watch it twice just to see all of her nuances you missed. Her opponent...object of affliction...affection...is a combination of every man-handled man-type that you can have in these comedies. "Hopsey" Pike is well-off, a specialist in his field but a tenderfoot out of it—he can spot snakes in the jungle but not in the grass—somewhat sheltered and clumsy, and saves money on casting Ralph Bellamy by playing his own stuffed shirt. And being on a boat ensures that the ground is never too sure under his feet, the better for the sweeping off of. And the best guy to "take" in a "confidence" game is somebody who doesn't have any.
Confidence, that is.
Henry Fonda didn't play many rubes, as there was always something steely under his baby-blues; you couldn't hide his intelligence and Sturges doesn't try, making Hopsey book-smart, but virginally inexperienced and shy. One would say clumsy, given the right circumstances, which is where Stanwyck's Eugenia comes in, with her foot in the aisle to trip him up, literally. Pretty soon, that becomes Sturges' short-hand for letting you know that "Hopsey" is falling for Eugenia, a 40's comedy substitute for attraction being physically evident.
But the best un-laid plans... Pretty soon, Eugenia is falling for Hopsey, as evidenced by her getting hot and bothered by his chosen field of study. "Slimey snake!" she yells as she wakes up from a nightmare. Preston Sturges was always one for tweaking the censors, and with "The Lady Eve," he's more than suggesting by associations of culture and psychology what's going on here in a knowing way—the biblical way of knowing, complete with snakes and apples and falls from innocence.
Things get complicated as Eugenia must thwart her father's plans for fleecing the golden boy—she does actually care about him, but when Pike finds out what the two are up to, he breaks off with her, leaving her in a huff. If she was honest with him, he'd probably have done the same thing, so with that moral quandary and his making her feel cheap and all, she plots her revenge, with one of the best lines of spite to come out of Hollywood: "I need him like an axe needs a turkey!" Appropriate vindication mixed with a vindictiveness chaser ensues.
Well worth the time and effort to seek out, "The Lady Eve" is a shining example of how sophisticated and down-and-dirty Hollywood comedy could get. In 1994, "The Lady Eve" became part of The National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."
Funny as the devil, too.